Israel’s Common Use of Torture Must be Exposed

The pictures of American soldiers torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have shocked the world. To the Palestinian people however, these photographs of hooded or naked figures come as no surprise. For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have served time in Israeli prisons, the pictures only bring back memories of their own torture.

In many cases, the treatment of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib bears a striking resemblance to Israeli methods of torture. Accusations are now being made in the world’s press that Israeli security officers have actually assisted in the training of private US security contractors being sent to Iraq.

Regardless of whether there is any truth to these allegations, the world must recognize that torture is commonplace in Israel. It is not enough to condemn the actions of these American soldiers while ignoring the systematic human rights abuses imposed upon the Palestinian people.

Like the United States, Israel lays claim to the highest moral standards, yet it is apparent that there are elements within the Israeli Armed Forces and indeed government for whom torture is a necessary and acceptable weapon. The two nations’ refusal to accept the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court can only enhance the suspicion that these two countries wish to legitimize the torture of prisoners without ever being held to account by those they abuse.

An Israeli High Court ruling on Sept. 6, 1999 prohibited a number of torture techniques. However, these methods were not completely outlawed. Instead the court’s ruling still allows the Knesset to enact laws that would give intelligence officers the authority to use such methods. The court deemed the security situation faced by Israel to be grave enough to merit granting intelligence services the power to torture.

Now, the excuse that every Palestinian is a “ticking bomb” gives the Israeli security forces carte blanche to abuse any prisoners in their care, including children. Human rights groups maintain that the use of torture in Israeli prisons has increased and become more systematic over the past two years. Violations of the United Nations Convention Against Torture are now commonplace as the military grip on the Occupied Territories has been tightened.

The Israeli Army and police also receive the unconditional backing of the country’s legal system, perpetuating the culture that they can act with impunity in Israeli prisons. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) has found that the Israeli attorney general has approved every case of torture as a necessary security measure. The High Court has rejected every single one of the 124 petitions submitted by PCATI against prisoners being denied access to legal support.

The thousands of statements given by former Palestinian prisoners bear witness to the relish with which their Israeli tormentors went about their task. Just as in Iraq, any humiliation or abuse is permissible if it goes under the spurious banner of security. The casual disregard for human dignity and international law within the Israeli Army and police is despicable.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, including the death or maiming of numerous Palestinian prisoners, Israel continues to deny that torture is used in its prisons. Over 7,000 Palestinian prisoners currently remain in Israeli prisons, many of them held without charge or trial. Most will have suffered some degree of torture before their release. It is shocking to realize that around 650,000 Palestinians have spent time in Israeli custody since 1967, most of them adult males. This means that almost one in two Palestinian adult males has been imprisoned.

The torture in Abu Ghraib prison has shaken the Bush administration to its very core. Photographic evidence is all that is lacking to finally expose and condemn Israel’s barbaric treatment of its Palestinian prisoners. This is the only difference between the two cases, yet the weight of evidence against Israel, in the testimonies of former prisoners and investigations by human rights organizations, is overwhelming. It is not enough to condemn the actions of American soldiers in Iraqi jails while thousands of Palestinians continue to suffer. Israel’s use of torture must also be exposed.

Dr. MUSTAFA BARGHOUTHI is the Secretary-General of the Palestinian National Initiative. He lives in Ramallah.

This commentary originally appeared in The Daily Star