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Summary Article: Shin Bet
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Israel, the counter-intelligence and internal security service. Shin Bet operates under the supervision of Israel's prime minister and a parliamentary subcommittee. One of Shin Bet's principal responsibilities is to monitor domestic right-wing fringe groups and subversive leftist movements, and to combat terrorism. The security agency's reputation suffered in the mid-1980s from revelations that it employed interrogation methods that amounted to torture. Its reputation was further damaged in 1995 when an extreme right-wing Israeli assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. The incident led to the resignation of the head of Shin Bet, Karmi Gillon; he was succeeded by Rear Admiral Ami Ayalon. In February 2000 an official report acknowledged that Shin Bet had tortured Palestinian suspects in the 1988–92 uprising.

It is believed that Shin Bet has three operational departments – the Arab Affairs Department, responsible for antiterrorist operations and for monitoring the activities of suspected Arab subversives, such as those suspected of being members of the military wing of the Islamic fundamentalist organization Hamas; the Non-Arab Affairs Department, concerned with foreign countries, including penetrating foreign intelligence services and diplomatic missions in Israel; and the Protective Security Department, responsible for protecting Israeli government buildings and embassies, defence industries, scientific installations, industrial plants, and the El Al national airline.

Shin Bet's network of agents and informers in the Israeli-occupied territories destroyed the effectiveness of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) there after 1967, forcing the PLO to withdraw to bases in Jordan. The Arab Affairs Department was reorganized and its activities stepped up during the Intifada (Palestinian uprising) of 1987–93 when Shin Bet members worked with military intelligence to identify the leaders of the uprising and recruit informers. The department's activities were further stepped up following a spate of Hamas suicide bombings in Israeli cities in 1996; a special command was set up to combat the terrorists. Shin Bet also operates in Israel's ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon, supervising the General Security Service (GSS), a Lebanese-staffed intelligence organization attached to the Israeli-backed local militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

Shin Bet's reputation as a highly efficient organization was tarnished by two scandals in the mid-1980s. In 1984, Israeli troops stormed a bus that had been hijacked by four Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Two of the hijackers survived, but were later beaten to death by Shin Bet agents. Avraham Shalom, the head of Shin Bet, falsified evidence and instructed Shin Bet witnesses to lie to investigators to cover up the agency's role. In the second scandal, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that Shin Bet had used unethical interrogation methods to obtain a man's confession and that Shin Bet officers had presented false testimony to the military tribunal that had convicted him.

A judicial commission, set up to report on Shin Bet's methods and practices, found that for the previous 17 years Shin Bet interrogators had regularly lied to the courts about their interrogation methods. The Israeli government-appointed Landau Judicial Commission condemned torture in 1987 but allowed for the use of ‘moderate physical and psychological pressure’ to secure confessions and obtain information. Israeli law prohibits torture, and the country is a signatory of the international convention against the use of torture, but Shin Bet had justified its practices – and the Supreme Court had regularly condoned them – under the ‘necessity defense’, under which security officials can say that they had to violate ordinary rules to prevent a major catastrophe. The UN Committee against Torture, a committee of international experts that reviews countries' application of the UN Convention against Torture, stated in 1997 and 1998 that Israel's interrogation methods included torture or ill-treatment that was banned by the convention.

In 1998 Israel's cabinet approved a draft bill outlining a first legal framework to scrutinize the operations of Shin Bet. A landmark hearing opened in Israel in May 1999 to decide whether the interrogation methods used on Palestinian detainees were legal. Human-rights groups submitted a petition calling for an end to such practices, which included violent shaking and sleep deprivation; they estimated that around 85% of all Palestinians detained in Israel in a given year were tortured by Shin Bet agents. The state's attorney had argued that ‘the national interest must prevail over human rights’ in the fight against terrorism. The High Court had heard numerous petitions aimed at stopping the alleged torture of individual detainees, but this hearing was the first on the overall legality of the Shin Bet interrogation practices.

The Israeli supreme court banned the security services in September 1999 from torturing suspects. The court ruling overturned a 1987 decision by a commission which permitted the use of ‘moderate physical pressure’ against suspects accused of planning attacks on Israel.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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