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News Analysis: U.N. Charges of Israeli Torture Spur Debate over Painful Issues

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Israel, more than many nations, has grappled to find a balance between its security needs and the protection of human rights and democratic principles.

The state’s judicial and law-enforcement establishments believed they had more or less come to grips with that balance in a complex codification of rules governing the interrogation of prisoners.

But the world in recent days has judged that balance wanting. And that has prompted painful questions about Israel’s use of force on detainees and whether it is morally justifiable in the face of the ever-present threat of terrorism.

Last week, in an unusual hearing in Geneva, the United Nations Committee Against Torture accused the Jewish state of violating the international convention against torture.

The Israelis responded with a categorical condemnation of torture and a vigorous denial that they practice it.

They nonetheless argued that the state must take extraordinary measures to combat the extraordinary terrorist threat to innocent lives.

They said that information obtained during interrogations by the Shin Bet, the domestic security service, had thwarted 90 planned terrorist attacks during the past two years.

And they emphasized that the “moderate physical pressure” applied during interrogations is carefully regulated and does not constitute torture.

The committee has charged that Israel employs tactics such as shaking and sleep deprivation to elicit information.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which took effect in 1987 and which Israel signed in 1991, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” to obtain information.

It also prohibits countries from claiming that there are “exceptional circumstances” that permit the use of torture.

For their part, Israeli human rights groups say that force is not restricted to extreme cases and violence during interrogations is common.

The Geneva hearing drew an enormous amount of media coverage and criticism from some of Israel’s most steadfast friends.

The New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal wrote: “Torture is wrong and unacceptable, any place, any time. Friends of Israel understand the terrorist danger in which it lives perpetually. They know that torture of Arabs by Arab governments is unspeakably worse. For these regimes, it is routine, always was.

“But Israel is different. Using torture demeans its most important asset next to its defense force — civilized democratic decency.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, was as unequivocal as Rosenthal.

“Coming out of the Shoah,” he said, referring to the Holocaust, the “conscience of the Jewish people” had been very clear that “torture is excluded under all circumstances.”

Jerusalem, meanwhile, has charged that it is once again being singled out unfairly and hypocritically by an international body predisposed to judge it ill and by armchair ethicists who have the luxury of distance from the constant terrorist danger.

Some analysts and religious thinkers both inside Israel and out, meanwhile, reject the absolutism of Rosenthal and Waskow and defend Israel, at the same time conceding its profound dilemma.

They say that security forces are faced with terrible calculations of whether to inflict pressure and pain on a few when faced with what many call a “ticking bomb,” the prospect of mortal harm to countless innocents.

And some say that the response has been the most moral possible. They point to a system in which security officials are held accountable to the courts and detainees have legal recourse.

“Everyone understands the use of force can be highly corrupting, morally, for a civil society, but there is no alternative” when terrorism threatens a nation’s existence, said Yossi Alpher. He is the director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee, a human-rights group.

Stressing that he was speaking as an individual, he said he was repeating comments that he made at an AJCommittee meeting over the weekend in Washington in response to a speaker’s criticism of Israeli practices.

What is unique is that “Israel decided, a few years ago, not to sweep this under the carpet and deny it, but to find a way judicially to regulate it and control it.”

Alpher was referring to the Landau Commission, which in 1987 was appointed to investigate torture practices by the Shin Bet.

The commission found that the use of torture had been routine, but practiced covertly.

The commission then spelled out parameters for applying “a moderate measure of physical pressure” in interrogations in certain instances.

The commission’s rules, the details of which are classified, are what now guide the security establishment.

For Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at the University of Judaism in California, Israel’s challenge is to find the middle ground between the ideal of “not coercing people and being secure in the real world.

“You can’t have both at the same time. You have to compromise on both and where do you draw the line?”

The Landau Commission is “a fairly reasonable attempt to draw that line,” said Dorff, the vice chairman of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards.

Being a Jewish state, he said, means “doing its best to translate ideals into reality, and that most often means compromise.”

For Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and a supporter of Israeli human rights groups, the balance between the ideal and the actual is painfully difficult.

“You have to weigh the obligation to protect civil rights with pikuach nefesh, the obligation to protect and save lives,” he said, adding that this is “a profound moral conflict.”

“We have to demand Israel do its best to live up to ideal standards while being sensitive to the very real dilemma it faces as a nation” under siege.

But it is more black and white for Joshua Muravchik, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has written extensively on human rights and democracy as well as on the Middle East.

“I don’t think there is such a big moral dilemma here,” he said. “Every single government that’s engaged in a dirty war, irregular warfare, crosses these lines.

“If you have people in your possession engaged in planting bombs in buses, you’re morally justified to do almost anything you can to get the information.”

On the other hand, he said, if “Israeli officialdom has a jaded attitude” toward young Palestinian men, and routinely treats them as potential terrorists, “this is wrong and impossible to defend.”

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