How Israeli prison doctors assist in the torture of Palestinian detainees

Originally published: Mondoweiss on May 28, 2024 by Kanav Kathuria (more by Mondoweiss)  | (Posted May 30, 2024)

When chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan requested arrest warrants for Benjamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant on Monday, he remarkably chose not to include torture or sexual violence against Palestinian prisoners in his list of Israel’s ​​war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Khan’s omission of torture is exceptional. Over the past seven months, hundreds of reports, testimonies, and investigations have shed further light on Israel’s brutal torture of Palestinian detainees and prisoners held captive in Israeli occupation prisons.

As Palestinian civil society organizations such as Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, and others have extensively documented, prisoners are being viciously beaten and abused multiple times a day, caged in cells “not fit for human life,” kept blindfolded with their hands bound with plastic ties, isolated from the outside world, stripped of their clothing, collectively punished through starvation, attacked by dogs, sexually assaulted, and psychologically tortured. At least thirteen Palestinians have been martyred in prison since October 7 as a result of torture and being denied proper medical care. Countless more have been discovered in mass graves with clear evidence of having undergone torture, executions, and other crimes against humanity.

While treated as a recent or singular phenomenon by Western news outlets, as in CNN’s recent exposé on the horrors practiced at the infamous Sde Teiman detention center, Israeli torture long precedes October 7. The use of torture in Israel as a colonial tool to subjugate and exercise control over Palestinians is intertwined with its very inception as a state. As Palestinian revolutionary and literary icon Walid Daqqa wrote in 2010 from prison,

what happens in [Israeli prisons] is not just detention and isolation of a people considered to be a security risk for Israel, but is part of a general, scientifically planned and calculated scheme to remold Palestinian consciousness.

Israeli torture is thus institutionalized and systematic–carried out by the state’s vast “security” regime and sanctioned by its legal and judicial arms. On an international level, Israel’s use of torture continues unchecked despite the state being a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Yet in uncovering the labyrinth of systems, laws, institutions, and people shaping how Israel practices torture, one crucial group of perpetrators tends to evade culpability: healthcare professionals in Israeli occupation prisons and detention centers. While attention on who tortures generally falls on the interrogators of the Shin Bet (or Israel’s internal “security” agency), Israel’s carceral physicians and psychologists are deeply complicit in the torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of incarcerated Palestinians supposedly entrusted to their care.

Providing a medical ‘greenlight’ for torture

International regulations prohibiting physicians from engaging in acts of torture are absolute. For instance, the World Medical Association’s 1975 Declaration of Tokyo–an association to which the Israel Medical Association belongs–states that a physician shall not “condone or participate in the practice of torture…whatever the offense of which the victim of such procedures is suspected, accused or guilty, and whatever the victim’s beliefs or motives… including [in] armed conflict and civil strife.” The Declaration further states that “while physicians have an obligation to diagnose and treat victims of torture, they are ethically prohibited from conducting any evaluation, or providing information or treatment, that may facilitate or perpetuate the torture.” (emphasis added).

In other words: a physician can still be complicit in torture even if their participation is not direct. As medical professionals responsible for the well-being of their patients, doctors have ethical obligations to speak out and report abuse when witnessed, protect their patients, ensure the confidentiality of patients’ personal medical information, and remove themselves from any situation where torture is used or threatened.

Evidence from over the past 30 years proves that Israeli physicians routinely fail to uphold these ethical obligations and operate in violation of international law. As detailed in reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, and many, many others, Israeli medical involvement in torture is systematic–and in fact integral to Israel’s torture regime.

Medical complicity in torture occurs in a number of ways. As explicated in Addameer’s 2020 comprehensive study, Cell 26, prior to the start of a detainee’s interrogation, Israeli physicians collaborate with Shin Bet interrogators to “certify” or approve that they are “fit” to undergo torture. Throughout the duration of interrogation, a physician provides a “green light” that torture can continue.

But the enabling of torture extends beyond a superficial “health check.” In their examinations, healthcare professionals look for physical and psychological weaknesses to exploit in a person. These weaknesses are actively shared with interrogators to help them break a prisoner’s spirit.

Israeli doctors also conceal injuries they observe during torture. Instead of fulfilling their ethical responsibilities to report abuse, physicians falsify or refrain from documenting the physical and psychological effects of torture on a detainee’s body and mind–depriving victims of using potential evidence against their torturers.

Medical complicity in torture extends further beyond individual physicians to the entirety of the Israeli medical system. Palestinian detainees recount that interrogators are trained in methods of abuse that are designed to inflict maximum harm. This knowledge is not innate; rather, according to Cell 26 medical research is shared with Israeli occupation interrogators to arm them with specific techniques and programs of torture intended to cause extreme suffering to Palestinian detainees while leaving minimal physical evidence.

Since October 7, investigations and testimonies from survivors of torture, advocates, human rights organizations, and even some Israeli whistleblowers have confirmed that the involvement of Israeli physicians in torture is still ongoing. On April 16, an appalling report by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency on the torture of Gazan detainees stated that when attempting to receive medical assistance to treat injuries caused by torture, Palestinian prisoners were instead beaten more by prison doctors.

Medical complicity in torture also includes medical negligence–a deliberate and longstanding practice in Israeli prisons. A report by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel released last month details the horrific conditions of confinement at a field hospital established ​​at the Sde Teiman military base and detention center. According to the report, medical personnel are providing treatment to patients who are restrained and blindfolded; carrying out invasive medical procedures “without patients receiving sufficient explanations beforehand or giving their consent;” declining to administer care at all; refusing to administer pain relief medications, and justifying the provision of treatment “solely in instances where it aids the security forces in interrogating the patients.” In addition, medical staff are not directed to report or document instances of violence or torture they witness, nor even sign medical documents with their actual name or license number–shielding them from any potential investigations regarding their breach of medical ethics.

In CNN’s Sde Teiman investigation, three additional Israeli whistleblowers at the Israeli detention center exposed how medical procedures at the facility are “sometimes performed by underqualified medics, earning it a reputation for being ‘a paradise for interns.’”

As one of the whistleblowers told CNN: “I was asked to learn how to do things on the patients, performing minor medical procedures that are totally outside my expertise…just being there felt like being complicit in abuse.” The same person also witnessed amputations performed on people who had sustained injuries caused by their hands being constantly zip-tied.

Conditions at the Sde Teiman field hospital are so dire that an Israeli doctor stationed at the facility wrote a letter to Israel’s health minister about his concerns in early April. In it, he voiced that circumstances are so grim that his “basic commitments to patients” are being abandoned and that medical teams at the facility, as well as the Ministry of Health, are violating Israel’s Incarceration of Unlawful Combatants Law.

When doctors are agents of colonialism

The participation of medical professionals in torture–those whose duty is ostensibly to heal, alleviate suffering, and act in the best interests of their patients— is not a contradiction. Regardless of ethics or laws, Israeli medical personnel first and foremost operate as agents of Israel’s settler colonial regime. Under settler colonialism, all aspects of a colonizer’s society serve one purpose–to further the oppression of the colonized people.

The profession of medicine is no different. In his essay, “Medicine and Colonialism,” Frantz Fanon outlines what it means to practice medicine in a colonial context. Speaking on French Algeria, he writes:

the doctor himself… has decided to exclude himself from the protective circle that the principles and the values of the medical profession have woven around him…In a given region, the doctor sometimes reveals himself as the most sanguinary of colonizers… so he becomes the torturer who happens to be a doctor.

Fanon continues:

On the strictly technical level, the European doctor actively collaborates with the colonial forces in their most frightful and most degrading practices.

The past 230 days have made painfully evident that the annihilation of Gaza’s healthcare infrastructure is one of the central goals of Israel’s genocidal campaign. In addition to the destruction of hospitals, Palestinian healthcare workers are being kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the hundreds. According to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, at least 493 healthcare workers have been murdered by Israel since October 7. Over 200 more have been detained by Israeli occupation forces. Some–like Dr. Adnan Al-Bursh, Head of Orthopedics at al-Shifa Hospital–were tortured to death after months of captivity.

While Israel bombs and destroys hospitals, Israeli doctors torture Palestinian prisoners. While Israel executes Palestinian patients, their doctors share medical research to help better torture Palestinian detainees. In Dr. Al-Bursh’s words:

Practicing medicine has become a crime…and the penalty for saving lives has become detention and being tortured to death.

While Palestinian doctors are dying in Gaza’s hospitals with their patients, Israeli doctors are complicit in committing geno 0,,,,, cide.

Kanav Kathuria‘s work lies in the intersection of prison abolition, public health, and food sovereignty. He is a 2019 Open Society Institute Baltimore Community Fellow and the co-founder of the Maryland Food and Prison Abolition Project, a community-based organization that interrogates food conditions in carceral facilities to explore the use of food as a tool for resistance.

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