Israeli law & torture: from detained minors to a prison ‘torture room’

Mohammed al-Kurd

The Nation  /  February 11, 2022

Inside the intensifying Israeli crackdown on Palestinian protest.

The sun had not yet risen on January 21 when 30 Israeli soldiers arrested 12-year-old Ammar from his home in the Naqab. His alleged crime: protesting against the most recent push in a government-backed forestation plan—or “greenwashing,” as many put it—that would uproot thousands of Palestinian Bedouins and replace them with pine trees. Ammar was released after a few hours of detention and is now under house arrest—even though, his parents said, he did not attend the protest. He “has not said a word since his return,” they told Al-Jazeera.

Ammar’s story is but one of many like it in recent weeks. According to Adalah, a Haifa-based legal center working to protect the rights of Palestinians, 150 Palestinian Bedouins (some 40% of whom are minors) have been arrested and accused of “rioting” during protests against their expulsion from the area. The push is being led by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a para-public organization, and is the latest chapter in the decades-old colonial effort to “make the desert bloom.” One Israeli lawmaker stated the move would “exert [Israeli] sovereignty in the Negev.”

While Palestinian Bedouins have cultivated and inhabited their privately owned lands since before the Nakba, successive Israeli governments have maneuvered to expel and “transfer” them, revoking their land rights in the process. To this day, Israeli authorities refuse to recognize Bedouin deeds, instead claiming the forestation efforts are taking place on “state-owned” land—in this case, held by the JNF. The agency’s website describes it as “the caretaker of the land of Israel, on behalf of its owners—Jewish people everywhere”—a role that has led it to plant 86 of its forests atop the ruins of villages destroyed by Zionists.

Yet, while the JNF has a long history of displacing Palestinians from their lands, what makes this moment particularly notable, observers say, is both the spirit of protest among the Bedouin and the level of violence enacted on them. In the last few weeks, there have been numerous reports of protestorsresidentschildren, and journalists being beaten and abused by Israeli forces in the Naqab. In one instance, Israeli soldiers dropped tear gas on protestors from drones previously used only in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip, debunking the myth that those with Israeli citizenship are somehow shielded from the regime’s colonial violence.

“The level of violence used to repress protests [in the Naqab] proved in practice, that regardless of their citizenry status, Palestinians everywhere face the raft of Israel’s security forces,” activist Riyah al-Sanah wrote in The Independent.

The violence did not stop at repressing protests. Rather, it has continued in the form of house raids and detentions like the one visited on Ammar—a crackdown that some have described as a “war of attrition” aimed at intimidating Palestinians and stifling their resistance to colonial expansion.

This war of attrition has been focused on the Naqab in recent weeks, but many see a connection between this moment and last summer’s brutal crackdown on protesters, both during and after what has come to be known as the “Unity Uprising. The one is a continuation of the other.

Beginning in May, Palestinian communities became the theaters in which heavily-armed Israeli forces performed the spectacle of “restoring governance.” Israeli officials, stunned by the participation of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in openly anti-colonial protests between the river and the sea, explicitly boasted of their intention to “settle the score” for those protests, seeking to assuage a panicked Israeli public confronting a devastating shift in global public opinion.

More than 6 months later, most of the world has moved on from this moment. But it remains a signal period for Palestinians living within the 1948 territories, one that demonstrates not only a renewed commitment to resist but also a sustained new crackdown on that resistance.

‘The process is the punishment.’

“I’m filming, isn’t that permitted? Shoot—it’s all recorded.” These were Ibrahim Souri’s last words before he was shot in the face by Israeli forces as he filmed them from the balcony of his home in Jaffa on May 12, 2021. He was hit, according to Amnesty International, by a 40mm KIP and suffered fractures to his facial bones. Souri was shot during the intense days of the uprising that began in early May, when Israeli authorities enacted what human rights organizations described as “a catalogue of violations.”  

This excessive force was only a prelude, however, to what would become an even more sustained campaign of harassment. Beginning in late May, thousands of police, border guards, and reserve officers embarked on a campaign of mass arrests, dubbed “Operation Law and Order,” during which they detained more than 2100 people, the vast majority of them (some 90 percent) Palestinians with Israeli citizenship or residents of the eastern part of occupied Jerusalem.  

The stories from this period are harrowing—and far from past tense. An example: In May, Israeli authorities arrested three Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and accused them of beating up and attempting to murder an Israeli soldier. After lengthy Shin Bet interrogations that involved “severe torture,” according to their lawyer, the three men confessed to taking part in the beatings. But then they retracted their confessions. It was only in early November, nearly half a year after they’d been arrested, that the Israeli prosecution dropped the charges brought against them. The reason? Video footage proved they had nothing to do with the incident.

But being released without charges does not mean the arrest, interrogation, or trial are not inherently punitive. During a phone interview, Rabea Eghbariah, an attorney with Adalah Legal Center and doctoral candidate at Harvard Law Schoolinsisted that “the process is the punishment.”

“Even when these proceedings end without charges, the defendant, as well as the broader community, are still terrorized and exhausted from having to carry the physical, psychological, and financial costs of the process,” he explained.

In a press release, the Israeli Ministry of Public Security described the targets of its arrests as “rioters, offenders and anyone involved in illegal activity.” Despite the fact that the majority of those arrested were detained for offenses such as “insulting or assaulting a police officer” or “taking part in an illegal gathering”—and then released—several hundred have faced charges, many under the terms of expansive “anti-terrorism” law. This law replaces and expands British colonial anti-dissent legislation and allows the authorities to indulge in practices that are illegal “under normal circumstances.” These include extended or doubled sentences, extended periods without consulting an attorney, and indefinite detention without trial.

 ‘To whom do you complain?’

To Palestinians, the goal of these arrests was clear. The Unity Uprising “was a reminder that the Palestinian people have not lost their way,” said Fayrouz Sharqawi, the director of Grassroots al-Quds—an organization dedicated to mapping the displacement policies affecting Palestinian communities. “Now [Israeli authorities] are forcing us to pay the price.”

Indeed, once in detention, a new horror encountered those who had been arrested. All four lawyers I spoke with described a pattern of intimidation and torture—forced sleep deprivation, beatings, death threats, binding and blindfolding detainees, moving them from car to car—to extract confessions.

This violent crackdown was perhaps best illustrated by a formal legal complaint and report submitted by Adalah to the Israeli Attorney General as well as the Chairmen of the Police Investigation Department. In the report, sworn affidavits by detained Palestinians described how Israeli forces transformed a police station located in the northern Palestinian city of Nazareth into a “torture room,” where the blood of beaten detainees “covered the floor.”

“[The] police officers led the detainees to a room located on the left side of the entrance corridor to the station, forcing them to sit on the floor handcuffed, to lower their heads towards the floor, and began to beat them on all parts of their bodies, using kicks and clubs, slamming their heads against walls or doors, and more. Officers wounded the detainees, terrorized them, and whoever dared to lift his head upwards risked more beatings by officers.”

Attorney Soheir Assad spent much of the “Unity Uprising” volunteering her time at various Israeli police stations and saw the assaults on the detainees firsthand. “Imagine a young man or woman who has spent almost a month without being allowed to speak to a lawyer, without food or sleep, getting tortured,” she said, describing the intensive investigation proceedings that almost always lead to confessions under a plea deal.

Reports of torture were not only limited to physical violence. Jehan Abu Romy, the mother of an 18-year-old detainee, told the press her son was “terrified” after interrogators told him his mother died in a car crash and “that he had to sign a confession if he wanted to attend [her] funeral,” according to Adalah Justice Project.

Israeli law maintains that torture-induced or deception-induced confessions are not valid. Yet that does not mean that torture and deception do not happen. If anything, torture within Israeli prisons is believed to be highly underreported because it has historically been unpunished.

Torture was legal under Israeli law until 1999. Though it is now technically illegal, there is a myriad of legal loopholes that allow for it. In 2018, the Israeli Supreme court ruled in a 2018 case that the Israeli Security Agency’s guidelines for the use of “special means” and “psychical means of interrogation” (i.e. torture) are legitimate in “ticking bomb” circumstances. “Unlike many other cases where the Supreme Court overlooked the evidence for torture against Palestinian detainees, [the 2018] case authorizes the bureaucracy of torture altogether,” says Eghbariah. The Israeli Security Agency (better known as the Shin Bet) refers to these acts of torture as “necessity interrogations.”

Palestinian victims of torture often refuse to make complaints as they have no faith in the system. The numbers confirm they are not wrong. According to a recent report by The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, there have been over 1,300 complaints of torture submitted to the Inspector of Interogee Complaints (IIC) since 2001, but these have resulted in only two investigations and no indictments. Additionally, the average processing time of a complaint is four and a half years.

Out of the thousands arrested under Operation Law and Order, only a few more than 150 have been indicted. One wonders how many of these indictments were made possible only by torture. (In the occupied West Bank, the conviction rate for Palestinians tried at Israeli military courts is 99.7%)

‘A new hope’

To Fayrouz Sharqawi the goal of “Operation Law and Order” was obvious: “It is to explicitly terrorize people … to deter them,” he said, noting that all the Israeli attempts of “domesticating” Palestinians with “soft policies” have failed.

Yet this crackdown achieved another result. We saw a resurgence of mutual aid efforts and popular committees, especially within communities hit hardest by the Israeli regime’s violent crackdown on anti-colonial dissent.

The communities hit hardest by the “repressive, lengthy, and costly legal procedures” were Palestine’s most impoverished, according to Hala Marshood, a community organizer and researcher at Who Profits, an independent research organization committed to exposing the International private sector’s entanglement in the Israeli occupation economy. “Targeting the impoverished classes with long lists of charges is not coincidental because it is easier to smear them as a criminal,” Marshood explained.

One example of these mutual aid efforts is the Dignity & Hope Detainees Fund, established by the Haifa-based Baladna Arab Youth Movement in collaboration with volunteer lawyers. The fund aims to aid the families of indicted detainees who are living within the 1948 borders. For Marshood, a member of the fund’s consulting committee, the fund is a live example of practicing social and political solidarity, aiming to “center the issue of detainees.”

“The Palestinian people know they are one colonized people dealing with the same occupation, the same colonization,” said Sharqawi. His words reflect a larger shift in Palestinian society between the river and the sea that has become increasingly unified in its perception of life under colonial rule.

Whether in Ramallah, Haifa, or Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinians were on the other end of the same rubber bullets and teargas last summer, following global protests against dispossession in Sheikh Jarrah. “The flame ignited in those days was not extinguished,” the activist Riyah al-Sanah wrote, “including in the Naqab, a region Israel has tried so hard to disconnect politically from wider Palestinian mobilization.”  

The collective punishment and repression meant to reinforce a national fragmentation in which Palestinians fight for their lands on isolated fronts has instead reaffirmed that Palestinians, no matter the legal status, suffer from and will continue to struggle against the same colonial violence.

Mohammed al-Kurd is the Palestine correspondent for The Nation; he writes primarily about dispossession in Jerusalem and colonization in Palestine. His debut book is a volume of poetry, Rifqa (Haymarket Books)