Reports of torture force painful debate in Israel Palestinians face systematic abuse, many critics say

July 18, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Slowly and painfully, Israel is beginning to confront accounts of systematic torture of Palestinian prisoners at the hands of its own authorities.

Since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising 5 1/2 years ago, there has been a succession of accusations from human rights groups, stories from disgusted soldiers, revelations from autopsies in suspicious deaths, secret medical reports and embarrassing court testimony about prisoner abuse.

These stories have dragged to light a dark side of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that has raised disturbing implications for the Jewish state.

Many Israelis flinch from such accounts. They cite the toll of Jews in Palestinian attacks and say that harsh means are needed to confront terrorism.

"It's not that we woke up one morning and we wanted to do this," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said recently. "Israel is forced, really, to take the necessary measures in response to violence."

Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the Israeli army, expresses the prevailing sentiment of Israelis that the government should use every method available to guarantee their safety.

"I have to tell you something: If my daughter is on her way to school and she may be stabbed, and there is a legal remedy that can lessen the chance, we will use as a society our right to protect ourselves," he said. "That is the bottom line."

But the demands for an end to abusive interrogation techniques are growing in several quarters of the Israeli public and political spectrum:

* Last Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court heard final arguments on an appeal to extend to Palestinians the same protections against torture that exist for Israelis held in custody.

* Several legislators have introduced a bill in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to outlaw torture and require Israel to abide by international treaties on human rights.

* The Israeli medical society recently forbade doctors from signing examination forms approving use of abusive interrogation methods.

* The Justice Ministry has formed a commission to study interrogation of Palestinians.

* In an unusual move, the Knesset Law Committee has scheduled hearings on human rights in the occupied territories, and the chairman raised a fuss Tuesday when the government refused to send high-ranking officials to defend its practices.

"The taboo of silence over torture has been broken," says Stanley Cohen, a Hebrew University professor and chairman of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. "There is an improvement in the level of public awareness and concern. There is some reaction.

"But I don't think there's a major improvement in the use of torture at all," he adds. "It still is just as routine."

The government's response to allegations of abuse varies. Officially, it denies that torture occurs.

Use of force acknowledged

But it acknowledges that investigators use some physical and psychological force; 1987 government guidelines condone such practices. Officials argue these interrogation methods are necessary to deal with the Palestinian uprising, which has cost ,, the lives of 142 Israelis and 1,107 Palestinians in 5 1/2 years.

"All the effective measures against terrorism are neither nice nor gentle," said Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, a member of the intelligence subcommittee. "We don't take people who are suspected of terrorism to the Hyatt Regency."

Since the start of the intifada in 1987, an estimated 100,000 Palestinians -- more than 5 percent of the population under occupation -- have been taken into custody.

Human rights groups contend torture is routinely used in their interrogations. B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, estimates that 5,000 prisoners are subjected to such methods ++ each year.

The conduct has been publicized in many ways.

'Hair-raising' screams'

Arie Shavit, an Israeli serving his army reserve duty as a guard in a Gaza prison for Palestinians, agonized over what he heard there and described it in a provocative article two years ago.

"At the end of your watch, on the way to your tent to the showers, you sometimes hear frightening screams . . . hair-raising human screams," he wrote in an account published in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in 1991.

"They are screaming because other people, in uniforms like yours, are doing things to them to make them scream. They are screaming because your state -- Jewish, democratic -- is systematically, carefully and completely legally making them scream."

"Torture in Israel is not an accident, not an episode of a few mentally disturbed persons, but it is a system," said Tamar Gozansky, a liberal Knesset member who introduced the anti-torture bill.

Human rights groups and Jewish attorneys who work with prisoners agree. They have detailed a number of practices:

* Beatings. A major report by B'tselem in 1991 said that of 41 prisoners it had interviewed, only one (a journalist) was not beaten. Interrogators used fists, sticks, feet and metal bars, according to the report.

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