—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
14 August 2005

Fuming for Israel: the Case of Alan Dershowitz

8. Torture

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The chapter denying Israeli use of torture amounts to little more than an encomium to the September 1999 decision by the Israeli Supreme Court banning the use of torture. Before drifting off this point and onto the issue of torture in US military bases, Dershowitz lauds Israel as 'the only country in the world whose judiciary has squared up to the difficult issue of whether it is ever justified to engage in a modified form of nonlethal torture' and laments that 'only Israel has been so repeatedly and viciously condemned for a practice that their current law does not even permit.' [my italics] We further learn that 'Israel's record on the issue of torture is far better than that of any other Middle Eastern or any Muslim nation, and better than that of most democracies, including the United States, France and Germany.'[1] A bold claim. The image being built up here is of a judicial decision which simply reflects the moral rectitude of a country in which torture is supposed to be an anathema. Unfortunately, what we learn from the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (who, with many other NGOs, dragged the case before the court) is that, in accepting the petition
the Supreme Court positioned itself not only against the security system, but against the entire political establishment - the Knesset, the government, the state attorney, the state comptroller - all of which supported, with almost no reservations, the system of institutionalised torture that had been in place for twelve years: that is, since the government adopted the recommendations of the Landau Commission in 1987. The Supreme Court also positioned itself against a public that to a large extent supported this system of torture. Moreover, the Supreme Court did a near complete about-face, overturning a series of its own decisions that had upheld both the theoretical and practical aspects of Landau's formula for permitting torture.[2]
Thus Dershowitz has plainly taken a single exception to a culture of approval for torture and pretended that it is the rule. This is the sole context in which the ruling may be deemed a 'courageous decision'[3] - leaving aside that it rescinded approval for practices which it had previously deemed acceptable. Moreover, Dershowitz's claim that Israel's judiciary has decided that 'torture [is] absolutely prohibited ... even in cases in which the pressure is used not to elicit a confession but rather to elicit information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack'[4] is completely at odds with the words of the ruling itself:
Consequently, we are prepared to presume, as was held by the Inquiry [Landau] Commission's Report, that if a GSS investigator - who applied physical means of interrogation for the purpose of saving a human life - is criminally indicted, the 'necessity' defence is likely to be open to him in the appropriate circumstances. A long list of arguments, from both the fields of ethics and political science may be raised for and against the use of the 'necessity' defence. This matter, however, has already been decided under Israeli law. Israel's Penal Law recognises the 'necessity' defence.[5]
In short, it's legislation with an escape-hatch. The first thing to notice about the conjuring of the 'ticking bomb' scenario is that it takes as its starting point for a defense of torture a contrived and unlikely situation: that of a person purported to possess information which could save lives, and refusing to yield it. Libertarians rightly fear that if this rationale ever gained currency, it would be used as the thin end of the wedge. Precisely such a 'sliding scale' rationale was used years ago by Professor Michael Levin, who, utilising a similar 'ticking bomb' scenario, proceeded to argue from it that 'once you concede that torture is justified in extreme cases, you have admitted that the decision to use torture is a matter of balancing innocent lives against the means needed to save them'[6] - a segue which apparently seeks to negate the a priori inadmissibility of torture.

Again, let's consider what Dershowitz averts his gaze from. Since he chooses to touch on the treatment of 'detainees in Guantanamo or other interrogation centers outside the United States'[7] to show how favourably Israel compares with this latest scandal, it's not inapposite to examine some evidence which emerged from the detention centre the Israelis ran for years in Lebanon through their proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army. From a myriad of examples of cruel treatment which the Israelis have meted out to Arabs, the tales that emerged from the Al-Khiam prison during Israel's occupation are significant in that they easily rival the slime that has oozed out of Abu Ghraib, another prison in an Arab country run by Western invaders. Here's what reporters Robert Fisk (narrating) and Juan-Carlos Gumucio found:
In southern Lebanon, I traveled from village to village, talking to Shia Muslim men who had been imprisoned at Khiam, in an SLA jail in Israel's remaining occupation zone. They described being hooded and tortured, screaming as electric wires were attached to their fingers and penises. In Tyre, J-C discovered a man with a back of rotting flesh, a hunchback of 25 who had spent six months in a basement dungeon at Khiam, in darkness and filth. Israel refused the International Red Cross permission to visit this place of horror. It was, the Israelis said, under General Antoine Lahd's control. It had nothing to do with them.[8]
On a similar theme, David Hirst offers this account of life in the occupied territories not long after their conquest. Here too, a proxy militia was found to have its uses:
Curfews and 'searches' were often carried out with great brutality and violence. In the middle of the night people had to leave their homes until the searches were completed. To spread panic soldiers would fire their machine-guns as they went. Sometimes people were killed or wounded; later, the Israeli press would report that they were 'shot while attempting to run away'. It was a regular practice, during night-time raids, to carry men off to prison without any good reason, beat them up and torture them. The Israelis sometimes called in the notorious Green Berets, the Druze troops who seemed to take a special pleasure in hurting their fellow-Arabs. These might go into action with clubs and whips. They beat their victims savagely in order to scare them. Bones would be broken. They stripped women naked in the streets, stealing their jewellery and smashing their pathetic belongings. Some Israeli soldiers privately expressed the opinion that 'the best way to combat terrorism was to bind suspects tightly with electric wire on arms and legs, and leave them in the sun. ...'[9]
This bright idea was not only implemented, but led to a fatality in at least one case. It is mentioned in Chomsky's recounting of the testimony before Congress of one Chris Giannou, a Canadian surgeon who was stationed in the Lebanese city of Sidon during the 1982 Israeli invasion:
He saw a Palestinian doctor hung by his hands from a tree and beaten and an Iraqi surgeon "beaten by several guards viciously, and left to lie in the sun with his face buried in the sand", all in the presence of an Israeli colonel who did nothing about it. He watched prisoners "being rehearsed by an Israeli officer to shout 'Long live Begin'," others being bound in "stifling heat" with "food and water in short supply." He was forced to evacuate his hospital and bring the patients down to the seafront. The Norwegians confirmed his story and said that they had seen at least 10 people beaten to death, including an old man who was crazed by the lack of water and intense heat as the prisoners were forced to sit for hours in the sun; he was beaten by four or five soldiers who then tied him with his wrists to his ankles and let him lie in the sun until he died.[10]
So it's rather surprising, given this mere random sampling, to find Dershowitz telling us that 'no other nation in history faced with comparable challenges has ever adhered to a higher standard of human rights, been more sensitive to the safety of innocent civilians, tried harder to operate under the rule of law, or been willing to take more risks for peace.'[11]

The plain truth is that even a cursory glance at reports from Amnesty International, B'Tselem, the International Red Cross and other sources confirms that the issue of Israeli torture and mistreatment of Arabs is by now just too large for any apologist to draw a tarpaulin across. In the context of evidence such as this, Dershowitz's limp-wristed choice of straw-man accusation to gainsay - that 'Israel is the prime example of human rights violators in the world'[12] (agreed - Israel cannot compete with Burma, China and North Korea) sounds as irrelevant and odious as an O.J. indignantly denying that he is world's worst wife-beater. The point, surely, is not that Israel has escaped the obloquy of being the very worst - rather, the odium consists in that it is considered among the nations vying for that dreadful distinction.

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1 Dershowitz, p. 134-135
2 Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, quoted from a report excerpted in Reporters without Borders (Eds.), Israel/Palestine: The Black Book, Pluto Press, London, 2003, p. 114
3 Dershowitz, p. 137
4 Dershowitz, p. 134
5 Quoted in Reporters without Borders (Eds.), p. 117
6 Quoted in Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, (Updated Edition), Pluto Press, London, 1999, p. 127n
7 Dershowitz, p. 139
8 Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (Third edition), Oxford University Press, Britain, 2001, p. 620
9 David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, (Third Edition), Nation Books, New York, 2003, p. 376
10 Chomsky, p. 229 et seq.
11 Dershowitz, p. 2
12 Dershowitz, p. 181