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Jerusalem, September 10, 1999

The Agenda of Violence: Torture, Terrorism, and Prisoners

By Dr. Hanan Ashrawi


Hardly a day passes in this turbulent part of the world without at least one incident of violence.

Only those of a dramatic nature receive attention in the form of headlines or images, while other forms of "silent" violence proceed almost unnoticed except by the victims.

Generally, the label of "terrorism" is used for any act committed by Palestinians against Israelis.

When the situation is reversed and Israelis (whether settlers or soldiers) commit acts of violence against Palestinians, these are described as isolated or unfortunate occurrences, usually attributed to "unbalanced" or "deranged" individuals or as part of the inevitable "security" measures of the occupation.

The fact of the military occupation itself as a most pervasive form of violence and provocation is often neglected.

Regardless of the nationality of perpetrator and victim alike, and despite the asymmetry of power and disparity of conditions, it is essential that violence not be viewed as "a fact of life" or that a sense of collective desensitization be allowed to prevail.

Violence is not inevitable-particularly that which targets the innocent.

Whether to make a political statement or to perpetuate a coercive system of subjugation and control, deliberate violence must be seen for what it is, and must not be incorporated or "normalized" within the collective ethos of the peoples of the region.

The choice for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and to the painful legacy of injustice has been made; as such the violent option has been discounted on political, legal, and moral grounds.

The Israeli High Court ruling on September 6, which outlaws the use of torture in interrogating Palestinian prisoners, is a welcome rectification of a long-standing policy that has legislated for torture and normalized it within the Israeli security and penal systems.

Such a judgment is not a "concession" to the Palestinians-thousands of whom have been victims of such a repugnant policy, suffering permanent and other serious physical and psychological damage as a result.

Such practices have also led to the unlawful conviction and incarceration of thousands whose confessions were extracted under such conditions of torture.

The Court's ruling is a badly needed reversal of a "sin of commission" that has long tarnished Israel's image worldwide as the only country that has legalized torture.

The systematic and "legal" use of torture has also struck at the core of Israeli "democracy" as a selective and discriminatory policy that deliberately dehumanizes Palestinians and violates their most basic rights.

To complete the redemptive process, Israel must follow up with a public and unequivocal apology to its Palestinian victims for all its past violations, including the systematic use of torture.

The issuing of clear regulations and instructions to interrogators and the General Security System as a whole, as well as direct monitoring of their methods must be put into effect immediately.

It is also essential that a process of "rehabilitation" be instituted for the torturers, and an immediate change of personnel take place to ensure compliance with the new regulations rather than resorting to old habits of torture and ill treatment.

Members of the Israeli medical profession who had collaborated with the GSS as part of the cover-up on torture and who violated the medical code of ethics (particularly the Tokyo Convention which prohibits the participation of members of the medical profession from taking part in torturing prisoners) must be subjected to a full investigation by the ethics committee of their profession. Appropriate measures have to be taken to punish the guilty and to prevent the continuation of such a sinister partnership.

A complete judicial review must take place to put an end to the unlawful incarceration of Palestinian prisoners whose conviction was due to confessions extracted under torture as a form of illegal self-incrimination under duress.

Israel must also accept liability for all cases of false imprisonment and/or conviction, and must be willing to pay appropriate compensation.

A transparent system must be instituted with international observers to ensure compliance with internationally recognized standards of human rights.

The public debate in the wake of the High Court's ruling is a clear indication of the extent of the distortion that the "legal" and habitual use of torture has inflicted on the moral code within Israel.

GSS officials, right wing parties (including Likud), and the Israeli government's legal adviser Eliakim Rubinstein have all decried the Court's decision, and have begun to look into alternative wording for a new legislation to permit torture under a new and improved semantic guise.

No amount of "security" rationalization can justify such flagrant abuses of human rights or the institutionalization of racism. Subjectivity and selectivity are in direct contradiction with the universality of human rights and with the norms that govern the behavior of civilized nations.

A serious review should also be instituted to put an end to all "administrative" collective punitive measures including administrative detention without evidence or trial, house demolitions, confiscation of ID's, and territorial siege.

Within the context of the peace process also, all opposition Palestinian political parties and factions must come to the effective realization that a historical decision has been made for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

As a democratic decision of the majority, such a commitment must be honored despite the prevailing differences pertaining to the conduct of negotiations.

The right to dissent by peaceful means, and the right to political struggle and persuasion must be maintained and protected as part of the pluralistic fabric of Palestinian society within a legal system that also guarantees freedom of thought and expression.

If they haven't done so already, Palestinian opposition factions and movements have to come to the conclusion that violence against civilians not only weakens their case and their support among the Palestinian public.

It also undermines the national agenda and global standing of the Palestinian cause as a whole.

Such an instrument is not only counterproductive; it is also self-destructive.

More effective and persuasive alternatives are available as the appropriate and universally condoned means of political action and activism.

Domestic, regional, and global realities must converge on the issue of peaceful means of conflict resolution, providing accountability for the strong and protection for the weak thereby rendering the resort to violence irrelevant and inadmissible both as a means of redress or of coercion.

A code of conduct must be in force throughout the process to prevent provocation, victimization, or any other form of conduct that violates the essence and ethical standards of conflict resolution. This includes banning the exercise of force by the powerful and the exploitation of the vulnerability of the weak, both of which end up in the victimization of the innocent.

The predictable use of disruptive tactics by extremists or anti-peace forces must not be countered with knee-jerk reactions in the form of collective punishments or racist labeling or distorting the process and its substance.

Holding the process and its objective hostage to such actions would be a fulfillment of the agenda of violence.

At stake is the logic and legitimacy of non-violent conflict resolution and its efficacy.

At stake also are the lives and the security of both peoples.

The competition between the two logics (of peace and conflict) cannot be resolved by employing the instruments of the latter to bring about the oxymoron of a forced resolution.

The resolution itself must embody its own concept of reconciliation and can be achieved only by those mechanisms which are consistent with its principles and objectives.

Peace making cannot be construed as an abstract exercise totally detached form patterns of behavior and their impact on actual reality.

Many cease fires, truce agreements, and even surrender pacts have been signed. These must not be confused with peace accords that are the only means of mutual empowerment and genuine recognition on the basis of parity.

The former are temporary and the latter can claim legitimacy and longevity as effective solutions to all causes of conflict.

In this context also, the issue of Palestinian political prisoners must be addressed with candor and honesty.

Even prior to the launching of the Madrid peace process, the issue of human rights and Palestinian political prisoners was addressed as one of urgency and political as well as moral significance.

In spite of all attempts and promises, Israel continued to treat the prisoner issue as a bargaining chip in negotiations and no genuine attempts were made to close such a painful chapter.

Although prisoner exchanges are customary with the end of hostilities in all situations of conflict, no such "exchange" is possible in this case. Since the Palestinian side does not hold any Israeli prisoners and did not occupy any of Israel's land (while the reverse is true), it is Israel who must release the political prisoners it is holding as part of the legacy of the occupation-resistance equation.

Rather than imprisoning or asking for the punishment of Israelis with Palestinian "blood on their hands" (including Sharon and Barak), the Palestinian side is negotiating with them.

Palestinian resistance prisoners had complied with the instructions of their leadership that has now become part of the peace partnership.

The prisoner release issue has already been subject to prolonged and manipulative talks and maneuvers that have contributed to loss of confidence in the peace process and soured relations.

Netanyahu's cynical move to release criminals instead of political prisoners came as a clear proof of ill will and bad faith.

Barak's agreement to release 350 prisoners as part of the Wye 2 (Sharm el-Sheikh) memorandum came as a result of painful haggling, severe reductions, and discriminatory criteria.

While all Palestinians rejoice at the release of each and every political prisoner, both the numbers and conditions have caused serious disappointment.

Palestinian prisoners from Jerusalem must be treated like the rest of their compatriots. They are not Israelis, but were part of the same struggle. To refuse their release is not only an expression of piercing cruelty, but also a willful imposition of a political agenda on a singularly human issue.

Israel is attempting to extract Jerusalem, both the land and the people, from the heart of Palestinian reality, conceptually and territorially. Its refusal to release Jerusalemite prisoners is a coercive tactic in the service of an illegal political agenda leading to the commission of multiple injustices at the human level.

Prisoners from pre-1948 Palestine, now Israel, were also part of a national struggle. Their Israeli citizenship has never negated their national identity or their commitment to the Palestinian cause. Their release would also have a positive impact on the Palestinian population within Israel. They too are significant forces for peace.

Nor must political or factional affiliation be adopted as a gauge for the release of prisoners. Political pluralism is an essential component of democracy, as is the right to dissent. Discrimination on the basis of political allegiance would deepen the sense of injustice and exclusion among the opposition and create further rifts within the Palestinian body politic.

If a "culture of peace" is prevail over the agenda of violence, then it must be seen to work-to succeed as an operative principle with human substance.

The integrated and comprehensive approach, with an internal cohesive logic, is the only successful peace-making mode.

The constituency for peace is formed incrementally, systematically, and consistently.

It is this constituency that will make peace a sustainable endeavor and translate it into tangible realities rather than sporadic attempts marked by recurrent breakdowns and crises. 



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