RAMALLAH, West Bank
One of the men was hospitalized with kidney failure and 11 broken ribs. Another was nearly unrecognizable to his wife when he was wheeled into a courtroom. A third was stitched up after being attacked by a security dog.
Then the three Palestinians were returned to their Israeli interrogators. They had been swept up in a sprawling manhunt launched after a roadside bomb killed a 17-year-old Israeli girl and wounded her father and brother as they hiked down to a spring last August in the occupied West Bank.
The attack raised fears of a sophisticated militant cell that might strike again, and Israeli interrogators appear to have treated it as a ticking time-bomb scenario. Israeli and Palestinian rights groups say there is strong evidence that they tortured several detainees in violation of Israeli and international law.
The allegations against Israel are the most serious to come to light in years, and the rights groups say they point to a loosening of constraints two decades after the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed most forms of torture.
Lawyers and family members of the three main suspects say they were tortured to the point of being hospitalized. Several other Palestinians swept up by Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency say they were threatened, beaten, forced into painful stress positions and denied sleep.
A landmark 1999 Israeli Supreme Court ruling forbids such torture. But the law allows interrogators to defend the use of force when there is fear of an imminent attack.
Rights groups say interrogators routinely make use of the loophole, knowing they will face few consequences, if any.
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel says more than 1,200 complaints against the Shin Bet have been filed since 2001, without a single case going to trial. Only one criminal investigation has been launched, over a 2017 case involving alleged rape, and it is still open.
The allegations come at a sensitive time following the release of President Donald Trump’s Mideast initiative, which heavily favors Israel and would allow it to annex large parts of the West Bank. The Palestinians have rejected the plan, and sporadic clashes have erupted across the West Bank in recent days.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which has also been accused of torturing prisoners, has responded to the plan by threatening to end its longtime security coordination with Israel, which many Palestinians view as an extension of the occupation. The latest torture allegations could add to the mounting pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to follow through on those threats.
A FRENZIED MANHUNT
The Shin Bet launched a massive manhunt after the Aug. 23 bombing killed 17-year-old Rina Shnerb and seriously wounded her father and older brother. Such bombings, a hallmark of the 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising, have been rare in recent years.
Authorities blamed the attack on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, a leftist political party that has an armed wing. In the following weeks, security forces arrested dozens of its members — suspected militants as well as politicians and student leaders.
The 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military rule, and detainees can be held for months or years without charge under a practice known as administrative detention. Israel says such measures are needed to prevent attacks without disclosing sensitive intelligence.
The Shin Bet identified 44-year-old Samer Arbeed as the mastermind of the attack and the bombmaker. It said Qassem Barghouti, 22, took part in the bombing and other attacks, and that Walid Hanatsheh, 51, was a senior commander in the group’s armed wing.
The Shin Bet, also known as the Israeli Security Agency, said the interrogations helped foil attacks planned for the “near future” and led authorities to several weapons caches.
The agency declined to address specific allegations of torture, saying only that “interrogations are conducted in accordance with the law and are aimed at protecting the State of Israel and its citizens from terror attacks.”