Israel-Palestine: News

International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

26 June 2024

On 26 June each year, the United Nations (UN) marks the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, commemorating the day on which the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment entered into force in 1987.  

Reported practices 

The arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment of Palestinians in Israeli detention is a longstanding issue of concern that has been documented from the first decades of the occupation. Since the outbreak of the hostilities in Israel and Gaza on 7 October 2023, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of arrests of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as reports of systematic torture in Israeli facilities. Detainees are denied basic due process guarantees and contact with the outside world; this lack of oversight creates an environment of secrecy and impunity that is conducive to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.  

According to numbers obtained by the human rights organisation HaMoked, as of 2 June 2024 the Israel Prison Service (IPS) is detaining 9,112 Palestinians, more than one third of whom are being held in administrative detention – without charge or trial – while 899 Palestinians from Gaza are being held pursuant to the so-called ‘Unlawful Combatants Law’. It is estimated that over the last few months, thousands of other Gazans have been detained by the Israeli military in three locations – the military-base-turned-detention-camp Sde Teiman in the Naqab/Negev, as well as Ofer prison and the Anatot military base in the West Bank – where severe abuse by Israeli soldiers and medical practitioners has been reported. In January 2024, +972 Magazine reported that in military detention, 

Israeli soldiers subjected Palestinian detainees to electric shocks, burned their skin with lighters, spat in their mouths, and deprived them of sleep, food, and access to bathrooms until they defecated on themselves. Many were tied to a fence for hours, handcuffed, and blindfolded for most of the day. Some testified to having been beaten all over their bodies and having cigarettes extinguished on their necks or backs.  

A CNN report, published last month, indicated that in Sde Teiman, ‘wounded detainees are strapped to their beds, wearing diapersand fed through straws’. An Israeli doctor who used to work at the site called the amputation of limbs a ‘routine event’ from injuries sustained due to long periods of handcuffing. One Gazan, a nurse who was detained at Sde Teiman, told the New York Times that he was subjected to electric shocks and that ‘a female officer … ordered two soldiers to lift him up and press his rectum against a metal stick that was fixed to the ground’. In a report presented to the Human Rights Council this month, the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel concluded that ‘specific forms of [sexual and gender-based crimes] are part of [the] operating procedures’ of Israeli forces, including during arrest. More than 40 Palestinians from Gaza have reportedly died in Israeli detention, most of them at Sde Teiman. Several detainees from the West Bank have also reportedly died in custody.   

The prohibition of torture in international law  

Israel is bound by international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Both branches of law absolutely prohibit torture and other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment as well as outrages upon personal dignity; such practices can never be justified. As an occupying power, Israel is obliged to accord humane treatment to Palestinians under all circumstances; collective punishment – for example, as revenge for the 7 October attacks by Hamas and other armed groups from Gaza – is prohibited. Israel is also a party to the Convention against Torture, which specifies that ‘[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture’. In addition, the Convention mandates that States ‘take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under [their] jurisdiction’.  

Torture, cruel, and inhuman treatment is a war crime in both international and non-international armed conflict and, if ‘committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population’, a crime against humanity giving rise to individual criminal liability for alleged perpetrators.  

Israel must promptly and thoroughly investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees, including medical neglect and deaths in detention, and allow access to international oversight mechanisms as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It should also consider revoking its reservations to Articles 20 and 30 of the Convention against Torture, which provide for review of State parties’ compliance by the Committee against Torture and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), respectively. While such reservations are not explicitly prohibited by international law, they contravene the spirit of the Convention to render torture a matter of international concern and ‘to make more effective the struggle against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment throughout the world’.  

The prohibition of torture is also recognised as a peremptory norm of general international law binding upon all States. This means that legal consequences follow from any alleged transgressions not just for Israel – the State that is the alleged author of the breach – but also for third States. Pursuant to the law of State responsibility, the obligations of third States are engaged in case of serious breaches of peremptory norms – which are defined as ‘a gross or systematic failure’ by a State to respect the obligation in question. Given the multiplicity of reports attesting to systematic torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees, this threshold appears to be fulfilled. Consequently, third States are obliged not to recognise as lawful a situation resulting from the serious breach; not to render any aid or assistance in its maintenance; and to employ all lawful means to bring the serious breach to an end. The 174 States that are party to the Convention against Torture further have an obligation to arrest or extradite alleged perpetrators who step onto their territory.  

The prohibition against torture also gives rise to erga omnes (partes) obligations – which are owed to the international community as a whole, viz., all State parties to the Convention against Torture. That is because in light of the fundamental values protected by the prohibition, all States are deemed to have a legal interest in universal compliance. Consequently, these States are entitled to invoke Israel’s responsibility for any alleged violations, and to demand their cessation well as reparation on behalf of the victims of the violations.  

Torture is outlawed in all circumstances because it contravenes fundamental notions of human dignity. It leaves a permanent mark on those who have been subjected to it, and on their communities. One survivor notably wrote that ‘[w]hoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world’.  

COVER PHOTO: Israeli army releases some Palestinians detained in Gaza. Palestinian detainees are viewed after they have been released by Israeli army, in Deir Al Balah, Gaza on June 20, 2024. The Israeli army released a number of Palestinians detained during its attacks against the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians who were released east of the city in the central Gaza Strip were seen to be weakened and had scars on their bodies. Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency, Deir al-Balah, Gaza, 20 June 2024. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

In-text photo: Leaked photograph of detainees at Sde Teiman. photograph in the public domain/obtained by CNN.