For years now the Israeli security forces have been using torture as a method of interrogation and, thanks to the lack of space in Israeli jails, as an alternative to prison sentences. Last month, a United Nations committee condemned Israel for permitting such methods. According to human-rights groups, between 1988 and 1994 Israeli security forces detained over 100, 000 Palestinian suspects, one-third of whom were violently interrogated and often severely beaten. To put flesh on these statistics, one repentant Israeli officer reports going into a village, rounding up over a dozen Palestinian youths, taking them to a nearby field, and breaking their arms and legs (see James Ron's "Rabin's Two Legends," Index on Censorship, September-October 1996). Gilad Anat, a cog in the harrowing machine, recalls:
When we were driving toward the field the said to make certain that you hit the Arabs on the kneecap, since that was the way to make sure the leg would break. When it was over the Palestinians were left lying in the field, and the soldiers drove off in silence. I was surprised that none of the soldiers protested…
Security personnel report that when they are instructed o try and beat the truth or spirit out of someone, the only restrictions they are given is, "Don't kill them," or at least not their bodies, for as Elain Scarry showed in her minor classic, The Body in Pain, torture can kill the spirit. When people are brought to a pitch of pain where they are willing to do anything to be released, including turning their loved ones over to their torturers, the body may endure but henceforth, "all is but toys; renown and grace are dead."
In a recent highly publicized case the Israelis did kill the body of a suspect, which prompted the Israeli High Court to place an injunction against the use of physical pressure as a method of interrogation. A day later the court acceded to a request from the legal council for the security forces to suspend the injunction, so that they could put the screws to someone whom they claimed to suspect of planning a terrorist action.
Whenever the issue of violent interrogation has come up in Israel, people of practical wisdom maintain that the use of force is necessary to extract information about terrorist activities that will in the end save the lives of many potential victims. In fact Andre Rosenthal, the lawyer who pressed for the suspension of the injunction, said: "No enlightened nation would agree that hundreds of people should lose their lives because of a rule saying torture is forbidden." Upon hearing that one of the High Court judges was playing Pilate and would not offer a ruling either for or against the use of physical force, Rosenthal fulminated, "That's the most immoral and extreme position I have heard in my life .... [A] thousand people are about to be killed and you propose that we don't do anything." In the view of Rosenthal and many other Israelis, when you have someone in custody who may be able to tell you the whereabouts of a bomb that is ticking toward the loss of many innocent lives, it is the moral obligation of the state to do anything necessary to make him speak. One would like to think that if citizens of a democracy really grasped what it was like to be beaten to the rim of death by servants of the state, they would rise up against such practices. Apparently not. Israelis know what is going on, and many of them either put their hands over their eyes or, like Rosenthal, have no qualms about the beatings.
But it is one thing not to protest and it is another legally to tolerate breaking heads. Or is it? While many Israelis are appalled by the use of violence, others argue that they are just being honest about a practice that is common to every police force in the world. Still others maintain that when the use of physical force is acknowledged by the state, it can be monitored and limited, but that when the use of hoods, prongs, and electric prods is covert, there is no mechanism to rein in professional pain makers.