By Stephen Lendman
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PACTI – stoptorture.org) calls ‘torture and ill treatment of any kind … incompatible with’ moral democratic values. It "advocates for all persons" in Israel and Occupied Palestine to protect them from abusive treatment of all kinds.
In June 2008, its report titled, "No Defense: Soldier Violence against Palestinian Detainees" is just as relevant today, perhaps more so given Israel’s intensified violence and abuse in Gaza and the West Bank in the past year.
PACTI interviewed detainees and participating soldiers, included media reports, IDF provided information, and comments of political figures regarding these practices.
Observed was a phenomenon dating back decades, and, of course, remains ongoing today. Hence, the report’s relevance and need to discuss it. Especially since September 2000 (the beginning of the second Intifada), "the number of arrests has been unprecedented. Thousands of Palestinians are arrested each year….and are executed by a large number of combat units in the Israeli military."
Violent arrests followed by torture and ill treatment are commonplace. For decades, Israeli soldiers have abused Palestinian detainees "on a routine basis." Recognizing and exposing it is key to stopping it.
Ill Treatment in Arrests
Force is routinely used even for those posing no threat. It begins during and after arrests, in transit, and at military bases and installations, prior to being transfered to a detention facility.
Detainees are beaten, blindfolded, and painfully shackled for hours, a practice often causing permanent injury. In response to PACTI requests, an IDF spokesperson cited no regulations, guidelines, procedures, or orders relating to the process. Order 9810, not applicable to all arrest stages, merely says:
"only metal shackles are to be used (and) tightening (them) should be undertaken in such a manner as to prevent injury to the detainee (particularly to blood vessels)."
As a result, abuses occur routinely, including violence and threats. Typical are severe beatings while shackled and blindfolded, enough to cause serious injuries. They begin at arrest and continue during transport with detainees forced to sit, lie, or be thrown on vehicle floors.
Soldiers commonly put their feet on detainee bodies and/or heads, creating enough friction to cause abrasions and injuries. Commanders are there to observe it.
Before imprisonment, detainees are often held in makeshift detention facilities on military bases where abuse continues. One prisoner said he was taken to a concrete yard, handcuffed to a concrete pole, made to sit on the ground, and be beaten on the face every 30 or 60 minutes.
Abuse, ill treatment, and humiliation continue through each stage of the process. For Nidal Shataya, it was especially egregious as he explained:
"….After the soldiers searched the house and the entire building, they arrested me and my brothers….They put us into a military jeep using force and violence and shoves. They shouted at us and cursed us….They put us on the floor of the jeep, handcuffed and blindfolded. (They) were taking us to Hawara base to the south of Nablus, where we were interrogated by Intelligence officers….The soldiers beat us while we were waiting in the outer yard. Every soldier that walked past would beat and curse us. We were not allowed to lean or to sleep.
At the Hawara military checkpoint….they put us on the floor in a small, dirty room next to the checkpoint. The soldiers handcuffed us very tightly and blindfolded us. My hands and eyes hurt a lot and we could not…stand this situation any longer….
Then the soldiers came and started to beat us with their army boots and their weapons. The beatings were repeated three times," at first for about 15 minutes, the second the same time, and the third for over 10 minutes, "continuously and without any interruption….Then the Israeli soldiers dragged and pulled us along the road to the other side of the checkpoint….and threw us on the road there. There were taxi drivers there who called for an ambulance and they took us to the hospital, almost unconscious…."
Use of Dogs
After September 2000, their use increased – at checkpoints, on military bases, and accompanying soldiers, especially during arrests. According to one soldier:
"Today, the dogs in the unit are trained for one of five capabilities: Assault, identification of explosives, scouting, weapons and ammunitions searches, or rescue and release."
PACTI attorney Yaara Kalmanovich wrote Israel’s Judge Advocate General saying:
"The….graver aspect is the phenomenon of deliberate ill treatment with the means of dogs. These cases….are shocking and they must be quickly and effectively eliminated. (In addition), the mere contact with the dogs may be terrifying and humiliating. According to Islam, the dog is an impure animal, and accordingly many Muslims feel humiliated and dishonored whenever a dog is close to their person or touches them….The soldiers should be required to keep the dogs in such a manner that they will not come into contact with the detainees whenever there is no tangible operational need for this."
In response, the military denied the allegation, stonewalled, and lied, claiming the opposite of what, in fact, happens. Soldier testimonies confirm it, saying dogs are trained and used specifically for assault and do it – not for a potential threat, but on the assumption that Palestinian detainees are offenders, whether or not true. As a result, highly aggressive dogs cause serious injuries. Unless muzzled, they present a clear and present danger, even to their handlers, and detainees report being terrified and bitten.
Soldiers treat them like adults, the Israeli penal code allowing it in defiance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, other international laws, and Israeli law (nominally) affording minors special protection. It prohibits injuring or psychologically harming them, and obligates anyone witnessing mistreatment to report it.
International law protects all civilians from violence and threats thereof, and requires occupiers to treat them humanely, especially children.
According to Protocol I to Fourth Geneva: "Children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault. The Parties to the conflict shall provide them with the care and aid they require, whether because of their age or for any other reason."
However, soldiers exploit children’s weaknesses and regularly abuse them, at times seriously enough to require hospitalization. Like adults, they’re handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten, including with rifle butts and boots.
"Accordingly, the ill treatment of minor Palestinian detainees constitutes the most extreme manifestation of a broader phenomenon whereby the various state authorities that implement the occupation routinely treat minor detainees as adults, ignoring the legal and human obligations to ensure special safeguarding and protection for those who have not yet reached the age of eighteen."
Military procedures make no distinction between adults and children, some as young as 12 or younger. Grave consequences thus happen regularly as part of Israel’s systematic pattern of ill treatment and abuse.
Systematic Detainee Abuse and Mistreatment
A 2007 joint B’Tselem-Hamoked Center for the Defence of the Individual report titled, "Absolute Prohibition: The Torture and Ill-Treatment of Palestinian Detainees" confirmed PACTI’s findings through victim testimonies. It said Israel disregards international law and its own throughout the arrest, transport, interrogation, and imprisonment process. Abuses range from "softening up" to torture. Common ones includes:
— "Isolation from the outside world – prohibition on meetings between detainees and their attorneys or ICRC representatives;"
— psychological pressure, including in "putrid, stifling" solitary confinement;
— sleep deprivation and inadequate and poor food;
— painfully binding hands and feet to a chair in the "shabah" position;
— other forms of torture, including severe beatings;
— threats and intimidation, including against family members;
— use of informants to extract information, whether or not true; and
— routine "cover up and whitewashing" of grievous crimes; rarely are abusive practices investigated; most are dismissed, and almost never are abusers punished.
Further, Israel’s arrest-interrogation-imprisonment process "is significantly aided by the HCJ (High Court of Justice), which serves as a rubber stamp on orders which regulate isolation" and subsequent abuse, half or more of the time causing one or more injuries, at times serious.
According to (retired) Col. Gadi Amir, part of the process is "the dehumanization of the enemy, (that he, or she, is regarded as) an object" to be treated any way we wish. As a result, "we have become jaded and phenomena that we once considered horrifying we now seem to have become accustomed to…."
Yet the IDF won’t acknowledge it, and by so doing "encourages and reinforces" abuse and degrading treatment, despite clear international and Israeli law prohibitions, binding at all times, under all circumstances, with no allowed exceptions.
Ill Treatment After Arrest Under Israeli Law
Under Israeli military law, "ill treatment" is an offense, prohibiting beating and other forms of abuse with offenders liable to three years imprisonment if charged and convicted. Under "aggravating circumstances," it’s seven years.
Soldiers are legally responsible for detainees in their custody, and according to Israel’s Military Court of Appeals:
"The discrepancy of powers and status between the person wielding control and authority and the person lacking the ability to resist leaves the victim defenseless against the abuse of the power held by the person in authority."
Yet the court has yet to address the minimum threshold beyond which ill treatment occurs as distinguished from the lesser offense of assault. In fact, however, abusive ill treatment happens whenever soldiers use violence or humiliating tactics against defenseless shackled, blindfolded detainees.
In all cases PACTI examined, ill treatment, assault or "assault in aggravating circumstances" occurred, in violation of articles 378 – 382 in Israel’s penal code. Other offenses are also common, including injury, battery, forcible extortion, and ill treatment of a minor. Some violate military law, others civil or both.
"In any case, however, violence by soldiers against shackled detainees is a criminal phenomenon penalized under an entire system of offenses in Israeli criminal law."
Crime and Punishment
Despite Israeli law, military judges rarely act or go easy on offending soldiers, and compared to civil courts they’re lax, regardless of how serious the offense. Yet the Military Court of Appeals ruled that commanders are responsible for preventing detainee ill treatment, especially if he ordered the abuse.
Yet, like US military law, a soldier who disobeys an illegal order isn’t culpable. In fact, under paragraph 498 of the US Army Field Manual (FM) 27-10, any person, military or civilian, who commits a crime (even if ordered by a superior) under US or international law, is responsible for it and may be punished. It’s the same under Israeli law, but enforced under neither, except in America to charge low level recruits to absolve their commanders.
In Israel, there is "no disagreement as to the clear illegality of an order to harm persons not involved in combat, or removed, and the obligation not to obey such an order." The standard for commanders is even higher, given their position of authority and reluctance of subordinates to disobey fearing punishment.
Failure to Enforce – Military Investigatory Bodies
Israel’s Military Justice Code establishes three interrogation authorities – an examining officer, the Military Police Investigation Unit (MIU), and an investigative judge.
They’re explicitly separate from debriefings by those involved in investigating incidents, including by commanders. Material from them is to go only to the military advocate general (MAG) or his representative. The latter then decides whether a debriefing offense was committed and if an investigation is warranted. If so, a summary of findings "shall not be transferred to a person undertaking a criminal investigation in accordance with the law." Nor "shall it indicate suspicion against any person involved in the incident."
An examining officer or investigative judge is charged with handling the case, the latter only if deaths are involved. The former may be a senior adjudicating military officer, another one appointed by him, or a MAG-designated military police person.
The examining officer may then hear witnesses, review evidence, and arrest suspects. He only decides whether to recommend prosecution, not order it himself. The MAG decides whether or not to proceed further. In practice, however, MIU army officers handle most ill treatment examinations, not trained lawyers familiar with the law.
The process of soldiers judging others in the ranks taints the whole process, especially the way Israel goes about it, taking care of its own. A clear conflict of interest delivers injustice.
Troublesome Forms of Investigation
They rarely happen, and when they do are effectively whitewashed, given that examining officers rely on operational debriefings supplied by the offending forces or their commanders. As a result, they’re tainted and wholly unreliable. It shows up in how few are charged, let alone convicted of serious offenses, including torture and killings.
According to Law Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer:
"….There are two problems with the operational debriefing. Firstly, the person who undertakes it is not a professional investigator, with all due respect to the military commander. (In addition), when people have acted unlawfully, they have a natural motivation not to admit this, to deny it, to tell incorrect stories, and to back up each other’s incorrect stories."
As a result, cases are closed for "lack of evidence," suppressed, and to absolve offenders, and it happens regularly.
Prosecutions, Convictions, and Punishment – Soldiers and Commanders
Based on IDF Spokesperson supplied figures, investigations of ill treatment rarely happen, and almost never lead to prosecutions or convictions. Out of hundreds of them launched, a mere handful of indictments followed, amounting to about two per year since September 2000. Of those, acquittals were common, and hand slaps (like 10 days imprisonment) followed convictions most often.
Also, practically never are commanders charged or prosecuted even when they issued direct orders. In rare instances, they face disciplinary hearings, in others, demotion. No senior commanders have been prosecuted for the offenses of their subordinates. In these cases, command responsibility "is an extremely restricted concept," an alien one.
B’Tselem explained that many complaints are closed "due to various defects during the processing of the case. (For example), months pass between the submission of the complaint and the transfer of the case to the MIU for investigation….The conclusion from all this is that the system does not attach the necessary importance to investigating cases of violence by security force personnel against Palestinian residents and ensuring that justice is meted out to those responsible. This conveys a lenient message to those in the field that such actions are not regarded as severe."
Even after beginning, investigations can drag out for months, so long, in fact, that those involved often complete their military service and leave.
Further, as long as the IDF investigates and prosecutes its own, justice is virtually impossible, unlike in civil courts. A possible solution is ending military involvement, so far not considered. Yet Human Rights Watch suggested that:
"a consensus is emerging in international law that military personnel should not be tried in military courts in cases when the victims are civilians, and that military jurisdiction systems should relate solely to offenses of a clearly military nature."
In December 2007, Yediot Ahronoth, Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper, published a survey showing widespread soldier abuse during inspections at checkpoints alone. According to one soldier interviewed:
"When you deny thousands of people a day freedom of movement, it is impossible to do it in a nice way."
Yet the security establishment denies it and claims abuses there are exceptions, localized, and unusual, and military courts often quote a ruling declaring that "the basic rules of human morality and human dignity guide the Israel Defense Force," despite clear evidence of the opposite – "inconsistent with the testimonies and reports from the field, which leave no doubt that the phenomenon (is) widespread."
Steps for change include ending denial, exposing falsified evidence, obeying the law, and holding abusers accountable. Yet "the military does not make proper preparations for arrest operations; refrains from imposing responsibility on commanders for the ill treatment of detainees; and is extremely disinclined to launch investigations (to) indict soldiers suspected of abusing Palestinian detainees."
Civilian authorities are part of the coverup and denial, the Defense Ministry ignoring abuse and holding no one accountable. Crimes against Palestinians "are not considered worthy of….attention." The topic is unaddressed in the Knesset.
"A review of Knesset Protocols (from) January 2006 through April 2008 reveal(ed) that no discussions took place in the plenum of the Knesset regarding the ill treatment by soldiers of Palestinians in general, or Palestinians in particular."
In addition, no legislative action occurred, and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in charge of supervising the defense system, "failed abysmally to protect the public interest when it comes to ensuring the rule of law in the actions of the executive branch in the Territories." They deliberately ignored the issue, even during the height of the Intifada.
PACTI concluded saying:
"We hope that this report will encourage the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee to address the phenomenon of ill treatment of Palestinian detainees by soldiers as part of the responsibility the committee has accepted for scrutinizing, inspecting, and encouraging change on behalf of the public in matters relating to human rights violations in the Occupied Territories."
A Final Comment
To date, the Knesset hasn’t acted, and, in fact, performed worse, the Mossawa Advocacy Center and Coalition Against Racism calling the current body the most racist in Israeli history in a 2010 report – Mossawa saying "almost every day" another Israeli Arab is victimized by racist acts, 100s in various categories confirmed by media and police reports.
In the Territories, Gaza remains under siege, and West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians endure daily neighborhood incursions, loss of homes, frequent arrests, killings, various other assaults, and violations of their dignity, civil and human rights on streets, at work, in their homes, and in detention.
On April 27, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) reported the killing of Ali Isma’el Ali Swaiti in Beit ‘Awwa, his home demolished on top of him. PCHR condemned the crime, calling it an extrajudicial execution in charging politicians and commanders with war crimes.
On April 28, PCHR condemned Fatah’s General Intelligence Service (working collaboratively with Israel) for harassing and arresting Palestinian writers Muhannad Salahat and Walid al-Hodali to prevent their free expression right to document West Bank crimes against innocent civilians.
Outlandish abuses happen daily, endorsed by IDF commanders, MKs, and the fascist Netanyahu government, as extremist and morally decadent as any in Israeli history. As a result, Palestinians suffer grievously, including in detention where torture remains official Israeli policy.
– Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.