Israel has failed to launch a single criminal investigation for torture despite more than 1,000 complaints by victims since 2001.
Last week, the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz revealed that the justice ministry unit responsible for investigating torture complaints, known by its Hebrew acronym Mivtan, employs only one investigator.
Mivtan “has never launched a single criminal investigation against a Shin Bet agent, even though it has examined many hundreds of complaints,” Haaretz reports, referring to the Israeli secret police agency also commonly known as Shabak, the Israel Security Agency or the General Security Service.
The fact that there is only a single investigator means “it’s unlikely that complaints can be thoroughly examined,” Haaretz states. “In practice, then, the unit does not interfere with the Shin Bet’s work, even though complainants have reported harsh and prohibited forms of torture – including severe beatings and extensive sleep deprivation.”
From 2001 to 2008, nearly 600 complaints were submitted to Mivtan, but every single one was dismissed. During that period, the investigations were carried out by a Shin Bet employee, meaning in effect that the agency that was accused of torture was in charge of investigating itself.
In 2013, the justice ministry named an ostensibly more independent person to head the unit, but with no impact: none of the approximately 300 inquiries conducted since the appointment resulted in a single criminal investigation either, according to Haaretz.
The impunity extends to circumstances where there is strong evidence that torture led to the death of a detainee, such as Arafat Jaradat, a 33-year-old father of two who died after an Israeli interrogation in Megiddo prison in 2013.
Mivtan only reports the numbers of inquiries it conducts, not the total number of complaints received. However Efrat Bergman-Sapir, an attorney with the nonprofit group Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, told Haaretz her organization has submitted more than 1,000 complaints since 2001.
No exception for torture
In several cases cited by Haaretz, Mivtan ruled that the interrogation techniques used against Palestinians and in at least one instance against a Jewish Israeli were “necessary” – making such methods as sleep deprivation, beatings or tying a prisoner in painful positions legal under Israeli law.
In May, Israel sent a 13-member delegation to the 57th session of the Convention Against Torture at the United Nations to respond to questions about its record on human rights.
In his introductory remarks, Eviatar Manor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, stated that “the composition of our delegation here today, reflects the importance we attribute to the UN HR [human rights] conventions.”
“They did all their efforts to come out as perfect as possible. They didn’t dismiss the questions, they were polite,” Andrea Barsony from Physicians for Human Rights–Israel told The Electronic Intifada at the time.
But after studying Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinian prisoners, the UN Committee Against Torture issued an unsparing report.
The body recommended that Israel must “ensure that all instances and allegations of torture and ill-treatment are investigated promptly, effectively and impartially and that alleged perpetrators are duly prosecuted and, if found guilty, punished with sentences that are commensurate with the gravity of their acts.”
Noting that the international prohibition on torture “is absolute and non-derogable and that no exceptional circumstances whatsoever may be invoked by a State party to justify acts of torture,” the UN committee called on Israel to “completely remove necessity as a possible justification for torture.”
The facts and figures revealed by Haaretz indicate that Israel is making no serious effort to investigate and punish torture by its personnel, let alone to end it, while it undertakes an elaborate international campaign to burnish its human rights image.
Notably, Israel’s efforts to carve out a legal exception for torture, despite the absolute international prohibition, have been cited by the United States to justify its own use of torture.
The revelations about the scale of impunity Israeli interrogators enjoy come as a new survey from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has found that world opinion is becoming more tolerant of torture.
In September, the ICRC surveyed 17,000 people in the five nations that are members of the UN Security Council, as well as in Switzerland and in 10 countries “affected by war” – including Israel and Palestine (the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip).
Overall, 66 percent of those surveyed said that torture is “wrong,” while 27 percent said that it was “part of war.”
In Israel, just 44 percent said torture is wrong and 38 percent accepted it as part of war.
Perhaps reflecting the fact that they have lived under Israeli military occupation for decades, Palestinians were the most inured to torture, according to the survey: just 35 percent – the lowest for any country – said it was wrong, while 52 percent said it is part of war.
But when it came to specific circumstances for using torture, Israelis are among the most enthusiastic. When asked if a captured enemy combatant could be tortured to obtain important military information, just 25 percent of Israelis answered “no” while half said this would be acceptable.
By contrast, 53 percent of Palestinians rejected torturing an enemy combatant, while a third said it would be acceptable. According to the survey, Palestinians are more opposed to torture of an enemy combatant than the publics in the UK, US, Nigeria and Ukraine.
The ICRC found that internationally, tolerance for torture is rising. In a similar survey in 1999, 66 percent rejected torture of enemy combatants, compared with just 48 percent today.
But it is the public in Yemen – who for two years have been subjected to a catastrophic Saudi-led starvation siege and bloody bombing campaign directly assisted and armed by the United States – who today express the strongest rejection of torture: 100 percent oppose it in any circumstances.