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Israel's impunity and its culture of torture

January 24, 2014 at 12:08 pm

The recognition of torture in Israeli prisons is subject to a host of narratives, entrenching it within a distinct, yet hidden realm. Since the start of Israel’s illegal occupation, thousands of Palestinians have been tortured in a manner reminiscent of the macabre extravagance now associated with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The revelation that torture was taking place in Israel’s prisons in 1977 was met with an incredulous reaction from Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who refused to acknowledge its existence.

The Landau Commission in 1987 failed to ban torture in Israel. Instead of condemning the practice as a breach of international law, torture was deemed to be permissible in certain cases, governed by a set of secret rules which torturers adhered to. The foundation for impunity was given a solid structure; “lying to the court” about torture was “intolerable” but the practice itself was allowed. Thus was the relevance of the impact of torture upon Palestinian prisoners pushed to one side. In 1999, a Supreme Court ruling that torture was illegal became mired in ambiguity, owing to the same court’s allowance of torture in situations of “necessity”. Aided by experts in the medical and psychological fields, torturers would follow a set programme which stipulated the limits of physical resistance prior to the victim suffering irreparable damage. The vagueness of the term used resulted in an effective safeguard for torturers, who ensured the isolation of prisoners in order to fetter the emotional and physical scars of torture.

The death of Arafat Jaradat at the hands of the Israeli internal security agency Shin Bet in February brought state-sanctioned torture onto the front pages. An autopsy revealed that Jaradat had been subjected to brutal torture; several bones in the neck, spine, arms and legs were broken, and blood clots, bruising and blisters were evident. As expected, Israel failed to acknowledge the veracity of the autopsy report, calling it inconclusive and clinging to a fabricated version of events which claimed that “cardiac arrest” was the cause of death.
Apart from the physical isolation of tortured prisoners, the isolation of individual recollections of torture within the collective Palestinian memory contributes to its displacement by other narratives. The instant glorification of martyrdom is centred upon an individual living under decades of oppression, whereas if we focus on the decades of oppression the subject of torture can rise to the communal level. Maintaining a false dichotomy between individual and collective memory can prove counterproductive to Palestinian resistance, allowing sub-narratives to sink without trace.
Shin Bet’s reliance on medical practitioners to help with torture are documented in legal rights group Adalah’s report “On Torture”. Physicians have been known to disregard torture complaints, help to send prisoners back to their torturers, disclose medical conditions to make torture “more effective” and fail to report complaints about, or personal observation of, torture. While the elimination of socio-political processes plays a role in transforming the torture victim’s identity into a stereotype, there is an inherent culture promoted by the Israeli state that Palestinians are a target the disposal of which is necessary in order to achieve the Zionist dream. In such a context, while medical practitioners’ identification with the oppressor is an affirmation of allegiance to a “superior” state, the same state is responsible for the dissemination and application of apartheid practices.

The protection of human rights cannot take place if the political views of the oppressor eliminate any possibility of such discourse by encouraging its citizens to become active participants in oppression. Israeli society is not oblivious to the torture of Palestinians, yet it has willingly conformed to the requirements of stereotyping and dehumanisation of the victims. Rhetoric abounds about the preservation of the Jewish state and references to Zionism, with these influences being articulated with venom on social media, advocating the use of further violence against Palestinians. It has become commonplace for Israelis sticking to the Zionist agenda to suggest “breaking the bones” of Palestinians or castration, shooting, death by nerve gas or burning of Palestinian children. The culture of violence has been embraced eagerly, with the Holocaust card trumping any outrage at torture taking place in the name of the state and creating irrational fears about “existential” threats.

Sanctioned by almost every strata of society, Shin Bet’s impunity with regard to torture has lasting consequences on Palestinian victims. An absence of criminal proceedings, despite over 600 complaints in recent years, has resulted in a series of myths regarding the practice. Claims that certain techniques are no longer used, such as prolonged beatings or hangings, thrive within the parameters of bureaucratic form-filling and secret proceedings. It is also implied that certain torture techniques veer towards the psychological, such as using Palestinians willing to collaborate with the Israeli secret service in exchange for material benefits, which help to weaken the defences of the prisoner under interrogation. However, the physical violence has not diminished, as demonstrated by the lacerations evident on Jaradat’s body. What is remarkable, notoriously so, is Israel’s absolute impunity which allows it to regard torture and murder as collateral damage in a “war against terror”.

Having broken a multitude of UN resolutions and regulations pertaining to international law and never been held accountable, it is apparent that the culture of impunity which normalises and sanctions violence in Israel has been ignored by the international community. Understandably, the US is incapable of condemning human rights violations and torture since it is an advocate of both; criticism of others would attract attention to its own illegal activities. Indeed, Israel and the US have sanctioned torture in remarkably similar circumstances; ostensibly to provide security for their citizens at the expense of thousands of people whose existence amounts to nothing more than a name or number on a list.

Imprisonment and torture as a means to safeguard Israeli security have distorted the identity of Palestinian prisoners. If the transformation and misrepresentation of torture into the lesser of many evils can be removed from the international consciousness, then there is a chance that Israel and other states could be called to account for their crimes. The alternative is that the Palestinian struggle will be bludgeoned into oblivion by Israel’s torturers aided by the silence and complicity of its friends and allies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.