Israel debates risks of investigating national security service. Critics want full inquiry, while man on street fears revelations could harm security system

The government's decision to investigate interrogation methods used by Shin Beth, Israel's secret internal security service, challenges the very foundation upon which Israel's control of the occupied territories rests, Shin Beth officers warn. The government action comes after a Supreme Court ruling last week severely criticized Shin Beth, and has sparked further debate on the risks to the nation of conducting such an investigation.

Shin Beth is the key to Israel's relatively low-cost rule over 1.3 million Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It operates an extensive network of informers throughout the territories and is often praised by senior political leaders for waging ``a silent, heroic battle against terrorism.''

The service is responsible for preventing attacks on Israelis, and its daily duties include foiling planned attacks and detecting and breaking up Palestinian guerrilla cells.

For years, Palestinian and Israeli lawyers who represent Palestinians charged with security offenses have accused Shin Beth of using illegal methods to extract confessions, particularly in dealing with Palestinians from the occupied territories. Palestinians have alleged that they are routinely beaten, made to take cold showers, made to stand for hours in the cold, and subjected to psychological torture.

Defense attorneys say their clients' allegations are bolstered by statistics showing that 98 percent of security cases tried before the military courts result in conviction and 95 percent of convictions are based on confessions. Israeli authorities have routinely dismissed the claims as fabrications, and few prisoner allegations of torture or illegal interrogation methods have been upheld by the courts.

``For years, the Shin Beth has been lying about its interrogation methods and the courts knew they were lying and have been silent,'' says lawyer Jonathan Kuttab.

But the Supreme Court's acquittal of Izat Nafsu last week on charges of espionage gave new credibility to the allegations in the eyes of the judicial system. Mr. Nafsu, a former Israeli Army lieutenant, was sent to jail 7 years ago after he was conviced of espionage and treason.

His conviction rested on a confession Nafsu maintained was falsely and illegally obtained by Shin Beth agents, who he said beat and humiliated him. The Supreme Court's ruling harshly criticized Shin Beth and paved the way for the decision this week to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry to examine the security service's methods.

The appointment of the commission seems to have thrown Shin Beth into a state approaching panic. Its usually media-shy operatives are giving off-the-record interviews to the Israeli press, saying the organization's morale has been lacerated by all the criticism. There will be dire consequences for the nation's security if Shin Beth's wings are clipped too closely by a judiciary concerned with preserving the rule of law, Shin Beth operatives say.

``No doubt there is now a problem of morale in the [Shin Beth], but the way to overcome it is via leadership, not via wailing in the press'' by lawyers and politicians on behalf of Shin Beth, wrote Nahum Barnea, editor of the Hebrew weekly Koterit Rashit, in a recent editorial on Shin Beth. ``The Shin Beth must be saved from the destruction inflicted upon it by the recent episodes, and it must primarily be saved from itself.''

But that view, expressed here by a few newspaper editorial writers, lawyers, and judges, is not the view expressed on the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. There, people worry that an investigation of Shin Beth may lead to more Israelis losing their lives in terrorist attacks.

``That is always the case in a democracy,'' said one senior Israeli legal scholar. ``There is this very thin layer of opinionmakers who prevent the discarding of the rule of law. Democracy depends on these people.''

Lawyers such as Mr. Kuttab say the inquiry will have relatively little impact on Shin Beth's functioning in the occupied territories. ``The problem will remain that the whole process of interrogation occurs in isolation from public scrutiny,'' he says. In the territories, prisoners are held incommunicado for 18 days after their arrest. The Red Cross is allowed to visit prisoners after two weeks, but not to report to anyone on their complaints, he adds.

But Israeli legal specialists say they hope the commission will call for the establishment of civilian oversight of the Shin Beth. It now reports directly to the prime minister, and there is no oversight of its activities.

``The major lesson to be learned [from the Nafsu case] is that improper methods lead to improper results,'' says Israeli civil rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman. ``There is a situation where the innocent are found guilty, where there is too much power in the hands of the people in charge, and where there is no guarantee that their power will be used simply in the way intended.''

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