'Legally-sanctioned torture': Rights groups accuse Israel of shocking abuse against Palestinian prisoners
Three Palestinians were swept up in a sprawling manhunt and have been in and out of Israeli interrogation rooms, with their legal representatives accusing the state of torture after they were hospitalised with serious injuries.
One Palestinian man has been hospitalised with kidney failure and 11 broken ribs, while another man was nearly unrecognisable to his wife when he was wheeled into a courtroom.
A third was stitched up after being attacked by a security dog.
The Shin Bet launched a massive manhunt after the 23 August bombing killed 17-year-old Rina Shnerb. Such bombings have been rare in recent years.
Authorities blamed the attack on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) . In the following weeks, security forces arrested dozens of its members - suspected militants as well as politicians and student leaders.
The Shin Bet identified 44-year-old Samer Arbeed as the bombmaker.
It said Qassem Barghouti, 22, took part in the bombing and other attacks, and that Walid Hanatsheh, 51, was a senior commander in the group's armed wing.
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The Shin Bet defended its actions and said the interrogations helped foil attacks planned for the “near future” and led authorities to weapons caches.
The agency declined to address specific allegations of torture, saying only that “interrogations are conducted in accordance with the law and are aimed at protecting the State of Israel and its citizens from terror attacks.”
Lawyers and family members of the three main suspects say they were tortured to the point of being hospitalised. Several other Palestinians swept up by Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency say they were threatened, beaten, forced into painful stress positions and denied sleep.
Amnesty International has accused Israel of engaging in 'legally sanctioned torture'
The allegations against Israel are the most serious to come to light in years, and rights groups say they point to a loosening of constraints after the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed most forms of torture in a landmark 1999 ruling.
The law allows interrogators to defend the use of force when there is fear of an imminent attack. Rights groups say interrogators routinely exploit the loophole, knowing they will face few consequences, if any, according to AP.
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel says more than 1,200 complaints against the Shin Bet have been filed since 2001, without a single case going to trial. Only one criminal investigation has been launched - over a 2017 case involving alleged rape - and is still open.
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The allegations come at a sensitive time following the release of President Donald Trump's heavily contested Middle East plan, which strongly favours Israel.
Much of the international community including human rights groups as well as Palestinians have rejected the plan.
The UN-backed Palestinian Authority, which has also been accused of torturing prisoners, has responded to the plan by threatening to end its long time security coordination with Israel. The torture allegations could add to the pressure on it to follow through.
In September, days after his arrest, Arbeed was taken to a hospital in critical condition.
Sahar Francis, the head of the Palestinian Addameer rights group and a lawyer for the suspects, said Arbeed's interrogators beat him for 36 hours, leaving him with kidney failure and 11 broken ribs. He was released from the hospital after three weeks and returned to Shin Bet custody.
The Shin Bet said at the time that Arbeed “did not feel well” during interrogation and was taken to a hospital, without elaborating. Israeli media said the justice ministry was investigating.
Francis said Barghouti and Hanatsheh were also severely beaten.
Hanatsheh's wife, Bayan, said she hardly recognised him when she saw him 60 days after his arrest.
“He was brought into court in a wheelchair," she said. “He looked very old, his beard was plucked from several places and his eyes were deep inside his head. He was not himself,” she said.
Francis shared photos of Hanatsheh she said were taken 10 days after his interrogation.
They appeared to show large red bruises on his legs, feet and shoulders.
Barghouti was bitten in his genitals by a security dog when authorities raided his home near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Francis said.
“When he was brought back from the hospital for interrogation, the interrogators hit him on his wounds,” she said.
Rachel Stroumsa, the executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, said the allegations are “very credible” and line up with other testimony her group has gathered.
Addameer says several other suspects were subjected to less severe forms of abuse that the human rights community widely views as torture. It said a total of around 50 Palestinians were subjected to some form of torture in the wake of the bombing.
George Abu Ghazaleh, 29, was arrested at his home on 11 November and taken away in his pajamas and slippers. He said that for weeks he was isolated in a filthy cell, beaten and screamed at.
He said he was held for several hours at a time with his arms and legs cuffed to a chair in the so-called Shabach position - a practice outlawed by the Supreme Court.
He was released after 40 days without being charged.
“This kind of experience never leaves you," he said. He describes feeling distracted much of the time and says he wakes up at night to the slightest sound outside his window.