Torture of Iraqi Prisoners Spotlights Israeli Treatment of Palestinian Prisoners

The images of Iraqis abused by United States forces at Abu Ghraib prison are a stark reminder of the torture Palestinian political prisoners have endured for decades at the hands of Israel–”the strongest U.S. ally in the region and recipient of its largest foreign aid package. Since the beginning of Israel’s occupation in 1967, Israel has imprisoned over 600,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. At times, Israel has had the highest known incarceration rate in the world.

Since the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, against occupation in September 2000, Israel has detained over 28,000 Palestinians. At present, over 6,300 are imprisoned in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Approximately 80 are female, over 350 are minors and more than 600 are held under administrative detention orders, imprisonment without charge or trial. Thousands of Palestinian males have been released without charge since 2002, after being arbitrarily detained for varying periods of time during Israel’s mass arrest campaigns.

Patterns of Abuse

Virtually every detained Palestinian is exposed to some level of physical or psychological abuse, often amounting to torture. Types of abuse include beatings, slapping, shaking, being kicked, sleep and food deprivation, threats, humiliation as well as being painfully bound and tied in contorted positions for long periods of time, among other forms.

Local and international human rights organizations, U.N. bodies and the U.S. State Department have confirmed these reports. Highlighting instances of torture at Israel’s Gush Etzion detention center, near Bethlehem, Amnesty International noted in 2002 that “(d)etainees held by the military police and the police have described beating, kicking, slapping, being confined to small, cold coffin-like cells (known as ”fridges”), often while being handcuffed with tightening plastic handcuffs and while being blindfold.” In 2003, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) concluded: “a considerable portion of all interrogees, if not most, were exposed to interrogation methods … that constitute torture as defined in international law.”

Palestinian prisoners are detained in overcrowded, unsanitary facilities. The provision of food, medical care and basic supplies is poor and inadequate. Additionally, Israeli prison guards routinely attack and harass Palestinian political prisoners. They also face violence from Israeli prisoners who have been incarcerated on criminal charges.

Access to an attorney is often heavily restricted or altogether denied. Family visits have been impeded since September 2000, due to Israeli military restrictions on Palestinian movement. The absence of regular visits by families and lawyers leaves prisoners extremely vulnerable to abuse.

There are many parallels between the reports of U.S. soldiers’ torture of Iraqi prisoners and Israel’s abuse of Palestinian political prisoners. A confidential report to Coalition Forces from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), subsequently leaked to the press, reported forms of abuse in U.S.-controlled facilities that included: hooding, painful handcuffing, beatings, slapping, punching, kicking, threats, forced nakedness, humiliation, positional abuse, physical or psychological coercion, prolonged solitary confinement and excessive or disproportionate use of force resulting in death or injury.

Prisoner Abuse as a Means of Population Control

An understanding of the commonalities of abuse should go beyond the similarity in forms and examine their shared purpose. The report by U.S. Major General Antonio Taguba characterized the abuse of Iraqi prisoners as “systemic” and “intentionally perpetrated.” The ICRC report noted that the methods employed against the detainees were used in a systematic way to garner confessions, gather information or engender “cooperation” with military intelligence. It also indicated that allegations of abuse emanated from over 10 detention facilities in Iraq.

Documentation of Israel’s abuse of Palestinian detainees reflects a similar pattern that is not simply the result of a few poorly trained or malicious soldiers. It is a policy calculated to achieve particular ends. It attempts to quash resistance to the status quo, not only through targeting those who may be politically active, but also by sending a message to the community as a whole that resistance comes with a heavy price. Israel uses detention and abuse as a means of coercing confessions, gathering information from detainees about the political activities of other Palestinians, or to recruit collaborators.

Like other measures of collective punishment, the policy of incarceration attempts to punish the population and intimidate Palestinians into submitting to Israeli control over their land and their livelihoods. This message is underlined by mass arbitrary arrests where the sole criteria for the detention and abuse of thousands have been sex, nationality and age range, rather than actual charges. By abusing child prisoners, Israel confirms that even the most vulnerable segments of society are not immune.

Israel also uses the prisoner population as a bargaining chip during political negotiations. This motive behind Israel’s arrest policies was clearly demonstrated following the resumption of negotiations around the Road Map in 2003. In early July 2003, Haaretz reported: ” [Israeli] security sources said that the number and rate of prisoners released would be relative to the Palestinian’s progress in battling and preventing terror.”[1] Although the vast majority of those initially released were about to complete their sentences or were being held under administrative detention orders without charge, Israel consistently presented their release as a “concession.” This same pattern was witnessed throughout the Oslo negotiations process and constituted a major source of Palestinian discontent.[2]

First Country to Legalize Torture

On a routine basis, Israel contravenes international standards regarding treatment of prisoners to which it is bound as a state party to the six main human rights treaties and the main international humanitarian law treaty, the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Of particular concern is Israel’s systematic violation of the absolute ban on torture. In 1987, Israel became the first country to legalize torture when it authorized the use of “moderate physical pressure” in interrogations. In September 1999, Israel’s High Court of Justice banned a number of interrogation methods employed by the General Security Service (now the Israel Security Agency). Though many misunderstood the ruling to be a ban on torture, in 2001 the U.N. Committee Against Torture stressed that the ruling does not contain a definite prohibition of torture.

The ruling also included a loophole giving Israel’s Attorney General license to approve the use of torture in certain “necessary” circumstances. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel has noted that the Attorney General “grants–”wholesale, and with no exception–”the ‘necessity defense’ approval for every single case of torture.”

Putting An End to Torture

One hopes that the results of the scandal around U.S. and British treatment of Iraqi prisoners will be an end to torture of Iraqi prisoners and that all those responsible will be held accountable. The history of torture, however, indicates that it is often employed as long as its practice goes unchallenged and the political function it serves continues to exist. Israel has tortured Palestinians under its occupation for decades with impunity.

The first step towards ending the torture of Iraqi and Palestinian prisoners is recognizing that such practices are more than the acts of individuals; they are functions of larger systems of control that have specific objectives. The second step is working to ensure that such systems of oppression–”be they direct or indirect–”are politically impossible to sustain.


[1]. Amos Harel, “Arafat Calls Israeli Pullback in Gaza, Bethlehem ‘Cosmetic,’ Haaretz English Online Edition, July 5, 2003.

[2]. For a summary of the use of prisoners within the Oslo negotiations, see “Summary of Signed Agreements,” prepared by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Affairs Department,