RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — One of the men was hospitalized with kidney failure and 11 broken ribs. Another was nearly unrecognizable to his wife when he was wheeled into a courtroom. A third was stitched up after being attacked by a security dog.
Then the three Palestinians were returned to their Israeli interrogators. They had been swept up in a sprawling manhunt launched after a roadside bomb killed a 17-year-old Israeli girl and wounded her father and brother as they hiked down to a spring last August in the occupied West Bank.
The attack raised fears of a sophisticated militant cell that might strike again, and Israeli interrogators appear to have treated it as a ticking time-bomb scenario.
Lawyers and family members of the three main suspects say they were tortured to the point of being hospitalized. Several other Palestinians swept up by Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency say they were threatened, beaten, forced into painful stress positions and denied sleep.
The allegations against Israel are the most serious to come to light in years, and rights groups say they point to a loosening of constraints after the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed most forms of torture in a landmark 1999 ruling.
The law allows interrogators to defend the use of force when there is fear of an imminent attack. Rights groups say interrogators routinely exploit the loophole, knowing they will face few consequences, if any.
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel says more than 1,200 complaints against the Shin Bet have been filed since 2001, without a single case going to trial. Only one criminal investigation has been launched, over a 2017 case involving alleged rape, and it is still open.
The allegations come at a sensitive time following the release of President Donald Trump’s Mideast initiative, which heavily favors Israel. The Palestinians have rejected the plan, and sporadic clashes have erupted across the West Bank in recent days.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which has also been accused of torturing prisoners, has responded to the plan by threatening to end its longtime security coordination with Israel. The torture allegations could add to the pressure on it to follow through.
The Shin Bet launched a massive manhunt after the Aug. 23 bombing killed 17-year-old Rina Shnerb. Such bombings have been rare in recent years.
Authorities blamed the attack on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, a leftist political party that has an armed wing. In the following weeks, security forces arrested dozens of its members — suspected militants as well as politicians and student leaders.
The Shin Bet identified 44-year-old Samer Arbeed as the bombmaker. It said Qassem Barghouti, 22, took part in the bombing and other attacks, and that Walid Hanatsheh, 51, was a senior commander in the group’s armed wing.
The Shin Bet said the interrogations helped foil attacks planned for the “near future” and led authorities to weapons caches.
The agency declined to address specific allegations of torture, saying only that “interrogations are conducted in accordance with the law and are aimed at protecting the State of Israel and its citizens from terror attacks.”
In September, days after his arrest, Arbeed was taken to a hospital in critical condition.
Sahar Francis, the head of the Palestinian Addameer rights group and a lawyer for the suspects, said Arbeed’s interrogators beat him for 36 hours, leaving him with kidney failure and 11 broken ribs. He was released from the hospital after three weeks and returned to Shin Bet custody.
The Shin Bet said at the time that Arbeed “did not feel well” during interrogation and was taken to a hospital, without elaborating. Israeli media said the Justice Ministry was investigating. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Francis said Barghouti and Hanatsheh were also severely beaten.
Hanatsheh’s wife, Bayan, said she hardly recognized him when she saw him 60 days after his arrest.
“He was brought into court in a wheelchair,” she said. “He looked very old, his beard was plucked from several places and his eyes were deep inside his head. He was not himself,” she said.
Francis shared photos of Hanatsheh she said were taken 10 days after his interrogation. They appeared to show large red bruises on his legs, feet and shoulders.
Barghouti was bitten in his genitals by a security dog when authorities raided his home near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Francis said.
“When he was brought back from the hospital for interrogation, the interrogators hit him on his wounds,” she said.
Rachel Stroumsa, the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, said the allegations are “very credible” and line up with other testimony her group has gathered.
Addameer says several other suspects were subjected to less severe forms of abuse that the human rights community widely views as torture. It said a total of around 50 Palestinians were subjected to some form of torture in the wake of the bombing.
George Abu Ghazaleh, 29, was arrested at his home on Nov. 11 and taken away in his pajamas and slippers. He said that for weeks he was isolated in a filthy cell, beaten and screamed at.
He said he was held for several hours at a time with his arms and legs cuffed to a chair in the so-called Shabach position — a practice outlawed by the Supreme Court.
He was released after 40 days without being charged.
“This kind of experience never leaves you,” he said. He describes feeling distracted much of the time and says he wakes up at night to the slightest sound outside his window.
The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, have also been accused of torturing political prisoners. Rights groups say torture is endemic in other countries in the region, such as Syria and Egypt.
In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended the Shin Bet, the army and police for apprehending the “reprehensible terrorists who murdered Rina Shnerb.”
“The long arm of Israel reaches all those who seek our lives, and it will continue to do so,” he said.
By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH and JOSEPH KRAUSS
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