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Scandalous Means

November 03, 1987

Over the last 16 years thousands of Palestinian Arabs from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip have been convicted by Israeli courts of terrorist activities and other security offenses. In many of these cases the primary evidence leading to conviction was provided by the confessions of the accused. Now an official Israeli commission has found that agents of the Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency, routinely used "physical pressure" to wring confessions from suspects and then, when the validity of these confessions was challenged in court, routinely lied about the methods they had used. As a result of this finding, which supports claims long made by Israeli defense attorneys and others, a large number of imprisoned Palestinians may seek to have their convictions overturned.

Some, in Israel and elsewhere, may discern in the commission's disclosures proof of the inherent strengths of a political system that is self-confident enough to expose official misbehavior. But for others what will stand out most starkly is the commission's chilling acceptance of the use of "physical pressure"--a euphemism for torture--in past and future cases of suspected Arab terrorism. Indeed, the commission's greatest repugnance seems to have been aroused not by the fact that government agents regularly abused suspects, but that they later "broke the criminal law" by lying under oath about what they had done.

And so the ancient rationale for permitting torture as a means to get information or to force confessions is again invoked. The end--protecting society against its enemies--is seen as justifying the means, in this case calculatingly inflicting pain on prisoners to force self-incrimination.

Israel is not, course, the first democracy confronting irregular warfare to resort to this expedient. Most recently, for example, British forces have been accused of mistreating suspected Irish Republican Army terrorists. But to say this, or to take refuge in the argument that Israeli security agents are only doing what those in Arab states regularly do, is to obscure a central moral issue. If the guardians of Israel's internal security are given official leave to behave with the same lack of decency as their counterparts in Syria or Iraq or Libya, then what kind of society is Israel on the way to becoming? If police torture is held to be a necessary mode of conduct, what then of Israel's claim to be morally distinct from those who would destroy it?

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