JERUSALEM — For 16 years, Israel's General Security Service routinely used "physical pressure" against suspected terrorists and then lied about its methods in court, according to a government inquiry commission that Friday called for the agency to undergo a "purification process."
The security service, popularly known by its Hebrew initials as the Shin Bet, is particularly active among Palestinian Arabs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. And Friday's report appears certain to trigger protests on behalf of about 4,000 mostly Arab security prisoners, many of whom claim that they have been convicted based on confessions extracted under Shin Bet torture.
The three-member inquiry commission, appointed last May to look into Shin Bet methods, condemned agency interrogators for regularly perjuring themselves in court. But it condoned "a moderate amount of physical pressure" when other methods of interrogation fail to achieve their aim.
Guidelines on Use of Force
The commission, which was chaired by Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau, set down detailed guidelines on the use of force in a second section of its report that was not made public.
The 88-page public section made a series of non-binding recommendations to the government aimed mainly at improving supervision of the Shin Bet and giving wider opportunities for appeal against alleged agency wrongdoing.
However, the commission specifically said that no past or present Shin Bet operatives should be punished for past actions.
The judicial probe into Shin Bet methods was ordered by the Cabinet last spring after the Supreme Court ruled that security agents had perjured themselves in the case of a Muslim army officer wrongfully imprisoned for treason.
Lt. Izat Nafsu had already served seven years in prison after Shin Bet agents used illegal methods to force him into confessing to treason and espionage. Nafsu is a member of Israel's tiny, non-Arab Circassian minority.
Shin Bet Changed After 1967
The inquiry commission, which besides Landau was made up of state comptroller Yaacov Meltz and the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, Yitzhak Hofi, found that before 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War, the Shin Bet was involved in few terrorist investigations and physical force was not used.
However, it said, by 1971 a "serious change" had occurred. More defense attorneys complained about irregular interrogation methods, and Shin Bet investigators began for the first time to be called as witnesses.
They were faced with a dilemma, the commission found--to reveal their methods might jeopardize state security and result in acquittal for suspected terrorists. So they took the easiest way out: "They simply lied, and through this broke the criminal law."
The commission said that Yosef Harmelin, who headed the Shin Bet from 1964-1974, was unaware of the practice. His successor, Avraham Arkhituv, who guided the agency until 1980, knew about it but ignored it. And Avraham Shalom, who headed the Shin Bet from 1980 until he resigned under pressure last year, actually encouraged his agents to lie, the commission found. The report did not name the three, but referred to them by position and years of service.
'Clear Order to Lie'
Its report quoted a portion of a September, 1982 protocol of a discussion between Shalom and the head of the Shin Bet's investigations division in which the official gave "not only a clear order to lie in court, but also an order as to what the lie is to be."
The commission added: "This protocol was typed and distributed to the heads of divisions. There is perhaps nothing new in this except that the heads of the service found the norm of perjury so rooted and acceptable that they did not hesitate to put it down in writing and distribute it."
Shalom and several of his men resigned last year in exchange for immunity from prosecution in connection with a 1984 incident in which Shin Bet officials doctored evidence to cover up the fact that security agents had beaten to death two Palestinian youths captured during a bus hijacking in which a woman Israeli soldier was killed, seven people were wounded and 35 were held hostage.
On June 10, 1987, shortly after the Supreme Court handed down its verdict in the Nafsu case, the report said, the head of Shin Bet's investigations unit instructed his interrogators that they were not permitted to lie in court.
'End of an Era'
The order "signified the end of an era that lasted 16 years," during which "false testimony by Shin Bet officials in court was the norm," the commission report stated.
The commission did not say how many cases it had discovered in which agents perjured themselves, but it conceded that there may have been a "significant number" during the period in question.
"We feel today that there is a need to refurbish the image of the General Security Service in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of its own people," it added, referring to the process as one of "purification."
Regarding the use of force, the commission wrote: "We believe that efficient dealing with terrorism by the (security) service cannot be done without interrogation of suspects in order to get vital information. The interrogation cannot be done without the use of pressure to overcome the desire of the suspect not to disclose information and his fear of reprisal by his organization if he reveals information. This type of investigation is permissible under law, and it appears to us that a confession obtained in this way is admissible."
The commission urged that "pressure must be concentrated on nonviolent psychological means of fervent and continuous interrogation, and the use of tricks like misleading (the suspect)."
However, it added, "when these do not work, the use of moderate physical pressure may be used. Interrogators must be trained in the limits of this in order to avoid excessive physical pressure."