Israel's Fine Line
 

May 19, 1997

Israel's Fine Line

By STEPHEN FLATOW

On Aug. 21, 1995, Suffiyan Jabarin, a 26-year-old Palestinian member of the terrorist organization Hamas, blew himself up on a bus in the heart of Jerusalem, taking the lives of four people -- three Israelis and an American -- with him.

I followed the story of the bombing on Bus 26 quite closely; my 20-year-old daughter, Alisa, had been killed by an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber on a bus in Israel four months earlier. A few days after the Aug. 21 attack, Israeli and American newspapers reported that the man who masterminded it, Abdel Nasser Issa, had been in Israeli custody two days before the bombing.

Israeli authorities had arrested Mr. Issa on suspicion of terrorist activity and questioned him the same way they would question anyone else: posing questions and waiting for answers. Mr. Issa revealed nothing unusual to his interviewers. It was only after the bus bombing that Karmi Gilon, then chief of Israel's secret service, the Shin Bet, authorized the use of ''moderate physical force.''

The next morning, Mr. Issa, who had not been told of the bombing of Bus 26 the day before, told the Israelis about his plan for that attack. He also provided information that led to the arrests of 37 Hamas militants who had been planning additional bombings.

Mr. Gilon told reporters that the blood of the next victims of terrorism would have been on his hands if physical pressure had not been used in the interrogation of Mr. Issa. And Yitzhak Rabin, then Prime Minister of Israel, said that had the Shin Bet applied such pressure earlier, the attack on Bus 26 might have been prevented.

In the last two years, the Shin Bet has averted 90 planned terrorist attacks. Yet the United Nations Committee Against Torture recently condemned Israel's methods of questioning suspected terrorists as torture, even though Israel limits and regulates the use of force and allows detainees to petition the highest court to stop possibly illegal measures.

Israel's critics claim it has flouted a 1987 convention it signed barring the use of torture. But Israeli officials note that there is a difference between torture and moderate physical pressure, which can include shaking detainees, the use of painful restraints and sleep deprivation.

I have always cherished America's unparalleled standards of individual and human rights. But the Middle East is different from the United States. Israel lives in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called ''a very tough neighborhood.'' Indeed, more than 200 Israelis have been killed in terrorist attacks during the past four years.

The most important obligation of any country is protecting the lives of its citizens. To hold individual human rights as an absolute rule when occasional exceptions to that rule can prevent the random murder of civilians seems to me morally unjustifiable. Moreover, Israel's use of limited physical pressure during interrogations, a practice that is regulated and regularly reviewed, cannot be compared with the uncontrolled torture of suspects employed by some of Israel's neighbors, like Syria. International human rights groups recently reported that 11 Palestinians have died as a result of torture in prisons run by Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

I cannot consider the individual rights of a Palestinian detainee in an Israeli jail as a separate issue from protecting the lives of bus passengers. Nor do I have the luxury of examining this question from an abstract moral perspective.

If applying limited physical pressure to a suspected terrorist can spare even one parent the pain of losing a son or a daughter, I am all for it. In the meantime, I pray that the conditions that give rise to the need for such methods will speedily come to an end.

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