HUMAN rights activists are worried that Israel's anti-terrorist government interrogators will step up torture of Palestinian Islamic militants suspected of planning violent attacks on Jews.
A spate of suicide bombings by Islamic militants is posing a dilemma for Israel's General Security Service (GSS), or Shin Bet, which is unable to thwart such attacks and lacks intelligence on militant groups such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad. The GSS is in charge of counterespionage and antiguerrilla action within Israel's borders.
Hamas claimed responsibility for a bombing in Tel Aviv last month that claimed 23 lives. Jihad, a smaller and more extreme group, claimed responsibility for the bombing at the checkpoint outside the Netzarim Jewish settlement last week in Gaza that killed three Israeli soldiers.
``There is no doubt that Shin Bet [the GSS] has great difficulty in infiltrating groups like Hamas and Jihad,'' says Yizhar Beer, director of B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group set up five years ago to monitor human rights.
Mr. Beer says that keeping alive human rights values in Israel in times of crisis is an uphill battle.
``You must remember that Israelis are genuinely scared of Hamas and the Islamic fundamentalists,'' Beer says. ``Most Israelis don't understand the argument that it is important not to adopt the methods of terror in the fight against terrorism.''
An Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman, reacting to the B'Tselem report, said that the use of violence and physical pressure in dealing with prisoners was ``absolutely prohibited.'' He said that the medical condition of every prisoner is monitored before and after detentions. And places of detention are regularly inspected by a military judge.
But last week, B'Tselem issued a report in which it claimed that torture was routinely used in the interrogation of Palestinian suspects, and it appealed to the government to ban the use of all physical and psychological violence against detainees.
B'Tselem also called on the government to reduce the period of arbitrary detention without access to a judge from 18 days to 48 hours and to upgrade the inspection of detention facilities and the quality of medical attention.
Citing sworn statements from former Palestinian detainees, B'Tselem stated that common punishments included sleep and food deprivation, exposure to extreme cold and heat, prolonged enforced exercise, beatings, and bondage.
Four days before the B'Tselem report was released, Israeli newspapers reported that the government had taken wider powers to apply greater physical force in the interrogation of suspects in ``ticking bomb'' cases.
Ticking bomb is a term used to describe the interrogation of a suspect or accomplice who might know of another bomb that had not yet been detonated and could cause further loss of life.
IN 1987, the Landau Commission - an Israeli board appointed to investigate the fatal beating of two captured Palestinian suspects - recommended that the use of ``moderate physical force'' should be allowed only in the event of ticking bomb cases. The government accepted the recommendations.
But on Nov. 13, 1994, Israeli newspapers reported that the government had decided to ease the restrictions placed by the Landau Commission on the use of physical force during interrogation.
The government denied that it had relaxed the Landau restrictions, but conceded that it had made administrative arrangements that would allow the greater use of physical force in ticking bomb cases for an initial period of three months.
``The ministerial committee reached a decision intended to strengthen the GSS's ability to cope with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror wave,'' said Israeli Justice Minister David Libai. ``That decision does not deviate from the principles set by the Landau Commission.''
Beer said that B'Tselem understood the special circumstances created by suicide bombings and the ticking bomb syndrome, but added that the government already had adequate powers to deal with such situations under the law.
``The government is seeking a legal umbrella that will allow the interrogator to use his own judgment when applying torture. This is extraordinarily dangerous,'' said Beer, who served his three years' national service in the IDF as a parachutist and was involved in combat in Lebanon. ``As far as we are concerned, the bottom line is for the government to pass a law forbidding any form of torture outright.''
The B'Tselem report drew from interviews with nine prisoners and several GSS agents. Some of the prisoners had been held and interrogated but never charged.
``The repeated claim by the authorities that pressure was used... to prevent murderous attacks is a mere pretext,'' the B'Tselem report said.
``As a means of countering terrorism, the effects of torture are questionable and of short duration. It often leads to people confessing to acts they did not commit,'' said B'Tselem's Yuval Ginbar.
``It seems that the only qualities you need now to qualify as a Shin Bet interrogator is to speak Arabic and have physical strength,'' said Mr. Ginbar, who co-authored the report.
``Hundreds tortured under interrogation are released without charges - bitter, frustrated, angry, and more of a liability than when they were detained.''