JERUSALEM — When an official inquiry commission reported here recently that interrogators of Israel's General Security Service, or Shin Bet, had for 16 years routinely used "physical pressure" against suspected terrorists and then lied about it in court, Israelis and Palestinians alike applauded, although for different reasons.
"Justice Served," read the headline on a Jerusalem Post editorial that rejoiced, as many individual Israelis did, that the system had demonstrated an ability to blow the whistle on itself. The Post called the report's proposed remedies--administrative and legal changes to prevent future abuses rather than punishment for past transgressions--"correct, . . . balanced rather than extreme."
A Palestinian lawyer said there was "immediate euphoria" among his colleagues and predictions that the legal system will now be inundated with demands for retrials for the estimated 4,000 Arab security prisoners in Israeli prisons.
Glaring Lapses Exposed
But now that more people have had a chance to read in full the commission's 88-page document, known as the Landau Report, the applause has turned to intense disquiet, again on both sides.
More thoughtful analysis has exposed what critics contend are glaring and dangerous lapses in the commission's work and a self-serving focus on perjury by security service operatives rather than on the practice of torture.
Defense attorneys say the commission's findings are put in such a way that appeals will be possible in only a tiny minority of the cases in which the defense alleges that "physical pressure" was used to extract a confession.
Perhaps worst of all, the commission endorsed the use of what it termed "a moderate amount of physical pressure" when other methods fail. It outlined the limits of such force in a secret appendix to its report that is unavailable to defendants and their attorneys. And it failed to distinguish between situations where interrogation is designed to prevent an imminent terrorist act and when it is simply meant to gather evidence for a trial.
East Jerusalem attorney Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian, described the report as "frightening" and "a step backward."
"Here is an official document," he said, "that makes no qualms about recommending (that) coercion, including physical pressure, be used to extract confessions; that does not state what are the criteria under which this pressure is to be used; that recommends secret guidelines; that trusts to apply those secret guidelines people who admit having lied for the last 16 years and who continue to claim the need to isolate their actions from the publicity and openness of a trial, and further, that this is recommended across the board with respect to an entire civilian population which naturally does not like and resists occupation."
On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet voted to adopt the Landau Report and all its recommendations, including the proposal that Shin Bet agents not be prosecuted for lying in court about how they extracted confessions. In a statement issued after the regular weekly Cabinet meeting, the 25-member body also set up a four-member committee to monitor the agency's activities.
Government Ordered Probe
The judicial probe of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency, was ordered by the Israeli government last spring after the service was rocked by two major scandals.
The first involved a 1984 incident in which two prisoners captured in an attempted bus hijacking were beaten to death by Shin Bet agents. The affair came to light only after officials of the service lied to two previous inquiry commissions in an attempt to shift blame onto an army officer, and a former attorney general resigned rather than help sweep the incident under the rug.
Efforts to open a wider investigation of Shin Bet methods were blocked, however, until a second incident in which the Supreme Court ruled last May that Shin Bet agents had perjured themselves in the case of a Muslim officer in the Israeli army wrongfully imprisoned for treason.
The officer, Lt. Izat Nafsu, served seven years in prison after Shin Bet agents used physical and psychological pressure to force him into confessing. Nafsu is a member of Israel's tiny, non-Arab Circassian minority.
Usually the Shin Bet acts against Palestinians in order to prevent terrorist acts or what it deems dangerous nationalist activity. But what disturbed Israeli opinion makers about these two affairs was that the service had turned against its own.
As the Jerusalem Post editorialized, "it is the society itself which is imperiled when its security service is unchecked."
"And there is no more telling example of that fact," it went on, "than the bus (incident) and the Nafsu case, in which not terrorists but ranking army officers, one a Jew, were the victims of a security service making itself supreme judge and supreme priority."