From Guantanamo to Gaza: Israel takes a leaf out of the US torture playbook

From Guantanamo to Gaza: Israel takes a leaf out of the US torture playbook
Israel denies allegations of abuse and is trying to discredit those who raise them, writes Frank Foley. These are typical tactics of a regime of torture.
5 min read
04 Jun, 2024
The Israeli government is doing all it can to ensure that reports and concerns fade away and fail to escalate into a widely recognised torture scandal, writes Frank Foley [photo credit: Getty Images]

When the United States turned to torture after 9/11, it remained a closely guarded secret for over two years. Yet the early signs were there in public for those who knew how to interpret them.

Images were released in January 2002 of detainees in Guantanamo Bay wearing orange uniforms, manacled, masked and kneeling on the ground with heads bowed. Officials spoke of the detainees in dehumanising terms in speeches and interviews which were littered with tough talk. As one CIA official told a reporter, “After 9/11, the gloves came off.”

Two months after the Hamas attack on October 7, we saw the first images of Israeli soldiers in Gaza standing over detainees who were stripped to their underpants, bound, blindfolded and kneeling on the ground with heads bowed.

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Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, said in October, “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly,” a message which resonated with many. Employing the same dehumanising language in a documentary shown in February, an Israeli interrogator said: “Human animals. Nothing less… at first most of them deny any involvement, [but] through certain tools and methods, we manage to get the first confessions out of them.”

Over the last several months, Israel has repeatedly been accused of beating and torturing Palestinian detainees. Local and international human rights organisations have presented detailed accounts. The BBC and The New Arab have reported Palestinian testimonies that soldiers beat them with sticks, hoses, rifle butts and fists. Some said they had been beaten on their genitals or held for hours in painful stress positions.

Israeli tactics echo past torture regimes

International media have published further investigations prompting even Israel’s closest allies in the US and UK to express concern about the “very disturbing” reports.

The Israeli government is doing all it can to ensure that these reports and concerns fade away and fail to escalate into a widely recognised torture scandal.

Among war crimes, the perpetration of torture and ill-treatment attracts particular opprobrium and is prohibited in all circumstances under international law. Its use is damaging for a democracy’s standing in the world, as the US found to its cost during the 'War on Terror'.

As it seeks to avoid this reputational damage, Israel is following a playbook previously used by the US and other states in how it denies allegations of abuse and seeks to discredit its accusers. 

While US torture looms large in popular memory, the lesser-known case of Spain sheds additional light on Israel’s approach. Research and successive UN reports found a pattern of prisoner abuse by Spanish security forces at the height of their campaign against the Basque militant group, ETA, even during the 1990s and early 2000s when Spain’s democracy had consolidated.   

Images of torture and forced detention emerging from Gaza (below) are reminiscent of those from Guantanamo Bay (above) [photo credit: Petty Officer First Class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/New York Times]
Images of torture and forced detention emerging from Gaza (below) are reminiscent of those from Guantanamo Bay (above) [photo credit: Petty Officer First Class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/New York Times/Al Jazeera]

Spanish officials developed a tactic of dismissing reports of ill-treatment as terrorist propaganda, part of an ETA strategy to invent false abuse allegations “to delegitimise the Spanish judicial and political system.” Israel has taken a similar approach in recent months, rejecting allegations of ill-treatment as Hamas-inspired propaganda.

Not only denying the abuse allegations, the Spanish government also sought to discredit anyone who raised them. Responding to a Basque politician who raised reports of torture in parliament in 2003, the Interior Minister, Ángel Acebes, fumed: “these false accusations deserve the greatest personal and political contempt… they are indecent and despicable.”

Showing remarkable chutzpah, the minister was claiming in effect that the very act of raising a torture allegation against his government was itself despicable.

Israel responded with similar force to a statement from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in February, which outlined what it called “credible allegations of egregious human rights violations” against Palestinians. Israel’s mission to the UN in Geneva stated that it “forcefully rejects” what it called the “despicable and unfounded claims” made in the UN office’s statement.

Can Israel avoid the ICC?

Indeed the Israeli leadership is escalating these tactics to ever higher levels of toxicity. When the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, recently sought arrest warrants for suspected war crimes in respect of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, Netanyahu accused him of being one of “the great antisemites in modern times.”

In the covert sphere, there are reports that Israel resorted to spying, hacking and intimidation of ICC officials.

Denial of torture allegations is common and it can yield results for governments. Spanish officials maintained their denials for years, effectively brushing abuse allegations under the carpet and largely escaping international opprobrium as a result.

In the US, Bush administration officials also issued forceful denials, but by 2007-08, the mainstream of US politics began to acknowledge and criticise the government’s torture programme – a policy that remains notorious to this day.

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Two elements were crucial here: extensive investigations by national media organisations, and Congressional oversight committees that held public hearings and eventually produced independent reports which, given their institutional status, bolstered the conclusion that torture had indeed occurred. As both of these elements were missing in the Spanish case, the authorities were able to deny the allegations ad infinitum and escape censure.

In the case of Israel, some national and international media – including the BBC, New York Times and The New Arab – have published stories and conducted investigations into the allegations of abuse. However, it is very unlikely that Israeli oversight bodies will emulate the kind of work done by their equivalents in the US. The ICC is investigating suspected war crimes, including ‘cruel treatment’, but the Israeli government is doing all it can to undermine this inquiry.

It requires dogged attention from the media and serious work by oversight institutions for the truth to come out and be acknowledged. The chances of such an outcome will be slim, however, for as long as Israel rejects genuinely independent investigations into allegations of abuse against its security forces.

Dr. Frank Foley is a Senior Lecturer in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. He conducts research on counterterrorism and human rights, and is the author of Countering Terrorism in Britain and France, which is published by Cambridge University Press.

He is currently writing a book on torture in contemporary democracies, which analyses the role of torture in the US ‘Global War on Terror’, the UK’s campaign against jihadist violence, the conflict in Northern Ireland, and Spain’s fight against Basque militancy.

Follow him on X: @frankfoleyIR

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.