Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: Tortured Logic

May 28, 2013 | Tzvi Fleischer

Tzvi Fleischer

Tortured Logic

Readers of the Australian media will recall several instances of reports highlighting NGO claims that Israel engages in “torture” of Palestinian prisoners. What they will not likely have heard is that there are far more credible allegations of torture on a large scale against Palestinian security forces in both the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, the worst of the cases on the Palestinian side appear to be genuine torture as most people would understand it – which is not necessarily the case with many of the Israeli cases alleged.

The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) – a body set up by the Palestinian Authority (PA) – has alleged 28 cases of torture or ill-treatment in PA prisons in the West Bank in the month of April alone – plus another 23 cases against the Hamas security forces in Gaza. In March, the body recorded 22 allegations concerning torture in the West Bank and 32 in Gaza.

Unfortunately, the ICHR does not publish details about most of these alleged cases, making it impossible to tell how serious the allegations of “torture and ill-treatment” it lists are.

However, we do know about one particularly serious case – that of Mohamed Abdel Karim Dar of Hebron. According to the ICHR, Dar was hospitalised after he “lost the ability to speak and suffered from wounds to his body as a result of banging his head against the wall and tying his hands while being held in solitary confinement.” What happened to him sounds like real torture in anyone’s interpretation.

The same is not necessarily true for many of the allegations made by NGOs against Israel, and often given extensive media coverage. For example, perhaps the most extreme and bizarre example of allegations against Israel in recent months was a rambling conspiracy theory piece by John Lyons, the Middle East correspondent for the Australian, on April 13, in which he excoriated the UN agency UNICEF for its recent report on Israeli treatment of Palestinian children. His bizarre thesis was that UNICEF “had caved in to pressure from Israel” and he was particularly incensed that “UNICEF found Israel had engaged in actions that fitted its definition of torture, [but] the report avoided using that word in its findings.”

In reality, UNICEF actually uncovered little that would constitute “torture” as the ordinary punter would understand it – or indeed, as it is defined in international treaties. Torture according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture is when agents of the state engage in “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.”

UNICEF certainly alleged some significant abuses by Israeli authorities – the most serious of which was an allegation that in a few cases some Palestinian minors had been “beaten, slapped and kicked” by Israeli soldiers after being arrested. This is an allegation that certainly deserves investigation and if true, punishment – though it is always worth recalling that in the heat of the Arab-Israel conflict, not all allegations made by supposed victims are necessarily true. In any case, such violence would certainly be illegal in Israel. Meanwhile, UNICEF has praised Israel for taking seriously its concerns and trying to address them.

However, while these allegations represent behaviour which is deplorable and illegal, if true, it is not clear, without further information, if they arise to the level of torture as defined by the UN convention – that is the infliction of “severe pain and suffering.”

Furthermore, most of the rest of allegations in the report simply do not offer even a prima facie case for torture as defined by the UN treaty. They involve issues such as making threats to force confessions, the use of temporary solitary confinement, blindfolds, arrests in the middle of the night, and failure to allow toilet use by detainees for a few hours. While it is certainly possible to criticise these practices, if the allegations are true, and even to allege some of them are illegal, calling them “torture” risks degrading and cheapening the term.

What has happened is a common pattern in international institutions and NGOs – reasonable restriction agreed by states are “re-interpreted” expansively by over-zealous bureaucrats and activists. For example, since a person could theoretically be tortured by extended periods of sensory deprivation, any use of a blindfold for any period becomes, according to these interpretations, ipso facto “torture”.

Meanwhile, regardless of this whole debate about what is torture, how much do you want to bet that if an Israeli body alleged that it had documented upwards of 50 cases of “torture” a month by Israeli security forces, there would be major headlines in the Australian and international media?

“El Sionismo” in Venezuela

The AIR has covered previously how the Venezuelan regime of the late Hugo Chavez was known for its persecution of the dwindling Venezuelan Jewish community and for frequent enunciation of antisemitic conspiracy theories by officials and in the pro-government media.

After the death of Hugo Chavez in early March, and a close and disputed election of Chavez’s chosen successor Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s remaining 8,000 Jews were doubtless hoping for improvement.

But early signs are not promising. The major news in Venezuela of recent weeks has been the release by an opposition party of an audio tape of a conversation allegedly between Mario Silva, a prominent television anchor and incorrigible chavista, and a senior official from Cuba’s secret police. The tape – in which Silva reports on the situation in Venezuela to the Cuban – is seen by many Venezuelans as evidence that the Chavez/Maduro regime is subservient to Havana. It also features Silva apparently agreeing with a comment from Fidel Castro calling for an end to elections in Venezuela.

Silva responded to the release of the recording by claiming he had been set-up. And who did he blame for setting him up? El Sionismo – “Zionism.”




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