Muhammad Zahour is almost 16. If he were in the United States, he might be worrying about getting his driver’s license. Instead, he sits in an Israeli jail.
Muhammad was arrested on November 14 of last year. When Israeli soldiers picked him up in the Husan village market, passersby protested, but the soldiers claimed he had been throwing stones.
On the way, Muhammad was again battered severely, blood running from his hands and fainting twice. The soldiers woke him by repeatedly pouring ice water, then hot water, over his head. Not until January 16 – 63 days after his arrest – was Muhammad allowed to see a lawyer.
This case, documented by Defense for Children International, is only one case of mistreatment in Israeli detention, despite a 1999 Israeli high court ruling banning “moderate physical pressure” in Israeli interrogation proceedings. DCI’s February 12 request for an army investigation has yet gone unanswered.
Not only does torture continue, but a return to military tactics and the rise of the right wing in Israel have reopened the door to the legalization of torture in Israeli prisons. Only this week, the Israeli High Court took one step back from its 1999 decision against moderate physical pressure. Soon the Knesset may debate a bill allowing pressure “in special cases.”
“We know what are ‘special cases’ and we know the definition of such a law,” says Hannah Friedman of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. Friedman’s group estimates that during the Intifada of the eighties Israel interrogated 23,000 Palestinians, most of them enduring techniques sanctioned by Israel as “moderate physical pressure.”
Those techniques included locking prisoners in tiny cubicles, violent shaking, beatings, deprivation of sleep and food, exposure to cold or heat and sexual and psychological threats against the prisoner or the prisoner’s family.
Since the court’s ruling in September of 1999 that struck down this legalization of force, Friedman says her group has handled fewer complaints, but still “investigators have found a way to bypass the High Court.” According to the committee’s documentation, prisoners are still tortured by being deprived of sleep, tied to a chair for hours on end, prevented from seeing a lawyer for months, tortured by Palestinian collaborators and beaten or deprived of decent living conditions or medical care.
“Especially since the start of the Intifada, we have seen an increase in cases like these,” says Shawqi Eissa, assistant director of the Palestinian human rights organization LAW. The issue is of great concern, he says, particularly since the closure has prevented lawyers from visiting many Palestinian detainees and documenting their cases.
On February 16, attorney Jawad Boulous took on the ongoing use of pressure. He went to the high court to protest the continuing administrative detention of Amnah Muna, accused of luring a 16-year- old Israeli to his death in Ramallah. Muna has been held in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound without charge since January 19. By her own account, Muna has been prevented from sleeping for 26 hours straight.
The court rejected Bolous’ petition, ruling that a suspect could be deprived of sleep as long as the intent was to advance the investigation and not exhaust the suspect, reported the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Muna continues to deny her guilt and Boulous says that the investigators are seeking a confession for an open-and-shut case.
The ruling has lawyers worried about what is to come. “I don’t think this is practically allowing torture yet,” says Israeli human rights lawyer Leah Tsemel. “It does amount to pressure to isolate the detainee.”
Israeli authorities seem unwilling to question the ongoing beating and mistreatment of prisoners. Rami Iz’oul, 18, was also arrested from Husan on October 30. Iz’oul was also taken to Kfar Etzion detention center, where he was beaten and had freezing water poured over his head during interrogation. Iz’oul was in bad enough condition to be taken to Hadassah Hospital for medical treatment over night. He then says he signed a false confession after a further beating.
When LAW Society wrote to the Israeli attorney general requesting an investigation into the allegations, the request was refused. The state’s attorney said that the case was not one of “public interest.”
Now the new Likud leadership is promising to revive a Knesset bill that would legalize methods of torture when it believes a suspect has certain information. The bill was first proposed after the high court decision, but was abandoned by the General Security Services after being promised a bigger budget. Then-justice minister Yossi Beilin said the bill would be reviewed after it was determined whether or not Israel is able to prevent attacks without using torture in interrogation.
“Now we are afraid that there will be a new minister of justice who will allow this to happen,” says Friedman. One of the candidates for the post is Likud Member of Knesset Ruby Rivlin – the very man who sponsored the 1999 “special cases” bill.
Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report