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Reports of Torture by Israelis Emerge

Rights Groups Document Frequent Police Abuses Against Palestinians

By Lee Hockstader Washington Post Foreign Service Saturday, August 18, 2001; Page A01

HUSAN, West Bank -- It was nearly 1 a.m. on a chilly night in January when Israeli soldiers pounded on the Zaul family's door in this scruffy Palestinian village. "Open up, it's the army!" they shouted.

Then they rushed in and grabbed Ibrahim Zaul, 15, a lanky boy growing a wispy mustache. Zaul was taken to an Israeli police station, where for the next eight or nine hours, he said, he was blindfolded and spat upon, cursed and threatened with death, beaten with fists, truncheons and rifle butts until he screamed, doused with freezing water and forced to stand upright with a heavy weight hung excruciatingly from his neck.

"I would fall to the ground, and whenever I fell, they would kick me in the back," he said in an interview.

It did not take long for Zaul to break: Later that morning, he confessed to having thrown stones at Israeli troops and eventually served four months in prison.

About a dozen teenagers, all minors and most from Husan or nearby villages south of Jerusalem, have given similar accounts of arrests, beatings and torture by Israeli police in recent months. Their stories, which differ only in the harrowing details, have been recorded by Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, which find them credible.

As the Palestinian-Israeli conflict drags through its bloodiest chapter in a generation, there are signs that fraying discipline and an atmosphere of permissiveness in the ranks of Israeli security forces are resulting in violence and abuse directed at Palestinian civilians. Operating under tense, occasionally lethal conditions in the West Bank and Gaza territories they occupy, and sometimes attacked by Palestinian gunmen and bombers, some Israeli soldiers and police appear to have taken out their frustrations with their fists and gun butts, according to human rights groups and spokesmen for the Israeli army.

Most concern from abroad has focused on Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian activists involved in attacks on Israel, or on the Israeli military's retaliatory attacks on Palestinian-controlled areas. But the increase in abusive behavior by the security forces, and the Israeli public's tendency to overlook it, has led some dovish Israelis -- a distinct minority in the current climate -- to warn of what they call a widening mentality of occupation.

More broadly, it has raised questions about whether Israel can fulfill its own ambitions to be the Middle East's only democracy with Western-style rights guarantees in the crucible of the bloody conflict between Arabs and Jews.

Nearly from its inception at mid-century, Israel has boasted that it alone in the region strives to meet Western human rights standards. It made that argument even while the late Yitzhak Rabin encouraged the army to "break their bones" when Palestinians staged the first intifada, or uprising, in the late 1980s. And for years the main domestic security service, Shin Bet, regularly tortured Arab detainees. Moreover, Israel's Arab citizens were denied basic rights in housing, employment and land ownership.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that Shin Bet's torture of prisoners was illegal, and the agency says it has halted the practice in most cases. Human rights activists and liberals celebrated the ruling at the time, hailing it as a sign of enlightenment. But now those same advocates say the current conflict is leading Israel to use brutal practices in which beatings and abuse of Palestinians are regarded not only as necessary, but as acceptable. Some Israelis suggest the practices also betray a vein of racism.

"All colonial wars have the same inner logic," said Uri Avnery, a veteran of the frayed Israeli peace movement. "When you are occupiers subjugating another people, you need some moral reason for it, and the reason is that they are an inferior race. You have that mentality here. It's like the old American South: If the brutal sheriff is the hero and the inferior people are seen as becoming uppity, as raping our women, then it's okay to be brutal toward them. It's harder, in fact, not to be brutal."

One of the more dramatic examples is an allegation that at least 10 Palestinian teenagers, including Zaul, were tortured into giving confessions at Israel's Gush Etzion police station in the southern West Bank. The experience has embittered some of the youths; one told an Israeli newspaper he was thinking of retaliating against Israel by becoming a suicide bomber.

There has been a rash of other recent incidents and allegations involving beatings and abuse by Israeli soldiers and police, often at checkpoints where they regulate the daily movements of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Last week, six Israeli soldiers were arrested on suspicion that they had subjected a group of West Bank Palestinian taxi passengers to a two-hour ordeal of beating and humiliation, clubbing one of them into unconsciousness and forcing others at gunpoint to pair off and beat each other. The case against one of the soldiers was dropped; the other five may face courts-martial.

"We didn't receive cases like that before this" Palestinian uprising, said Yael Stein, research director for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, referring to the all-night beatings and forced confessions at the Gush Etzion police station. "There were cases of beatings before by border police or by soldiers, but this is different because this is not just cases of sheer brutality. This is real torture."

As the Israeli media, foreign journalists and human rights organizations have detailed what seems to be an escalating pattern of abuse, senior Israeli army officers have expressed alarm, mostly at the potential damage to the military's image, while saying they are investigating.

The army said it has launched a campaign of training and education to dissuade soldiers from abusing Palestinians. Eight cases of alleged abuse have been investigated by the military police in the past 10 months of violence, army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz said.

"It's not simple, because everywhere in the West Bank we are facing terror attacks, car bombs, sometimes suicide bombers, sometimes [seemingly] innocent people with a donkey or a bicycle who are hiding a bomb," Rafowicz said. "So it's a balance between security necessities and letting people go about their normal lives and movements. It can happen that there are some mistakes. If there are clear instances of misbehavior against the regulations, we are not waiting for human rights groups in order to have an investigation."

But in cases involving the police, such as the alleged pattern of torture at the Gush Etzion police station, officials said they will only investigate if a Palestinian personally files a specific complaint with the authorities.

"If we don't have any complaint or evidence, we can't do anything about it," said Yaacov Gallanti, spokesman for the Justice Ministry's branch for internal police investigations. In the instance of the Palestinian teenagers, Gallanti said "only one of them did bring charges, and charges brought were very partial."

In most instances, Palestinians said they are reluctant to register a complaint with Israeli authorities, saying either they doubt it will result in a genuine investigation, or that they are afraid.

Reports of torture, beatings, abuse and humiliation have not generated an outcry from the Israeli public. In a new poll conducted by Tel Aviv University, nearly half the Israelis surveyed said uniformed soldiers and police should be treated leniently if they abuse Palestinians, or should not be disciplined at all; another 10 percent had no opinion.

The poll was taken immediately following reports in the Israeli media describing instances in which Israeli soldiers have detained Palestinians at roadblocks, confined them to their cars in the sun on hot days and extracted small bribes known as "passage fees" -- packs of cigarettes, for example -- at army checkpoints.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoting high-ranking army officers, said the incidents of abuse that have come to light represent "only the tip of the iceberg in what is actually a much broader phenomenon."

According to a report by B'Tselem, the gist of which army spokesmen are not denying, the six soldiers arrested last week had stopped two Palestinian taxis on July 23 near Hebron, on one of the many hundreds of roads Palestinians use to bypass Israeli roadblocks. Nine of the passengers were lined up against a wall. The soldiers, from the Shimshon Battalion, then beat them with rifle butts and helmets, according to the report. One of the Palestinians was knocked unconscious.

"One of the soldiers grabbed me by the neck and pulled me up," said one of the men, Mohammed Salamin, a 28-year-old taxi driver. "I tried to turn around to see his face, and then he slapped me hard and ordered me to walk without looking left or right. . . . While I was walking, the soldiers kicked and punched me all over my body."

The other taxi driver, 36-year-old Khaled Rawashdeh, described how the soldiers forced the men to pair off and beat each other, and then ordered one young passenger to beat the others. "He refused, but the soldiers threatened to kill him on the spot. . . . With tears falling from his eyes, the young man started to beat us with his fist on our faces and heads. He tried to beat us gently, but one of the soldiers put his gun to his head and told him to beat us more seriously. They told him to beat me the most. He struck my face six or seven times."

When the Israelis finally released their captives after about two hours, they told them to get lost.

"They added that they wanted us to feel how painful the stones were when they were thrown at soldiers," Rawashdeh said. "As we began leaving, some of the soldiers began to stone us. Some of the stones hit our backs and legs."

(c) 2001 The Washington Post Company

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