Ramallah, Palestine – The deadly drama in the Mideast over the last few weeks has left in its wake a trail of confused prognoses – not to mention a new slew of Palestinian arrestees and detainees, 54 from Gaza and 182 from the West Bank.
While human rights groups in the region are trying to monitor the situation, at least one of them is anxiously awaiting a letter from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
In late January, the Israeli organization B’Tselem sent the feds a letter requesting clarification of Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier’s removal of Israel from a list of suspect countries in his department’s torture awareness manual.
“We are very concerned about the Canadian government,” says B’Tselem’s Sarit Michaeli in Jerusalem.
But at Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, spokesperson Rodney Moore says the government has no record of having received any communication from B’Tselem and reiterates that minister Bernier indicated when the matter of the list arose that having Israel on it “was an embarrassment.’’
B’Tselem’s interest in Canadian policy is related to a study the group published last year with HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual that highlighted Israel’s ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian detainees.
The document reported that two-thirds of interview subjects said they’d experienced beatings, painful binding, swearing and humiliation and denial of basic needs at the hands of security forces personnel from the moment of arrest, sometimes in contravention of the Israeli High Court’s 1999 ruling against torture.
But while B’Tselem’s findings caused a stir in Israel, and the experience of torture is widely known in the Occupied Territories, they didn’t cast much of a shadow in Canada.
Even NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, who blasted the Harper government for ignoring the advice of Foreign Affairs bureaucrats and altering the list, was unaware of B’Tselem’s research. It’s important, he says, “for the government to take seriously information Israelis themselves are offering.”
From the Israeli government’s point of view, security worries trump concerns over the fair treatment of detainees. Even the High Court determined in its 1999 ruling that in a “ticking time bomb” situation, if a Shin Bet (internal security service) officer used torture, an investigating court might later accept the argument that physical pressure was justified.
Gadi Zohar, former chief of the Israeli military’s civil administration in the West Bank and of Israeli Army Intelligence’s terror research department, says Israel is not a torturing state but finds itself in a dilemma.“We are in a special situation in fighting terrorism. We have to fight for our lives, not for anybody’s reports,” he says from Kfar Saba, referring to the B’Tselem/HaMoked document.
In the office of the Israeli prime minister, spokesperson Mark Regev is terse and clear. “Torture is illegal in Israel. Nobody, not the prime minister’s office, the defence establishment, nobody is above the law.”
Nonetheless, this doesn’t reflect the experience of clients of Ramallah’s Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture. General director Mahmud Sehwail says the 1999 ruling has made little difference for detainees except for a shift in emphasis from physical to psychological forms of torture. The “ticking time bomb” exception has become a general loophole, he says.
Former detainee Hammad Selaman, charged with being a member of Fatah when he was 17, and freed as part of Israel’s release of 429 prisoners in November 2007, describes being blindfolded and beaten all the way to the detention centre. “I was cuffed to a chair for 10 hours awaiting interrogation. I could hear other prisoners screaming,” he tells me in the office of the treatment centre.
According to “Samar,” a former student union activist at Birzeit University, arrested in 2006 and held for 86 days, officers claimed they were holding his mother and sister and threatened to rape them if he didn’t confess.
“I was cuffed to a chair for four days, where interrogators prevented me from sleeping,’’ he says. “I was tied in painful stress positions, and on one occasion the agents grabbed me while I was cuffed and shook me severely.’’
For Amnesty International attorney Paul Champ, speaking in Toronto, these interrogation tactics are unnacceptable, and Canada’s removal of Israel from the list is disappointing. It was AI that released the torture awareness manual to the media in the first place, having obtained it accidentially during its legal suit against Canadian Forces over the transfer of detainees to Afghan authorities.
“Torture is a very serious issue,’’ he says. “If there’s evidence, the Canadian government needs to deal with it.”
Jesse Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah.