JERUSALEM -- In Arabic, the procedure is known as Shabeh, and Anwar Mohamed of Florida says Israeli security officials used it on him last fall.
Mohamed, a 27-year-old American who runs the Haifa Pizza parlor in Miami Beach with his brother, said he was crossing from the West Bank to visit a sister in Jordan in October when he was arrested and accused of being a terrorist.
In an interview, he said he was tied to a small chair, deprived of bathroom facilities and bombarded with loud music, while Israeli officials grilled him repeatedly about renting out part of a restaurant to raise money for a Miami mosque and about donations he said go to support an orphan in the West Bank.
"One hand was tied behind my back and the other over the back of the chair," said Mohamed, echoing the descriptions of Shabeh given by many Palestinian prisoners. "They let you sleep in the chair for days. I woke up screaming. My hands were like balloons."
The Arab-American, who has lived in the United States for 10 years, also said he spent 20 days confined in what he described as a "coffin"-like concrete box with a mattress and air holes.
Israeli authorities call Shabeh and other interrogation techniques "moderate physical pressure," but Israeli and international human rights groups say they fit the international definition of torture. While only a handful of Americans such as Mohamed are subjected to them each year, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee charges that the number is growing.
Israeli and U.S. officials said more Arab-Americans are coming under suspicion, because intelligence agencies have determined that Islamic terrorist groups are getting significant funding from charitable donations in the United States and from Arab-Americans who transfer money to the militant Islamic group Hamas. Hamas is also financed by militants in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Jamil Salim Suliman Sarsour, a 37-year-old Milwaukee businessman, could be sentenced to up to 10 years in an Israeli prison if he is convicted on charges that he transferred $35,000 to Izzeddin al-Qassam, Hamas' military wing.
Collision of ideas
The result is more frequent collisions between U.S. notions of civil liberties, which are shared by many Israelis, and the Israeli argument that it is impossible to apply peacetime standards to a nation at war with terrorists and with its neighbors for all 50 years of its existence.
Israeli government spokesman Moshe Fogel said the authorities involved in Mohamed's detention have denied "totally and completely" that force was used. "Suspicions about his activities were based on information gathered in Israel that was related to another case," Fogel said, refusing to elaborate for security reasons.
A Palestinian with U.S. citizenship, he added, remains "part and parcel of the belligerent population that comprises the territories in conflict with Israeli security forces."
Mohamed insisted that his was a case of mistaken identity. "I thought they were joking," he recalled. "I told them they got the wrong guy."
Because Israel's General Security Service -- also known as the Shin Bet -- will not release details of individual cases, it is impossible to know what happened inside the holding cells of Jerusalem's Russian Compound police depot, where Mohamed was held.
But 40 days after his arrest, he was released without charge in a "scared and deteriorated" condition, according to an American consular official who visited him near the beginning and end of his incarceration. He has returned to Florida.
"He was definitely subjected to some form of pressure," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "After a month, he had lost weight. We don't really know why they held him. They were trying to get information about others. No evidence of substance was found."
An Israeli parliamentary commission in 1987 ruled that "special measures" such as Shabeh and the violent shaking of suspects are legal in "ticking bomb" cases, in which extracting information could prevent another terrorist attack.
"Israel is a democracy under fire. The same criteria you apply to democracies at peace cannot be applied to democracies at war," said government spokesman Fogel.
A highly placed government source who spoke on the condition of anonymity acknowledged that "abuses occur" but added that "it is minimal, and by no stretch of the imagination can it be called torture."
Moreover, Israeli officials note, no comparable debate is raised about the interrogation techniques employed by security services in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other Arab countries. The Palestinian Authority has a dismal human rights record. The State Department's annual human rights report, released Feb. 26, notes its use of torture, lack of fair trials, poor prison conditions, harassment and jailing of journalists, and detention of 315 Palestinians without charge.