For two decades, human rights lawyers struggled to publicize that thousands of Palestinians were being tortured under Israeli interrogation. Officials denied these allegations and accused the lawyers of being “terrorist sympathizers.” It was a minor vindication when, in 1987, an official commission confirmed that the General Security Services (GSS) had indeed used violence routinely since at least 1971. But the Landau Commission concluded that the use of “moderate amounts of physical pressure: was necessary and legitimate in the fight against “hostile terrorist activity.” By accepting the Commission’s recommendation, Israel became the first state publicly to condone interrogation tactics that constitute torture according to international law.

Lea Tsemel and other lawyers formed the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) in 1990, and along with other human rights organizations mounted a litigatory campaign in the Israeli Supreme Court to enforce the international legal prohibition of torture, but to little avail. [1] Thus, the September 6, 1999, ruling forbidding shabeh, [2] “shaking” [3] and other forms of violence was a surprise and relief. But Chief Justice Aharon Barak expressed the court’s ambivalence: “Our apprehension that this decision will hamper the ability properly to deal with terrorists and terrorism disturbs us.” The court suggested that the government pass legislation to override the decision. And so the struggle will continue.

Abu Jerry is the alias of the Israeli GSS official who oversees interrogations and torture of Palestinian detainees.

— Lisa Hajjar

So what was it like, that moment at 10 AM when you turned off the deafening music, removed the sacks from all those bowed heads, unlocked the handcuffs, releasing the swollen wrists and lifted dozens of distorted bodies from those awkward stools? How was it when you detached the chains hanging from the ceiling and allowed the painfully stretched bodies to collapse and relax? Did you abruptly stop the “shaking,” or did you carry out one last round for old time’s sake? Did your boot complete its kicking of an exposed belly, or did you hold back?

The decision was as surprising to me as it was to you. We sat there incredulous in the Supreme Court as Judge Matza read out the nine judges’ unanimous decision: “We are making the order-to-show-cause final for all conditions and in all situations. Torture and any humiliating position are forbidden. Shabeh is forbidden. The frog position is forbidden. The sack on the head is forbidden. Forbidden. Forbidden. Forbidden.” To my ears, the decision as exquisite music: the Supreme Court had at least issued the correct, perfect and obvious decision…. Every argument we had researched, every claim we had brought over the years, fell naturally into place with this decision.

I looked over at you sitting there, pale and abandoned, a man whose world had collapsed in an instant. When you came out into the hallway, it was not with your usual self-assured and cocky gait. We both remembered all those cases, when you explained that “it’s not exactly torture,” and “for the security of the state,” and moreover, “secret material” and “with good intentions. “Remember all those times when you tried to persuade me, as the world convinced Little Red Riding Hood, that the deafening music is simple to that the detainee cannot communicate with others, and the stinking sack is only so he will not see, and the chains are only so that he cannot move, and the beatings are only so that he does not riot, and the bruises are from falling down the stairs, and besides, he has a long record and there’s no alternative….

All of a sudden, a well-argued decision transformed 32 years of security heroism into 32 years of forbidden criminality. Being a spoiled and pampered child, you reacted spontaneously: “Fine! So we’ll give the keys to the judges and we’ll see how they carry out interrogations!” Perhaps compassion led me to tell you that “there are other dangerous places in the world where interrogators achieve breakthroughs with security offenders. You did not invent the war against terror; it is possible to attain your objectives while safeguarding the law.” I reminded you of all the cases we brought to the court where crimes, no less severe, were solved without resort to your brutal means.

But you were not convinced. Along with your “special permission,” you have not lost your grandiose self-esteem. Have you noticed how all your arguments have been turned upside down? Allow me to remind you: Until 1987, you categorically denied the existence of torture in Israel. The Palestinians and those self-hating Jews were just defaming you. When the Landau Commission illuminated the darkness of your interrogation room with its flashlight, you had to admit to employing “moderate physical pressure,” and you promised to stop lying in the courts and before the interrogation committees. As the transparency grew over the years, you admitted, little by little, that there are “special means,: even the use of “reasonable force,” and after an accident or two you even admitted to the “shaking.” And then you fired the interrogator who kicked too much. But you did not go overboard: You only sentenced the interrogator who choked a detainee to death to internal disciplinary censure. Who the hell knew that the prisoner was asthmatic? After too many on-the-job accidents, you established regulations. You asked for and received government backing, and thus began the era of bureaucratized torture.

And then, when everything was going so well, all those human rights organizations, whose heathens who deny security’s sanctity, turned their huge floodlights on your world, exposing all the bound, crawling, suspended and bent prisoners. In the glare of such total exposure, you withered like a fungus that survives only in darkness.

Now you are the one crying for help. Suddenly, generations of Shabak chiefs are shouting from the rooftops like addicts in withdrawal: “Bring us our tools! Return us to the rack and the tongs! We cannot live without them!” Aren’t you ashamed?

Relax. Hang a sign in the Shabak dining room declaring that “torture and ill-treatment are unconditionally forbidden.” Start working like any other professional secret service interrogator. So what if you have to employ your intellect during interrogations? Remember how you managed to crack the Jewish underground without ushering anyone into your torture chamber?

Think, too, of all the advantages: When Roni or Dana ask “What did you do at work today, Daddy?” you will be able to tell them about battles of wits and how you cracked the case. You’ll be able to look into their eyes without remembering how you washed blood off your hands at the sink. And when you caress your wife at night, your own words to A.K., tied and humiliated on the ground, will not echo in your ears: “Does your wife give you a blowjob? How do her breasts feel?,” as he sobs and writhes at your feet.

And think of the thousands of guards, soldiers, police officers, doctors and judges whom you made into your secret accomplices. You forced them to tie up and take down, push down and wake up, heal and prepare the thousands of detainees in every last one of your institutions. They are free of you today.

Finally, you will not be free of those looks. You cannot forget all those brown eyes, begging for mercy, crying with pain, those eyes that said, “We will do whatever you want, confess to whatever you say!” You cannot forget how, at a certain moment, those eyes conveyed a different message: a promise of revenge. How many times did a quick shiver of apprehension shoot through you when those eyes warned that this humiliation and pain, never to be forgotten, would one day blow up in your face? And you knew, deep inside, that the next bomb would be one you had created with your own bloodied hands.


[1] See The Case Against Torture in Israel: A Compilation of Petitions, Briefs and Other Documents Submitted to the Israeli High Court of Justice (PCATI, 1999).

[2] Shabeh is a combination of tactics to cause pain and sleep deprivation: the detainee is shackled to a low, slanted chair, his hands and feet are stretched behind and bound by tight cuffs, his head is hooded with a cloth sack, and he is exposed to constant, loud music. People were sometimes held in shabeh for days or weeks at a time.

[3] “Shaking” is a tactic in which the interrogator grasps the detainee by the chest or collar to produce a violent motion, which causes a whiplash effect with the head and neck.

How to cite this article:

Lea Tsemel "An Open Letter to Abu Jerry," Middle East Report 213 (Winter 1999).

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