Middle East History: It Happened in June; Systematic Torture of Arabs Exposed by Newspaper

By Neff, Donald | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 30, 1996 | Go to article overview

Middle East History: It Happened in June; Systematic Torture of Arabs Exposed by Newspaper


Neff, Donald, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN JUNE; Systematic Torture Of Arabs Exposed By Newspaper

By Donald Neff

It was 19 years ago, on June 19, 1977, that the Insight Team of the Sunday Times of London reported Israel's use of torture against Palestinians was "systematic" and "appears to be sanctioned at some level as deliberate policy." Although Palestinian prisoners had been complaining for years that they were tortured while in Israeli custody, the report by the prestigious newspaper caused a sensation. Israel vehemently denied the charge, touching off a major controversy between Israel and the newspaper. The Times stuck by its story and so too did Israel stay with its version that torture did not exist as an official policy. 1 While Israel's strong official denials somewhat muted the impact of the Times report, the controversy it generated had the result of touching off investigations by other groups, both foreign and Israeli. It took another 10 years before an Israeli judicial panel finally confirmed that Israeli security officials did indeed routinely torture Palestinian prisoners.

However, instead of demanding the medieval practice be stopped, it agreed that "moderate physical pressure" could be employed against prisoners. Those are the general guidelines that Israel follows today, meaning it is the only self-professed democracy in the world that sanctions the use of torture. The practice puts Israel in violation of the 1984 International Convention Against Torture, which Israel signed in 1991. Israel was strongly criticized in 1994 by the U.N. Committee Against Torture for failing to enact in its domestic law terms of the convention, thus "its provisions cannot be invoked in Israeli courts." 2

To this day Israel condones torture despite international criticism. However, there is little doubt that the practice has been at least somewhat moderated under the glare of the international community. The credit for documenting and pressuring Israel to admit its practice of torture goes largely to Amnesty International.

AI had been a consistent critic of Israel's torture since 1970 but with little impact. After the 1977 Times expose, AI decided to send its own team of investigators to the occupied territories. On Sept. 1, 1980, it reported: "Amnesty International reaffirms its view stated on several occasions since 1970 that there is sufficient prima facie evidence of ill-treatment of security suspects in the Occupied Territories by interrogators and detaining officials to warrant the establishment of a public inquiry into this matter."

The AI report reviewed in detail the Times' expose, concluding that Israel's denials were unsatisfactory. It strongly urged Israel "to investigate the allegations of illtreatment in their totality..."

Once again Israel officially denied the allegations. In a long response dated Dec. 31, 1980, Israeli Attorney General Itzhak Zamir rejected Amnesty International's recommendations and contended the present Israeli practices adequately protected prisoners from torture and mistreatment. Amnesty International renewed its recommendations after Zamir's reply but Israel again rejected them. 3 It was not until 1987 that Israel accepted AI's recommendation and appointed a special commission to look into the torture charges. While it was gathering evidence, The Washington Post's Jerusalem correspondent, Glenn Frankel, was reporting that recent allegations of torture by the Shin Beit, Israel's domestic secret police, "lent credence to longstanding Palestinian charges that [Israeli] agents frequently torture Arab prisoners and perjure themselves in court." Added the story: "...now some Shin Beit operatives are conceding publicly that illegal methods have been used regularly. Those techniques include sleep deprivation, ice cold showers, suffocation by hooding, verbal threats and, in many instances, punches, kicks to the groin and face-smacking, designed usually to frighten more than wound. …

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