Palestinian ex-prisoners recall torture in Israeli detention
Case of Samer Arbeed, left in critical condition after Israeli interrogation, brings back terrible memories for victims.
Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – It was supposed to be a normal Wednesday for Samer Arbeed and his wife, Noura, picking up and dropping off the children, eating leftovers for lunch, and working on a sink-load of dishes.
“We drove the kids to school and were almost at work, when a civilian car with Israeli number plates pulled up behind us,” Noura said, describing how her husband was detained in Ramallah by undercover Israeli forces on September 25.
“They snatched him from the car and started beating him on the head, neck and stomach,” she recalled.
Samer, 44, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in an IED explosion that took place on August 23 near the illegal Israeli settlement of Dolev, northwest of Ramallah. The bomb killed 17-year-old Israeli girl Rina Shnerb and wounded her father and brother.
Three days later, Samer’s lawyer was informed his client had been transferred to a hospital the previous day – in critical condition, unconscious, and on artificial respiration. He was also suffering from kidney failure and had 11 broken ribs, the lawyer said.
The Israeli Security Agency (ISA), known as Shin Bet, accused Samer of leading the group that carried out the bombing and was given legal permission to employ “extraordinary measures” in its interrogation, Israeli media reported. Amnesty International said the move “effectively sanctioned the use of methods amounting to torture”.
In a statement to Al Jazeera Shin Bet said: “During the interrogation of the head of the terror infrastructure, which carried out the explosive device attack that killed Rina Shnerb, the investigated reported that he did not feel well.
“As per procedures, he was transferred to the hospital for treatment and check-up. The investigation of the terror infrastructure is still taking place and we cannot provide more details.”
Samer is affiliated with the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), considered a “terrorist” group by Israel.
Noura told Al Jazeera he denies any involvement in the bomb attack. He’s recovering in Ramleh prison clinic and his lawyers say they expect a list of charges to be submitted on Sunday.
According to the Palestinian Prisoner Society, about 95 percent of Palestinian prisoners in Israel experience ill-treatment or torture during their detention and interrogation.
“The Israeli security wants to leave a mark on the psyche of those it detains: resistance has a price, and it is hefty,” Qadura Faris, head of the Prisoner Society, told Al Jazeera.
The severity of the torture, Faris added, often depends on what the person is accused of and the ability of the interrogee to survive.
Israel’s Supreme Court issued a ruling prohibiting the use of torture in September 1999.
However, it provided interrogators with legal cover to employ “exceptional methods” in “ticking timebomb” situations, providing there is concern that a suspect could give up information that would prevent an imminent attack and there are no alternative means of preventing it.
“Under exceptional circumstances, what’s known as the ‘necessity’ defence or the ‘ticking bomb scenario’, if an interrogator uses certain methods he cannot be charged, he’s exempt from criminal persecution. So, [torture] is not legal, but it’s also not illegal,” Rachel Stroumsa, executive director of the Israeli Public Committee Against Torture, told Al Jazeera.
According to Israeli media reports “exceptional methods” are used in a handful of cases annually.
The court did not specify which measures were permissible in its 1999 ruling, but critics describe the term as a euphemism for torture.
Firas Tbeish is all too familiar with those techniques.
He said during his detention in 2011, Israeli interrogators threatened they would harm his family.
He also said he was sleep deprived, beaten, and forced into the so-called “banana position” – where a suspect’s back is bent over a chair backwards, with his hands and feet cuffed together.
The 41-year-old from al-Fawwar refugee camp, south of Hebron, was sentenced in 2011 to three years in prison for charges related to hiding and transferring weapons for Hamas.
“At first you push through the pain – but when it drags for hours on end your world crumbles,” Tbeish said, describing his interrogation.
He said he filed a case at Israel’s top court in 2016 against the ISA because he wanted to challenge his investigators through the law.
The Israeli Supreme Court turned down his appeal in November 2018, saying there was not enough proof that he had been tortured and “the use of these special methods in the petitioner’s interrogation is covered by the necessity exception”.
Yet the Convention against Torture, a UN rights treaty to which Israel is a signatory, is clear: No “exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war” may be invoked as justification of torture.
“Torture is absolutely forbidden – it’s like slavery, there are no circumstances under which it can be justified, and yet the state of Israel employs it without hesitation, without shame, regularly year after year,” Stroumsa said.
Behind closed doors, in notorious interrogation centres, torture is used routinely, say human rights groups.
According to the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, 66 percent of torture survivors reported sleep deprivation, 61 percent reported the use of threats, and 40 percent reported the use of stress positions.
‘Hands turned blue’
The details of Samer’s interrogation reported in local media have brought back terrible memories for Luai al-Ashqar.
It was after midnight on April 22, 2005, when Israeli forces showed up at his doorstep in Seida, northeast of Tulkarem. The three days that followed shattered him and left him with physical disabilities that he struggles to cope with to this day.
Al-Ashqar, 42, spent 26 months in jail after agreeing to a plea bargain for transferring wanted Palestinians and entering Israel without a permit.
“From Friday to Monday, I wasn’t allowed to use the toilet. I was tied to a chair, they would let me off it only for a doctor to wake me up when I’d lose consciousness and then tie me back again in the banana position,” al-Ashqar said.
“They’d tighten the handcuffs on my hands so close they’d penetrate my flesh… My hands would turn blue and get swollen,” he added.
Al-Ashqar filed a complaint outlining his torture claims to the Israeli court, but after he was subsequently arrested and held without charge under administrative detention, he said he withdrew the complaint fearing it was the reason he was being kept in prison.
If the results of complaints alleging violence in Shin Bet interrogations filed in the past two decades give any indication, the odds are al-Ashqar’s would have been another one to end without an indictment.
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel told Al Jazeera of 1,200 complaints filed since 2001 just one resulted in a criminal probe.
After the Israeli justice ministry announced in late September that it was examining the circumstances leading to Arbeed’s hospitalisation, it remains up to the Israeli prosecutor to decide whether to launch an investigation into Samer’s case.
Samer’s lawyers said they do not believe they would receive a fair hearing from Israeli authorities. But in cases involving the complicity of Israel’s judiciary in human rights violations, they have to exhaust existing legal procedures to be able to take future steps in international tribunals.
Meanwhile, Noura has no option but to carry on.
Israeli forces have already taken measurements of their house, a prelude for possible demolition, but her mind is occupied by thoughts of Samer’s wellbeing in prison, and the children’s never-ending questions about the new phrases they had learned.
“What does critical condition mean?” Rita, 8, asked Noura when her father’s case appeared on a news bulletin.
With his leg braces allowing him to stand, al-Ashqar carries his body around the aluminium workshop he runs in Seida.
He said his heart goes out to the Arbeed family. Every time he reflects on his own experience he said he gets dizzy.
“The hardest thing about those interrogations is that you don’t die,” he said.