Torture in Israel

Letter to the BMJ

Derek Summerfield 

Principal psychiatrist Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, London NW3 3EJ

EDITOR,--Jon Immanuel may not have intended to be an apologist for torture in Israel, but his review does insufficient justice to the stark material gathered by Human Rights Watch and other bodies.1 Over 100000 Palestinians have been arrested since 1987, thousands of whomentered the closed world of Israeli interrogation centres. Amnesty International concurs with Human Rights Watch that torture is institutionalised during interrogation and 90% of convictions in military courts are based on a "confession" alone. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only organisation with official access to prisoners, normally does not issue statements but made a rare exception in 1992, prompted by continuing serious abuses. Forensic pathologists from Physicians for Human Rights (USA) travelled to Israel on 10 occasions between 1988 and 1992 to participate in necropsies of Palestinian detainees who had died in circumstances implicating their interrogators or other officials.2 My own professional contact with Gaza showed that it was easy to encounter men, including health workers, with credible personal testimony to torture.3

Since 1988 there has been only one case in which interrogators were jailed for serious abuse of a detainee, and Human Rights Watch concludes that official policy has been to permit the security services to operate with impunity. An important aspect of what Human Rights Watch calls the "bureaucratisation" of torture has been the way the medical profession has been drawn in. Human Rights Watch notes that Israeli prison doctors have consistently violated the ethics of their profession by primarily serving the interests of the interrogators, a charge comparable to those levelled at doctors in South Africa after the internationally famous Biko case in 1977. In 1993 the existence of a "medical fitness for interrogation" form was uncovered; doctors who completed such forms could not credibly claim to have no idea that they were certifying detainees to undergo some degree of abuse amounting to torture.

Last November the Israeli cabinet was reported to have eased "restrictions" on the use of physical force during interrogations to improve their efficiency. The international medical community is in aposition to add its condemnation to that of bodies like the Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights, which is also highlighting the continuing ethical challenge facing army doctors. Torture will continue to be an enemy of Israel's longer term interests and security. And what of the rights of victims, which include the fullest possible acknowledgement of what has been done to them? In South Africa this question is being addressed through a Truth Commission as a contribution to the making of a just peace. Is there a lesson here?


  1. Immanuel J. Torture and ill-treatment: Israel's interrogation of Palestinians from the occupied territories [book review]. BMJ 1995;310:339. (4 February.) [Free Full Text]
  2. Physicians for Human Rights. Human rights on hold: a report on emergency measures and access to health care in the occupied territories 1990-1992. Boston: Physicians for Human Rights, 1993.
  3. Summerfield D. Health and human rights in Gaza. BMJ 1993;306:1416.

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