JERUSALEM -- In Arabic, the procedure is known as Shabeh, and Anwar Mohamed of Florida says Israeli security officials used it on him last fall.
Mohamed, a 27-year-old American who runs the Haifa Pizza parlor in Miami Beach with his brother, said he was crossing from the West Bank to visit a sister in Jordan in October when he was arrested and accused of being a terrorist.
In an interview, he said he was tied to a small chair, deprived of bathroom facilities and bombarded with loud music, while Israeli officials grilled him repeatedly about renting out part of a restaurant to raise money for a Miami mosque and about donations he said go to support an orphan in the West Bank.
"One hand was tied behind my back and the other over the back of the chair," said Mohamed, echoing the descriptions of Shabeh given by many Palestinian prisoners. "They let you sleep in the chair for days. I woke up screaming. My hands were like balloons."
The Arab-American, who has lived in the United States for 10 years, also said he spent 20 days confined in what he described as a "coffin"-like concrete box with a mattress and air holes.
Israeli authorities call Shabeh and other interrogation techniques "moderate physical pressure," but Israeli and international human rights groups say they fit the international definition of torture. While only a handful of Americans such as Mohamed are subjected to them each year, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee charges that the number is growing.
Israeli and U.S. officials said more Arab-Americans are coming under suspicion, because intelligence agencies have determined that Islamic terrorist groups are getting significant funding from charitable donations in the United States and from Arab-Americans who transfer money to the militant Islamic group Hamas. Hamas is also financed by militants in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Jamil Salim Suliman Sarsour, a 37-year-old Milwaukee businessman, could be sentenced to up to 10 years in an Israeli prison if he is convicted on charges that he transferred $35,000 to Izzeddin al-Qassam, Hamas' military wing.
Collision of ideas
The result is more frequent collisions between U.S. notions of civil liberties, which are shared by many Israelis, and the Israeli argument that it is impossible to apply peacetime standards to a nation at war with terrorists and with its neighbors for all 50 years of its existence.
Israeli government spokesman Moshe Fogel said the authorities involved in Mohamed's detention have denied "totally and completely" that force was used. "Suspicions about his activities were based on information gathered in Israel that was related to another case," Fogel said, refusing to elaborate for security reasons.
A Palestinian with U.S. citizenship, he added, remains "part and parcel of the belligerent population that comprises the territories in conflict with Israeli security forces."
Mohamed insisted that his was a case of mistaken identity. "I thought they were joking," he recalled. "I told them they got the wrong guy."
Because Israel's General Security Service -- also known as the Shin Bet -- will not release details of individual cases, it is impossible to know what happened inside the holding cells of Jerusalem's Russian Compound police depot, where Mohamed was held.
But 40 days after his arrest, he was released without charge in a "scared and deteriorated" condition, according to an American consular official who visited him near the beginning and end of his incarceration. He has returned to Florida.
"He was definitely subjected to some form of pressure," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "After a month, he had lost weight. We don't really know why they held him. They were trying to get information about others. No evidence of substance was found."
An Israeli parliamentary commission in 1987 ruled that "special measures" such as Shabeh and the violent shaking of suspects are legal in "ticking bomb" cases, in which extracting information could prevent another terrorist attack.
"Israel is a democracy under fire. The same criteria you apply to democracies at peace cannot be applied to democracies at war," said government spokesman Fogel.
A highly placed government source who spoke on the condition of anonymity acknowledged that "abuses occur" but added that "it is minimal, and by no stretch of the imagination can it be called torture."
Moreover, Israeli officials note, no comparable debate is raised about the interrogation techniques employed by security services in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other Arab countries. The Palestinian Authority has a dismal human rights record. The State Department's annual human rights report, released Feb. 26, notes its use of torture, lack of fair trials, poor prison conditions, harassment and jailing of journalists, and detention of 315 Palestinians without charge.
"It is true we are a country at war, with terrorist attacks and real security problems," replies Hanna Friedman, executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture.
"But we are not the only democracy fighting terrorism. The U.S., the U.K. and Spain don't systematically use such methods of interrogation. We are the only democratic state that uses illegal methods on such a large scale."
Friedman's is one of several Israeli human rights organizations that say abuse of Arab prisoners has become standard operating procedure.
"It is used against everybody who is arrested on a security basis," Friedman said in an interview. Her group filed court petitions on behalf of 94 Palestinians in 1998, and she estimates that the total number of prisoners who reported mistreatment last year is closer to 150. The Human Rights Group B'Tselem (In God's Image) puts the figure at 850, or about 85 percent of those who are interrogated each year.
State Department findings
The State Department's latest human rights report charges that the General Security Service "systematically uses interrogation methods that do not result in detectable traces of mistreatment of the victims, or which leave marks that disappear after a short period of time."
The report says forcing prisoners to stand or squat for prolonged periods, exposing them to extreme temperatures, tying or chaining them in contorted and painful positions, beating them, confining them in small and filthy spaces, depriving them of sleep and food, hooding prisoners and threatening their lives or families are "common" practices in Israel.
The report says Israeli interrogators also continue the practice of violently shaking prisoners, though it is rarer than Shabeh and despite the controversy that has surrounded it since 1995, when a suspect died from brain injuries that an American pathologist concluded were due to "shaking."
The State Department report notes that Israel allows suspects in cases such as Mohamed's to be held for up to two weeks without access to a lawyer or Red Cross monitor. Although the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in July that judges, rather than senior military officers, are authorized to extend a detainee's administrative detention order, the State Department report says courts and judges rarely reject requests from the General Security Service. The grounds for holding someone without charge also are routinely withheld from defense attorneys, the report says.
With peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled, and extremists on both sides determined to derail them for good before Israel's May elections, little seems likely to change. While there are vocal groups within Israel that fight torture -- including Rabbis for Human Rights -- Friedman concedes that the Israeli public largely accepts the argument that "special measures" are an "unpleasant and inconvenient" but necessary part of the fight against terrorism.
This article was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Pub Date: 03/14/99