E, a Jewish-American youth has been living in an isolation cell since late 2015. He was 17 at the time of his arrest on still to be proven charges; was tortured, beaten, humiliated and intimidated for 21 days—with no access to an attorney or a family visit, then thrown in jail, where he celebrated his 19th birthday a few months ago, all alone. The prosecution has presented not a stitch of tangible evidence against him and on those very rare glimpses the media have had into their case during public court appearances, it appears to consist of hopelessly contradictory witness accounts and dubious confessions extracted using torture.
It’s been more than two years and seven months since the dreadful crime E. is accused of committing and the prosecution is still in the process of parading its evidence for the courts’ approval. On Monday next week, a district court will conduct the final evidentiary hearing in the case against the young man, in preparation for a trial that would likely last months and remain the focus of attention for most Israelis. The state’s witness list reportedly has more than a hundred witnesses, including dozens of law enforcement officers and clandestine agents.
Once a week, E. sees his family for half an hour behind a separation glass. A religious Jew, he is not allowed any contact with other religious prisoners, not even for Yom Kippur prayers. Two years after his month of physical, emotional and mental torture, he is still plagued by shooting pains throughout his body, and petrified by repeated PTSD episodes.
This travesty of justice, the defilement of everything we consider our most elementary civil rights in a democracy is not taking place in Tehran, Damascus, or Pyongyang, but in Ayalon prison in Ramla, Israel, a state whose claim to fame is its being “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Some of you might pass the prison as you leave Ben Gurion International Airport on your way to explore the Jewish State.
It turns out the Jewish State has a dark side which is both anti-democratic and anti-Jewish.
We should begin with a few introductory notes.
The Israel Security Agency (ISA), commonly known as Shin Bet or Shabak, is one of the secrets of how Israel has survived three Arab uprisings since the mid-1980s. It may be the most efficient and professional clandestine police in the world. Recently, it was reported that Shabak agents foiled some 400 lethal terror attempts against Israeli Jews in 2017 – that’s more than one attack a day that could blow up a bus, gun down a passing motorist, or stab a young teacher on a sidewalk. Utilizing its deep network of agents and informants in Judea, Samaria, eastern Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Arab communities inside the 1949 green line, the Shabak’s Arab Affairs Department ranks way up there, alongside the Mossad, the IAF, and the IDF special forces, as the protectors of Israel.
The Shabak also has a “Jewish Division,” a.k.a. the “Jewish Wing.” Its job is to prevent espionage and subversion in the Jewish sector. Since the 1980s, this department has been accused of being exclusively deployed against the population of Jewish settlers in the “territories.”
As Arab terrorist murders have been increasing in the 1970s and ’80s, and then doubled and tripled with the Oslo accords that installed a terrorist gang—the PLO—as the government of much of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, some Jewish settlers started to push back with isolated vigilante activities. In later years, from the same population, emerged the “Hilltop Youth,” religious-nationalist young men and women who establish outposts without government sanction in Judea and Samaria. They borrowed their names from storied warrior Gen. Ariel Sharon, who, in 1998, as defense minister, in an attempt to thwart the concessions of Prime Minister Netanyahu to the Palestinian Authority in the Wye River agreement, urged the settlers:
“Everyone that’s out there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands.”
And so, the hilltop youth have been grabbing hills ever since, and regularly getting into confrontations with government forces that come, along with their bulldozers, to take down their outposts.
In addition, around 2008, a similar youth population from the same demographic core have innovated the Tag Mechir (price tag) policy, which the NY Times in 2011 described as exacting “a price from local Palestinians or from the Israeli security forces for any action taken against their settlement enterprise,” meaning each time the government demolishes an outpost, there would be a harsh response, legal and otherwise.
Over the years, that tit-for-tat meaning of the name has been lost, becoming instead a reference to hostile acts—mostly directed at Arabs, but also against leftwing Israeli politicians and journalists—from nasty graffiti through keying Arab owned cars’ doors and puncturing Arab owned cars’ tires, to arson.
There, at the Jewish Division of the Shabak and its dubious attempts to control settlements youths, is where our story begins.
On July 31, 2015, in the village of Duma, not far from Shiloh in Samaria, the home of an Arab family was firebombed in the middle of the night, resulting in the death of an 18-months-old baby and both his parents. The immediate suspects were the Price Tag and Hilltop Youth activists, because of two Hebrew graffiti slogans that were found on the outside of the burned home, one saying, “Revenge,” adorned by a star of David; the other “Long Live King Messiah!” adorned with a sloppy drawing of a crown.
The explosion that followed the early morning arson and murders erupted throughout the Israeli society, top to bottom, from the president and the defense minister who brazenly pointed an accusing finger at “Jewish terrorists” before the first forensic investigator dropped the first bit of ash into a fresh nylon baggy; to theories about a religious underground following the teachings of a messianic Lubavitcher (which ended up as the foundation of the Shabak theory of the case); to conspiracy theories about a Shabak false flag operation gone wrong, or about the arson being part of a string of ongoing arsons in a war between two opposing families of the Duma village Dawabsheh clan.
But we will concentrate on what happened next to a young American citizen, who has been deprived of his human and civil rights without a shred of direct evidence against him.
The only discernible connection between E and the Duma arson/murder case appears to be the fact that Shabak agents at some point decided to pin it on him.
There was his father, their Samaria settlement’s rabbi, who didn’t conceal his views on Israel’s right to the liberated territories and on Jewish redemption, and there was the teenager’s association with the kids he grew up with, some of whom took part in Hilltop Youth and Price Tag activities.
Those two items were enough to count E among the dozens of young people who were rounded up by police following the Duma fire. Three of them were put in jail, dozens more were either handed orders to remain away from the “territories” or, as in E’s case, remain under house arrest.
On August 11, 2015, the home of E, then 16 and a half, was raided, and he was and placed under house arrest in his parents’ home in Samaria, a few miles from Kfar Sabba. The house arrest sentence was not for a crime he had committed, but an administrative detention, an emergency security device the State of Israel inherited from the British Mandatory Government that left the area back in 1948. And so, without a police record, he was sentenced to spend 24/7 at home, subject to frequent police inspections at any hour of the day or night, until Dec. 28, 2015. Incidentally, the Shabak also bugged the house, for good measure, but obviously heard nothing incriminating, or they surely would have announced it.
On its face, this method of rounding up as many suspects as possible on a whim and spending the next few days separating real from false candidates is part of police procedure. The difference between proper detective work and the atrocities committed by the Shabak against E was that after they realized they had absolutely nothing tangible on him, they decided to make up the difference by forcing him to confess to arson/murder.
“They picked him up from home on Wednesday Nov. 25, 2015, on a charge of assault,” E’s father told The Jewish Press, adding, “Even though he had been under house arrest for three and a half months, 24/7, inspected every day, sometimes twice a day.”
E’s father, who was born in West Hempstead, NY, and came to Israel at the tender age of five and a half, has been in parent purgatory for almost two and a half years. During this time his wife, his daughter, his sister-in-law and he have been picked up and interrogated by the Shabak. Those interrogations—without an attorney present—included intimidation, curses, threats of getting fired from their jobs, everything imaginable short of actually cuffing them and throwing them on a cold cement floor.
He says his wife’s physical condition deteriorated and she is very ill today, as a result of her treatment by the Shabak, and the torture and endless imprisonment of her son (The Jewish Press was asked by the family not to publish additional details).
They are a strong, well to do Jewish family (E has four brothers and two sisters). But since that terrifying first night in November, 2015, they have been breaking down slowly, which, we expect, is the Shabak’s plan. Economically they are burdened by legal costs and the fact that they can barely find the time or the ability to work. The extended family has been helping, and the legal aid society Honenu has been nothing short of a flock of angels, the father says, singing the praise of what he calls Israel’s last defender of democracy.
According to E’s father, when E was arraigned on Nov. 12, 2015, after being picked up on Nov. 11, a Shabak representative told District Judge Judge Erez Nurieli in open court that the charge was assault; but then the same agent allegedly communicated secretly to the judge that the young suspect was about to be tricked into exposing his connection to the Duma arson/murder case. So that when the judge remanded E, he allegedly violated the law by collaborating with law enforcement against a defendant whose rights he must protect. If that were the case, then Judge Nurieli was only the first, but certainly not the last officer of the court to have smeared himself this way.
The same Judge Nurieli also approved the Shabak’s later request, to detain E for interrogation in a Shabak facility without being allowed to see a lawyer. Every five or six days Nurieli would extend the remand, all the way up to the legal limit of 21 days.
The “trick” the Shabak allegedly got the judge to endorse is known as “targil medovevim” (operation confession). According to E’s father, this one was elaborate in the extreme.
“They turned the Underground Prisoners Museum in Akko into a fake prison, full of policemen pretending to be criminals. The fake convicts were violent, they intimidated E, pressured him, and on Saturday night of the week he was there, they staged before his eyes the stabbing of an ‘Arab’ prisoner. They told E that now that he had seen them kill another prisoner, he was in a position to snitch on them, so he had to give them something incriminating about himself, or they’d kill him,” E’ father said.
“They went out to the yard, and the stabber, who was the biggest and most violent in the bunch, grabbed him and pressured him to confess to the charges against him,” E’s father continued. “The police recordings are full of E’s crying and groaning there. The Shabak cherry-picked the parts they wanted, but our attorneys have gotten the complete recordings. You can hear how much E is suffering.”
According to his father, to save his life, E confessed to the charges against him regarding his involvement with Price Tag activities—which his family insists were entirely fabricated. But he never said a word about the Duma arson case. However, that was enough for the Shabak to start establishing the case against him.
At some point during that nightmare “confession session” recording, E is heard collapsing and weeping in the fake prison yard. According to his father, you can hear on the tape the stabber, a policeman named Kobi, saying something along the lines of, “If you applied this kind of pressure to me, I would confess to murdering Rabin.”
Armed with the “confession” tapes, the Shabak hauled E back to Judge Erez Nurieli’s court in Lod to present victoriously the proof that the accused is the Duma arsonist.
Incidentally, according to E’s father, the Shabak also picked a few cuts from the same tapes where E is heard making racial slurs against Arabs. In the context of what the rest of the fake prisoners were saying, it is quite plausible that E uttered those slurs to fit in. In any event, intentional, habitual, or spoken under duress, those taped slurs have since been allegedly used thirteen times so far by the Shabak, to show the courts why E should be remanded to his isolation cell.
Before a remand request for an accused prisoner awaiting his trial, especially a minor, Israeli law mandates that a committee run by the welfare ministry and the justice ministry, known as Sherut Hamivchan (evaluation services) must evaluate if the prisoner is a danger to himself or to others. This committee advised the court that E did not pause any danger, and that, in consideration of his PTSD, he should be kept under house arrest. They even arranged for him to stay in his grandparents’ home in Beit Shemesh, and approved ten inspectors who would share his monitoring.
But each 45-day period at the end of a remand, when the same evaluation services’ report would be entered in the protocol, E’s father said, the prosecution would give the judge “secret information”—presumably those racial slurs from fake prison—to convince him that E is, in fact, dangerous, and back to his isolation cell he went.
In fact, the prosecution eventually decided to hitch its case on a fictitious, glamorized image of E they invented, as a charismatic leader of fanatical youths, the mastermind behind the Duma village crime, who, they later would assert, controlled his own interrogation and attempted to dominate the sessions.
Back in December 2015, once the judge approved of interrogating the 16-year-old in a Shabak facility for 21 days, real hell opened its mouth and a team of ten three-headed hounds went to work on the boy.
He was moved to the Kishon facility, the “Shabak dungeons,” on Dec. 2, 2015, broken and sleep deprived, and was thrown into a tiny cell with a bare cement floor, a thin, dusty mattress (for an asthma sufferer) next to a small, stinking hole in the floor that served as his bathroom, a dim light bulb that stayed on 24 hours a day, keeping him awake, and no windows.
It’s cold, there’s no heat, he shivers all the time, he can’t sleep. Some interrogations go until 2 AM, then he falls asleep in his cell, and on occasion is awakened at 5:30 AM and dragged back to continue where he had just left off. He gets 10 minutes for a shower that consists of three thin streams of freezing water.
He is dressed in a terrorist prisoner uniform. When they take him to his interrogations he is hooded, hands and feet cuffed. Occasionally, he is smacked blindly into objects, occasionally they slap him hard on his hooded head. One such slap, he later related, continued to ring in his ears for days.
With cuffed hands and feet he endures 10-hour interrogation sessions for more than two weeks. They remove his coat and turn on the air conditioner’s winter blast. The interrogators – three to five at a time, curse him, tell him about arresting his family members, order him to imagine his small nephew being burned alive, just like the baby he burned in its sleep. They share vulgarities with him – a yeshiva student. There were also hints at how they would like to abuse him sexually.
Throughout all this, E insists on his right to remain silent and demands to see a lawyer. They tell him he’ll never see a lawyer, he is going to die there, in the Shabak dungeon, and no one will know. They tell him how much his father hates him for what he’s done to the family. They tell him his mother is going to rot in jail for his sins.
Five days before the end of the maximum period of 21 days the state can interrogate a prisoner without letting him see a lawyer, the Shabak agents realize they cannot beat this stubborn little nut using legal interrogation methods. They enlist the country’s Attorney General, the man responsible for maintaining the rule of law in the only democracy in the region. They must be allowed to torture the kid, they say, or they’ll never get a confession out of him.
At which point Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein gave permission to the Shabak to employ “exceptional measures,” which the courts have previously defined elegantly as “moderate physical pressure,” and which in reality means, beat the @#$% out of him, just don’t make us watch.
Here’s the catch, though: in all the previous supreme court permissions to apply those exceptional measures, it was conditioned on limiting it to a situation of a “ticking bomb.” Meaning that we believe the prisoner knows about a terror attack that’s going to happen soon and he can provide us with information to stop it, if only we changed his facial features so his mom won’t recognize him.
But what ticking bomb was there in the Duma case? The house already burned down, the victims were dead – and not once, not in any court appearance, not in any single argument by the prosecution that I know of, was there ever a mention of E being involved in a future, imminent terror action that security forces had to thwart at once or many would perish.
The only possible reference was a statement issued by the Shabak, which admitted the use of torture in the Duma interrogation, saying that “the purpose of the investigation being conducted currently is to expose organizing to carry out future terrorist attacks,” which has to be the most liberal interpretation of the ticking bomb concept.
Nevertheless, AG Weinstein cited the ticking bomb theory to justify putting E back in one room with his tormentors, and this time really throw away the key.
The seventh level of Hell began immediately afterwards, with the interrogators racing against time. It’s Sunday morning, and by midnight Tuesday, their Cinderella would flee from the ball.
Hands and legs cuffed, E is thrown on a short chair without back support. An interrogator pushes his chest at 45 degrees so that the exhausted youth collapses back in an arc, his head hits the floor, and for the next eight to nine hours, he is kicked and slapped, and screamed at incessantly: confess or you’ll never get out of here alive.
He weeps in pain, but his cries of anguish have no effect: his tormentors show no mercy. This goes on for three days. At one point, he confesses to everything: I did it, he screams, I did everything you’re saying I did. But when they ask him to describe in detail what he had done, he can’t. Tell me what I did and I’ll confess to it, he begs in tears, head back against the cement floor, body arched in mid air, arms and legs cuffed.
The final interrogation lasts the whole day Tuesday until he is thrown on his cell bed at 2:30 AM Thursday, unaware that legally they can no longer hurt him quite as much. They wake him up at 5:30 AM, take him back to court for a remand. They continue to interrogate him in the car on the way to court.
In court, Judge Nurieli hears his tale of horror, describing how they stretched his arms back until he lost all feeling, how he was electrocuted and was flailing on the floor – he told the judge everything.
Judge Nurieli then promptly remanded him to the custody of the Shabak.
The boy begged Judge Nurieli not to send him back. He begged him to just give him poison instead and be done with it, what did he have left to lose? After the judge sent him back, E later revealed to his lawyers, he ripped an aluminum tray and slashed both his wrists. The prosecution denied this, but E just rolled up his sleeves and exposed his cuts.
Finally, we don’t know whether E is guilty of the crime of which he is accused, planning the arson of the home in Duma village, which another defendant, Amiram Ben-Uliel, is accused of carrying out. We know it’s been two years and seven months since the event and the trial is yet to start. The prosecution’s case is based mostly on the confessions of the two defendants, and, needless to say, these confessions do not jive. The timelines are messy, it isn’t clear who did what and at what time. The witness testimonies from local Arab residents may not be submitted at all because they contradict one another. There are conflicting versions regarding the legal owner of a vehicle the defendants supposedly used, which doesn’t match Ben-Uliel’s confession that he walked to the village.
But the most crucial problem with the Duma arson/murder case is that a conviction in a case based on a confession, must offer a confession that was given willingly.
Haim Levinson, who writes about clandestine services for Ha’aretz, noted the 2011 appeal of the Arab terrorist who led the 2002 massacre at the Park hotel in Netanya. His attorney argued that while it may have been proper to use torture on his client under the ticking bomb theory, the confession he gave under torture could not by definition be used to convict him. The judge reluctantly accepted this argument and upheld his conviction based on other evidence.
Since the Shabak already admitted to torturing the two defendants, it stands to reason that defense attorneys will cite this glaring precedence to set their clients free. Israeli law has a muted version of the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, where a court should not accept evidence gathered in an illegal manner in cases where the balance of injustice is particularly high.
We will know much more after the Monday hearing, when the court finally decides whether there should be a trial at all, then set a date, and rule on which prosecution evidence may be used. But regardless of the trial and even the outcome, justice gotten through the sadistic torture of a young boy is no justice at all. As the prophet Isaiah put it:
וַיְקַו לְמִשְׁפָּט וְהִנֵּה מִשְֹפָּח לִצְדָקָה וְהִנֵּה צְעָקָה
And He looked for justice, but behold – travesty; for righteousness, but behold – a cry. (Isaiah 5:7)