Twenty years after the Israeli High Court ruled against the use of torture, the law allows the secret police to continue to use it. Human rights groups warn that these circumstances are frequently evoked in cases like that of Samer Al-Arbid, who was almost tortured to death.
Richard Silverstein blogs at Tikun Olam, where he covers the the Israeli national security state. He has contributed to the essay collections, A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity and Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood.
TRNN Video & Transcript
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington.
The Palestinian Samer al-Arbid is hospitalized and in critical condition fighting for his life after having been tortured by the Israeli police. al-Arbid was suspected of being involved in the murder of an Israeli colonist, the 17 year old Rina Schnerb, but he was released from custody after no evidence or charges were brought against him. Two weeks later, he was arrested again. Israel’s secret police reported that they suspected he was in possession of a bomb and secured permission from an Israeli court to use torture. During the torture, al-Arbid lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital where his rib cage was found to have been broken. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank protested fiercely against the treatment of Samer al-Arbid.
One of the thousands of protestors is of the Union of Palestinian Women Committees who herself spent many months in an Israeli prison. She said the following during the protest.
SPEAKER: We are here today to support the pioneer prisoners who suffered from brutal and inhumane torture. We want to tell the whole world that they should see Israel’s fascist policy. We shouldn’t call it Israel, it’s an occupied Zionist and fascist regime. How they treat the prisoners and how they kill them, they torture them to death.
GREG WILPERT: In 1984, the Israeli government signed the UN Convention Against Torture, even as the Israeli security agency also known as Shin Bet or Shabak continued to torture Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli Committee Against Torture published an article just two weeks ago on September 15 commemorating the 20 years of the Israeli Supreme Court decision to ban torture. But the group warned that the ban is not effective; courts continue to approve the use of torture when the secret police say that there is a special need for torture.
Joining me now to discuss the use of torture in Israel is Richard Silverstein. He is an independent journalist who writes for the Tikun Olam blog, which explores Jewish-Muslim relations and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Thanks for joining us again, Richard.
RICHARD SILVERSTEIN: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
GREG WILPERT: So how can the Israeli government claim that torture is forbidden in Israel, and at the same time the secret police can conduct torture with the court’s approval? Can you make sense of the system for us?
RICHARD SILVERSTEIN: Well, it’s a long topic, but basically the Israeli Supreme Court has given sort of a gloss of liberalism and humanity to this Israeli regime, which basically is underlaid by, I call it a national security state or a a garrison state in which security is really the be-all and the end-all of everything that the state stands for. So the Supreme court basically gave an opening that a Mack truck could drive through in terms of the torture ruling. And so anytime that a suspect is ruled a ticking bomb, which means somebody who is either in imminent stages of planning a terror attack or may have an explosive device on their person or is in some way directly about to commit an act of terror as the Shabak, the Shin Bet, defines it, which I think is also another problem, that person can be tortured in order to elicit, supposedly to elicit information.
It’s questionable to me what information or whether there was any information in this case for them to elicit from Samer because I believe that basically this was an issue of revenge. They knew that he was, or they named him as the person heading the cell which committed the terror attack, and I believe therefore they wanted to inflict maximum injury and damage. In addition to the injuries you mentioned, he came into the hospital with kidney failure and he was unconscious and is now only breathing with use of an artificial respiration device. So I would say he just basically came in in a coma. He’ gravely injured. If he survives this treatment, he will be damaged for the rest of his life.
And this is not just a one-off situation. There are scores if not hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who’ve been treated very similarly. And in addition, there are just Palestinian prisoners who die in Israeli prisons of mistreatment and medical malfeasance. So this is really a whole structure that underlies the Israeli state, and it’s not a a sui generis kind of thing. It’s really systematic and routine.
GREG WILPERT: Now of course this case seems to call particular attention to the fact that this happens. But what is not very well known is the ISA, the Israeli secret police, is not part of the Israeli police force, and is also not answerable to the Ministry of Public Security. Instead, it answers directly to the prime minister’s office. Now, would that mean that Benjamin Netanyahu could be held accountable under international law, and thus could face charges in the international criminal court for ordering torture, which is considered to be a war crime?
RICHARD SILVERSTEIN: Well, I think the fact that Mossad, all of the intelligence agencies fit under that rubric except for the IDF’s intelligence agency, Aman, which is under the IDF. So you have the Mossad and Shin Bet that are under the prime minister’s office. That doesn’t mean though that the prime minister himself supervises what they do. It really basically just gives those two agencies carte blanche to do whatever they do without any oversight at all. Basically, the prime minister, he may be briefed on what these agencies are doing, or about to do, in some cases where it’s a very major, important operation where say the Mossad is about to assassinate a key figure of Hamas abroad, like has happened in several countries, the prime minister may approve that sort of operation. But I don’t think that he is involved in day-to-day operations.
That being said, I think there are many reasons and many points at which Netanyahu could be brought to the Hague for such international justice. And they involve ordering operations, military operations, in which thousands of Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and other places. So if we want to talk about potential war crimes, I think there’s plenty on his plate, perhaps not as much a in this sort of situation. Although, he has approved specific assassinations, and I believe those should be considered war crimes. So six of one, half dozen of the other, I guess.
GREG WILPERT: Now, the Israeli news media generally refer to al-Arbid as a terrorist even though no charges have been filed against him. And they also express surprise though, just the media expresses surprise that someone could emerge injured from a secret police interrogation even though, as you mentioned, this has happened many times before. So how do you explain this portrayal of al-Arbid’s case in the Israeli media given all of these contradictions?
RICHARD SILVERSTEIN: Well, it’s interesting that Israeli officials of the state, military officers who engage in war crimes and massive slaughter of Palestinians, don’t seem to be charged with war crimes, but a Palestinian engaged in resistance, violent resistance, is a terrorist. I would want to balance that out and say that the Israeli state engages in terror to a much more grave and lethal extent than the Palestinians do. And the issue also reflects the fact that the Israelis who were killed, not that they really themselves individually might’ve been guilty of any sort of oppression of Palestinians, but they were visiting the West Bank. This is occupied land, this is Palestine, and the father of the child who was killed is a rabbi, possibly an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.
So these are people that support the occupation. They are supporting the theft of Palestinian lands. So there is a one-sided sort of perspective in Israel that all of the Palestinians are suspect, and all are guilty until proven otherwise. And there’s no sense that any Israeli has committed any violation of Palestinian rights. And there’s a complete obliviousness to moral and political rights on the Palestinian side from the Israelis.
GREG WILPERT: Now, finally, in your blog, Tikun Olam, you expose that the officer in charge of the torture of al-Arbid, who is known only by the letter N, was recently promoted to lieutenant colonel. What can you tell us about her and about the way in which secrets slipped through the fingers of one of Israel’s most secretive organizations?
RICHARD SILVERSTEIN: Well, thankfully for me, I’m able to report stories that either are censored or under judicial gag orders in Israel due to several different sources, some of them being in the security establishment itself. These people may have their own reasons for being willing to share information with me. But in this particular case, I was told that a female commander in the Shabak whose code name is Nurit–and that’s hence the initial N, which means that her real first name does start with the initial N, or nun in Hebrew. I unfortunately do not know her family name, her last name. And I have appealed to any Israelis who may have information about that. I would like to expose her identity because she directly, or her unit under her command, have tortured this man to an inch of his life, and I do feel that these sort of crimes need to be exposed and need to have individuals attached to them.
And her appointment, originally, her recruitment to the Shabak was part of a new regime that was introduced to turn the Shabak from a male-dominated enterprise agency into a more balanced enterprise in which women would be recruited. The gloss that was given in the media, the gloss was that we were going to introduce new modes of thinking, we were going to introduce the women’s perspective into our activities. But really what has happened is the women who were recruited have turned into really mirror images of the men themselves who were always brutal, thuggish in their interrogations. And it’s proven by what she and her unit did in this case.
And I just wanted to mention that the Shabak doesn’t really have ranks that are equivalent to the IDF. So this rank, she was promoted from a major to a lieutenant colonel, these are reflective of the ranks within the Shabak and don’t necessarily have those names in the Shabak hierarchy, but she has an extremely senior position. And really this reflects the fact that gender, unfortunately, in a regime like Israel, female gender doesn’t really sort of moderate the torture in the worst successes of an agency like the Shabak. The women just become like the men and do their worst to assault the dignity of the Palestinian prisoners because that’s really what the state wants them to do.
GREG WILPERT: Okay, well we’re going to have to conclude there. I was speaking to Richard Silverstein, independent journalist and blogger at Tikun Olam. Thanks again, Richard, for having joined us today.
RICHARD SILVERSTEIN: Thanks. It was my pleasure.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.
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