Torture, Perjury, and Palestinian Children

By Karen White

Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , February 1988

Israel's Landau Commission investigation of the General Security Services (GSS), or Shin Bet, Israel's internal security police, was prompted by the use of torture to extract confessions and the use of false testimony by interrogators to ensure convictions in Israeli courts. Unfortunately, the end result of the inquiry may be the legalization of both practices, so long as they are followed only on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and not in Israel proper. A further result is the condoning of both physical and psychological torture of children, so long as they are Palestinian and not Israeli children.

Shin Bet has used torture on a routine basis for 16 years to extract confessions and has then lied about it in Israeli military courts.

The investigation resulted from the revelation that the indiscriminate violence practiced by Israeli authorities as part of their "rule by fear" policies in the West Bank and Gaza had seeped back into Israel itself. This became clear when, on May 27, 1987, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Izat Nafsu, a Circassian officer in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), who had been accused of treason. In his landmark ruling, Justice Meier Shamgar found that the Muslim officer's conviction had been based on a false confession given under torture, and that Shin Bet interrogators had lied to the court when they denied the confession had been extracted under duress. Israeli Cabinet ministers called for an immediate investigation of Shin Bet, not out of concern for all victims of torture and perjury, but over the fact that an Israeli citizen had been subjected to such practices. Permissible distinctions between the treatment of Palestinians and the treatment of Israeli citizens had clearly become blurred, and a commission of inquiry was appointed to redefine those legal distinctions.

Landau Commission Legalizes Use of Torture

Gershon Shafat of the Tehiya party explained to the Jerusalem Post at the time that a distinction had to be made between the methods Shin Bet could adopt when interrogating Israeli citizens and IDF officers, and those adopted for terrorists. "A slap on the face is perfectly in order with terrorists," he said. "You can't use kid gloves."

The commission, headed by Israeli Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau, found that Shin Bet has used torture on a routine basis for 16 years to extract confessions and has then lied about it in Israeli military courts in order to ensure convictions in the absence of any other evidence. The Landau Commission report, however, sanctions the continued use of "psychological" and "moderate physical" pressure to extract confessions from Shin Bet's victims, thus legalizing the continued use of torture against non-Israeli victims. Guidelines determining the degree of violence being condoned, as well as the methods authorized, were classified as secret so as to prevent "enemies" of Israel from knowing exactly what those guidelines are. Obviously, the one to two thousand Palestinian youths arrested during and since the December disturbances are already discovering those methods. Documented cases preceding the December riots indicate what "moderate physical pressure" may be used to extract confessions from children.

The Case of 15-Year-Old Khalil

Khalil Al-Astal of Khan Yunis city in the Gaza Strip was so apolitical and unconcerned about anything other than school and football that, when he received a written order to appear at the offices of Shin Bet, he went to the police station instead. Until the police sent the 15-year-old Palestinian student on to military headquarters on Oct. 13, 1987, he didn't know the difference between the police and Shin Bet.

He arrived at military headquarters by 8 a.m. and waited there for 13 hours until 9 p.m. when a Shin Bet officer appeared, ordered the boy into an interrogation room, and accused him of throwing stones. When the boy vehemently denied the charge, the interrogator forced him to remove all but his underclothes and placed a cloth sack over his head and shoulders. After more accusations and denials, the officer flatly told the boy that he would be sexually assaulted immediately if he did not confess.

"Please tell me what you want me to say," Khalil said.

"I want you to confess that you threw stones, demonstrated against Israel, and raised a (Palestinian) flag," the Shin Bet officer replied.

Khalil is now in Gaza's Ansar II prison awaiting trial, having "confessed" to these three "hostile terrorist activities," along with many other children similarly abused and convicted. Chances are great that Khalil's name was given to Shin Bet by a neighbor, a classmate, or even a relative who, under torture, spat out whatever names came to mind in order to stop the pain.

Children as young as 12 are not only detained and subjected to violent interrogation sessions, but many are held for months in appalling prison conditions, systematically tortured and maltreated, and then released without charge.

Reading the published, non-secret portion of the Landau Commission report, one would never know that thousands of children like Khalil, some as young as 9 or 10 years old, have been routinely subjected to torture, humiliation, and intimidation as part of Shin Bet's intelligence-gathering process in the occupied territories over at least the past 16 years. The report gives the impression that those who have been tortured were trained commandos apprehended during military operations or bombings. The truth is that the vast majority of Shin Bet's victims are children or young men like Khalil suspected of chanting slogans or writing them on walls, throwing stones, burning tires at intersections, possessing nationalist literature, raising Palestinian flags, singing nationalist songs or making nationalist speeches.

Many of the youngest child-victims arbitrarily arrested in the vicinity of a demonstration, detained for a few hours or days, and simply exploited for intelligence-gathering purposes. These 9 and 10 year olds are threatened with physical violence directed at either them or their families, humiliated, and intimidated into giving names of anyone they know who "throws stones" or "demonstrates against Israel." Children as young as 12 are not only detained and subjected to violent interrogation sessions, but many are held for months in appalling prison conditions, systematically tortured and maltreated, and then released without charge or trial once the Israeli authorities determine that no more information can be extracted from them.

Perjury by Interrogators to Convict Palestinians

Justifying routine use of perjury for 16 years to ensure imprisonment of those whom Israel calls "suspected terrorists," the Landau Commission said Shin Bet had "never intended to convict innocent persons" but used false testimony to imprison those who had refused to confess voluntarily and who might therefore escape imprisonment because "no other form of evidence existed on which to base a conviction." Thus Shin Bet assumed the roles of prosecutor, judge, and jury.

After the commission's report was published, warnings were issued by the Israeli media that "terrorists" could now be expected to ask for retrials in the wake of the report's findings that many convictions over the past 16 years had been based on false evidence. But these warnings give little indication that many of the "terrorists" who deserve a full reexamination of their cases are teenagers coerced throguh torture into confessing to acts they didn't commit, or imprisoned for raising a flag or throwing a stone.

In no other country in the world, except possibly South Africa, could violence toward children be hailed as an "exemplary record" of "fighting terrorism."

In fact, even these child-prisoners will not benefit from the findings. There is no appeal system in the military court process in the occupied territories, and the Israeli government is resisting the creation of such a system to accommodate those who were wrongfully convicted based on Shin Bet perjury.

There is, therefore, no way to correct severe sentences like those imposed on Abdullah Salem Al-Dardisawi and Adel Attiyeh Heles in a Gaza military court in 1987 for throwing Molotov cocktails. Even though no harm or injury to persons or property occurred, Abdullah, 15, was sentenced to 22 years in prison, and Adel, 17, to 24 years. These outrageous sentences were meted out because the boys refused to confess. Israeli military courts have become notorious for handing down extremely severe sentences against those who insist upon maintaining their innocence. Under such catch-22 conditions, denunciation by a friend under torture is tantamount to conviction for the students of Gaza and the West Bank. If they in turn confess, Shin Bet perjury can ensure their conviction on the basis of the false confession. If they refuse to confess or to denounce others, they may spend many years in prison. Clearly all of these convicted youths deserve a retrial.

Israeli Cabinet Exonerates Courts, Shin Bet

Instead, on Nov. 8, 1987, the Israeli Cabinet voted to accept the Landau Commission's recommendations, which exonerate the military courts for accepting 16 years of perjured Shin Bet testimony and forced confessions. The Cabinet also voted to accept the commission's recommendations that no Shin Bet officials be prosecuted for those 16 years of violent abuse and torture of children. In no other country in the world, except possibly South Africa, could violence toward children be hailed as an "exemplary record" of "fighting terrorism," as the commission called Israel's occupation policies against the people of the West Bank and Gaza.

At the same time, the commission recommended a review of the admissibility of forced confessions by Israelis in criminal courts. Although anything goes when the accused are Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, the judicial restraints found in civilized countries must apparently be observed when the accused are Israeli citizens accused of either political or criminal violations.

American Embassy officials in Israel recently offered congratulations to the American and Palestinian authors of the report Children in Israeli Military Prisons by the Rev. Canon Riah Abu El-Assal, Dina Lawrence, Kameel Nasr, Dr. Rosemary Radford Reuther, the Rev. H. Coleman McGehee, Jr., and the author of this article.

The report documented 16 cases of child torture and described the problems of arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, beatings, and the maltreatment to which children of the occupied territories are subjected when in Israeli custody. The report, and the worldwide media attention it received, embassy officials believe, resulted in the indictment of five interrogators at Ansar II prison accused of torturing children. Khalil's interrogator, however, is not among them.