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Inside Shin Bet

An investigation into the methods used by Israel's controversial internal security service.

Last Modified: 24 Oct 2013 09:10
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Filmmaker: Essam Billan

Israel's internal security service, Shin Bet, or Shabak as it is known in both Hebrew and Arabic, is one of the three branches of the Israeli General Security Service (GSS).

Through personal accounts - from two former Shin Bet detainees, a former agency officer, Palestinian-Israeli lawyers and Israeli legal experts and politicians - Al Jazeera World examines the controversial organisation's methods, powers and history.  

Personal accounts

Former detainee - Shireen Essawi

 

In 2010, Shireen was stopped at a checkpoint in Jerusalem and asked for her ID.

"I gave the Israeli soldier my ID. He said that I couldn't pass and have to take a detour. I asked for directions. He screamed suddenly and told me I was under arrest for three hours. 

They put me inside a small room near the checkpoint with large windows. Later a jeep came and they transferred me to a Jabal al-Mukaber police station. Someone identified himself as an officer. He didn't mention his name. No charges were mentioned. Only that I’ll be transferred to Talpiot police station.

In Talpiot they interrogated me and accused me of owning a knife, which I didn't. I was under arrest for 24 hours and would be transferred to Maskobiyeh Detention Center. They handcuffed and blindfolded me. Later on, I realised I was in an interrogation room. They removed the blindfold.

An interrogator said: 'Welcome, we’ve been expecting you for a long time.'

They confined me in a cell. Soldiers came later and told me I’m going to court which was comforting. I knew if I meet a judge I will be released. I did nothing wrong. They took me blindfolded through long corridors. I heard Palestinian detainees calling upon me to remain strong. I was confused. What do they mean? Was I not leaving?

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I was alone in the cell, which I believe was underground. I had to go down a very long staircase to reach it. It was very small to fit a person. It had a pit-toilet and a sleeping mat. The smell was horrible. The walls were grey and made out of pointed stones. I hurt myself several times trying to support my back or head.

The orange lights were kept lit all day. The AC was mostly on with full power. I felt like I was in a fridge. My whole body turned blue from the excess chill. 

The iron door had a small slot they used to talk to me. They switched me between two cells. I knew that because the door location changed. Sometimes they'd get me to a new cell with the lights off. I couldn't even see my own hand there. So, when I approached the door or the pit-toilet, I end up hitting the wall. Only then did I know they switched the cell.

They made my meetings with the lawyer difficult. They'd make him wait for hours falsely claiming I'm being interrogated. Other times they claimed I refused to meet him without informing me. They left me alone while the lawyer was waiting elsewhere.

They hit me, tied my hands and legs and blindfolded me, repeatedly dragging me on the floor and slamming me against the wall.

Shireen Essawi

They'd intentionally sit very close to me. They almost stick their mouth to my ear and shout loud. One day the interrogator unchained me and approached. His face was almost glued to mine. I asked him to give me my space. But he told me: 'We're the ones who decide here. You have no personal space. Who do you think you are?'

I pushed him away. Other interrogators rushed in and started shouting. They hit me, tied my hands and legs and blindfolded me, repeatedly dragging me on the floor and slamming me against the wall. They chained me with a leash and said: 'I dealt with the likes of you before. You're rubbish. You're worthless.'

During interrogation I asked for a Quran, a book, a pen. Anything to feel alive. I said I'm on strike until I get my demands. When I finally got the chance to buy a pen, I was so happy. I felt like a kid on New Year. I started to write down everything I experienced. I wrote about finally buying a shampoo to use in my cell. I described to my mum the scarce smell of hygiene.

Being a girl in the interrogation, they know honour and reputation is something we highly value. So, they use it against us. They threatened to rape me. A colonel once came to me in the later stages and called me nasty names. He gave details on sexual positions, and that he'd bring his dog to do those things to me. As if to say we are worthless, not human. That we're worthy of dogs.

The detention with all its horrors had a positive side. It allowed me to experience things that detainees may hide.
If I go back to being a lawyer or working with children, the cases won't be rumours I merely hear about. I lived through it."


Former Shin Bet director special assistant (1996-2007) - Barak Ben-Zur

 

"Shin Bet is no different from the other security divisions in Israel. They all started as secretive organisations that preceded the state. The intelligence body of the Haganah army was the seed that created Shin Bet.

[The first prime minister] Ben Gurion was insightful. He also created both army and national intelligence services. Prior to 1957, the name Shin Bet was a taboo. Due to pressures, Ben-Gurion allowed that the Israeli parliament (Knesset) to monitor Shin Bet’s budget.

This was the first time people realised Shin Bet existed. Moving to our current times. May of 2002 was a benchmark. Shin Bet now can’t overstep the Knesset Foreign and Security Committee. The committee is capable of investigating that Shin Bet is working within legal boundaries. The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is also involved.

The government legal adviser is the entity that approves Shin Bet activities. The Political-Security Cabinet receives full reports directly from the Shin Bet director. Shin Bet top leadership, including its head, had to resign. The government legal adviser office has an authorised Inspector of Interrogee Complaints. Every detainee has the right to submit a complaint."


Lawyer - Hussein Abu Hussein

 

"Imagine a body that conducts thousands of arrests and interrogations. It’s not governed by any law or constitution. Its duties aren't limited to security suspects, but exceed that to infiltrate civil life.

In the past they monitored regular mail sent to blacklisted or political activists. Shin Bet monitored their activities and spied on their personal lives. They valued personal info and used it for blackmail during interrogations. Shin Bet enjoys a complete control over the lives of Arab citizens.

A mosque imam in a secluded Arabic village needs Shin Bet permission. They fear the imam during Friday prayer could demonise Israel by choosing Quran verses discussing Jews or Jihad. Shin Bet is involved in selecting teachers, educators and Islamic judges. Islamic courts are concerned with marriage and divorce and most importantly for Shin Bet, ‘land charity’. Land is central in the Palestinian conflict.

Fifty-five percent of Palestinian-Israeli families live below the poverty line. These are the targets of Shin Bet recruitment. Shin Bet may use temptations or threats. They offer closing criminal files in exchange of cooperation. Such policies help control the lives of Palestinian-Israelis.

It was in 2002 that they finally passed a law to define General Security Services legal status, privileges and duties. Shin Bet infringes upon basic human rights like people’s ability to express their opinions and to demonstrate. The use of torture and force contradicts any democratic system."


Former detainee - Jihad Mughrabi

 

In 2008, Jihad Mughrabi was arrested and then sent to hospital after being beaten by Shin Bet. Two hours later he was released back to officers who then beat him violently, inflicting serious head wounds. His lawyer filed a petition against the doctors who failed to report the injuries, but the complaints inspector hid both the violence and the complaint.

"The interrogators told me two Jews were killed in our area. On April 26, 2008, they came late at night and started knocking violently. They told me to evacuate the house for a search. Then asked: 'Who is Jihad?' I said it's me. 

They tied my hands and legs and blindfolded me. Forced me inside a jeep and took me to the interrogation centre. There I met an interrogator, named Victor. He said I was accused of murdering the two Jews.

They made me sit down, tied my hands behind my back. My only option was to sleep with my chest on my knees. Interrogation continued from 6am to 3am the next day. Two interrogators practiced the good-cop bad-cop routine. Starting at 6am, I was tied to a chair. Whenever I felt sleepy they threw me backwards. If I needed the toilet they delayed for two hours.They called me, my family and sisters bad names. They kept delaying food. My hair used to be long - they'd grab it and pull it harshly.

The interrogator said he wanted to surprise me. He made me look through the door keyhole. There was my mother handcuffed and asking for water.

Jihad Mughrabi

The chair is very stiff, you get sick sitting there all day. Interrogation goes on for 15 days without rest, followed by 15 days in isolation. You miss talking to anyone, even the interrogators, after isolation. It's torture both ways.

The interrogator threatened me: 'What will you tell the 'Prisoner Club Representative'? Keep it real and say you fell off the stairs? Or say that we hit you?'

I told him: 'Whatever you want.' But when I met the representative, I told her the truth. Even the judge questioned me: 'Why did you go crazy on the stairs?' I told him: 'Sir, my head isn't a rolling ball, I had ... four stitches. If it was really the stairs it wouldn't be that bad.'

In the morning they got in and attacked me instantly. Threw me on the ground, and kicked me with their boots. They didn't care where their hits landed. A doctor was called in and said I needed a hospital immediately. 

The interrogator said he wanted to surprise me. He made me look through the door keyhole. There was my mother handcuffed and asking for water. I tried to open the door, but they previously locked it. Any person wants to help their mother. I was devastated. I wanted to confess about anything, things I didn't do. But I retracted and thought to myself if I confess things I didn't do the end result would be worse. I may end up in prison for life.

After release, I was scared to even walk on the street, weary of standing with people or dealing with anybody fearing they might be Shin Bet spies. The colour of the separation wall reminds me of detention cells and interrogation rooms. It reminds me about boundaries you can't cross. In contrast, they can tread everywhere."


Executive director of the public committee against torture in Israel - Dr Ishai Menuchin

 

"The Landau Commission story is bizarre. It stated that 'moderate physical' force is allowed. Eventually all Palestinians were subject to this 'moderate physical pressure'.

In the US, a democratic country, torture isn’t allowed within the borders. They use it in Guantanamo Bay or they send detainees to be tortured in countries like Libya and Tunisia. The Israeli solution was overcoming this ban. I think this is wrong. The state claims it examines complaints on interrogations.

Since 2001, humanitarian and legal organisations sent hundreds of complaints on torture cases. None were investigated.
Many were submitted to the Inspector of Interrogee Complaints. But he’s a Shin Bet staff.

Responses always come in three forms: 'Detainee is released. Can’t locate them', which is strange; 'The complaint is false'; or the most interesting one 'We examined the issue based on the law'.

Prior to the First Intifada, the Israeli community assumed that occupation was cheap. Palestinian territories meant good shopping and nice food. Suddenly, occupation became costly. Security services believed in seizing as many Palestinians as possible and applying force in interrogation to gather info.

They use psychological torture a lot. Family for example. When a detainee refused to confess they threatened to summon in his wife and father.

Dr Ishai Menuchin

A group of activists realised the necessity to confront torture practices in Israel. Pleas were submitted to the Supreme Court. In 1999, the court issued a law banning some torture practices.

Frequently, we intend to visit detainees and find out they transferred them on the same day lawyers hit the road several times in vain. In some cases they don’t shackle wrists only, but also arms.You feel your arms are paralysed after a few hours. Jihad Mughrabi was held in a secret facility, not a prison. They hit him on the head.

After we complained, he was interrogated again and ended up in hospital. The medical report stated that a sharp object fractured his skull.

They use psychological torture a lot. Family for example. When a detainee refused to confess they threatened to summon in his wife and father.

He didn’t believe them. They summoned his family and made him listen to his wife screaming through the window. They also dressed his father in prisoner clothes. When he realised they'd hurt his family, he tried to commit suicide.

They didn't use torture under former Prime Minister Olmert. He refused to cooperate, so they found other ways to get information. This means torture isn’t the only way. Shin Bet should come up with other ways in place of torture.

Every country needs a security service. But the question remains: How do they work? The complete immunity that Shin Bet officials enjoy prompts them to do illegal things under any law."

Al Jazeera World can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Tuesday: 2000; Wednesday: 1200; Thursday: 0100; Friday: 0600; Saturday: 2000; Sunday: 1200; Monday: 0100; Tuesday: 0600. 

Watch more Al Jazeera World

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