On 6 September 1999, a nine-judge panel of the Supreme Court unanimously outlawed methods of physical force that were routinely used in interrogations by the General Security Service (GSS). This decision voided the interrogation guidelines previously in effect, which included the use of interrogation methods that constituted torture, including violent shaking, holding and tying the interrogee in painful positions, sleep deprivation, covering the interrogee's head with a sack, and playing loud music.
The decision was made in response to seven petitions filed by human rights organizations on behalf of Palestinian interrogees. The organizations are the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel
The High Court decision ended the legal torture of Palestinians in interrogation. Israel was the only country in the world where torture was legally sanctioned; the guidelines allowing torture were drafted by a governmental commission headed by a former Supreme Court Justice and were approved by a governmental committee. A Parliamentary committee and the State Comptroller were appointed to monitor implementation of these guidelines, and the courts were called upon to approve legal maneuvers to sanction them.
In their precedent-setting decision, the Justices stated that, "If the state wishes to enable GSS investigators to utilize physical means in interrogations, it must seek the enactment of legislation for this purpose." However, the Justices added that such a law, which would necessarily harm the liberty of interrogees, must be "befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required," as stated in Israel's Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom.
Following the decision, some public officials called for enactment of a law that would allow the GSS to continue to use physical force in its interrogations. Likud MK Reuven Rivlin submitted a bill along these lines. On 15 September 1999, the Ministerial Committee for GSS Matters, headed by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, appointed a committee to examine whether and how to incorporate into legislation interrogations that include the use of physical force. In December 1999, the committee (headed by Deputy Attorney General Manny Mazuz and Deputy State's Attorney Rachel Suqar) submitted its recommendations to the government. The members did not reach agreement on what legislation should be enacted and submitted to the prime minister different recommendations regarding appropriate legislation.
On 15 February 2000, the head of the GSS, Ami Ayalon, announced that he was withdrawing his demand for legislation allowing the use of physical force in interrogations. Ayalon abandoned this demand primarily because of the repercussions such legislation would have on Israel's international stature. Prime Minister Barak stated in a Knesset debate on 14 March 2000 that he supports legislation allowing the use of physical force in interrogations in "ticking bomb" cases, i.e., "when it is necessary to immediately save life from a concrete danger of a serious attack, and no other reasonable course exists to achieve this result."
Since the Supreme Court's decision, and especially since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, various public officials have called for legislation to allow torture during interrogations.
B'Tselem emphasizes that any legal permission to use physical force in interrogations, however symbolic the permission, must be completely rejected. Even if it can be proven that physical force in interrogations would save human life, it cannot be allowed. Torture constitutes such a serious violation of an individual's human dignity and basic humanity that there can be no trade-off between freedom from torture and other considerations.
Furthermore, experience indicates that any law allowing the GSS to use any degree of physical force, even in exceptional cases, is equivalent to legalizing torture. This conclusion follows from examination of the manner in which the Landau Commission recommendations were implemented over the past twelve years. This examination reveals that it is impossible to limit the scope and severity of physical force so that it does not become routine and reach the level of torture. The State Comptroller's report of 1995, which was made public only in February 2000, supports this conclusion and notes the wide-scale deviations from the rules established by the Landau Commission.
In addition, any statute allowing the GSS to use physical force or intentionally inflict mental suffering during interrogations - even if limited to instances necessary to save lives, and even if the force is not severe enough to constitute torture - contravenes one of the most basic principles of international law: the absolute prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The freedom from torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment is a basic and absolute right of every person, and this right may not be violated under any circumstances.
Israel faces threats to its security, including threats from groups that kill indiscriminately to advance their political objectives. However, a state is not allowed combat such threats and illegal acts by using unlawful means itself. The acts of those groups are reprehensible because of their unwillingness to reject certain means to attain their goals. A state that allows its security services to torture detainees adopts a similar position that the ends justify the means. This approach stands in stark contradiction to the basic values of a democratic state. As Justice Barak stated in the decision prohibiting GSS interrogation methods, "This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it."