Views on torture split along ethnic lines, Israeli poll finds

Attitudes toward torture in Israel differ significantly among Jews and Arabs. Poll also finds conciliatory views about the legitimacy of the ‘other’ and their claims to the land.

Illustrative photo of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli military prison (By ChameleonsEye /
Illustrative photo of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli military prison (By ChameleonsEye /

More than 55 percent of Jewish Israelis think it is permissible to use “physical methods” of interrogation, i.e. torture, against terrorism suspects even if there is no “ticking bomb” scenario to stop, according to a public opinion poll published Monday.

The issue of torture has been in the news in recent weeks because attorneys for a handful of Jewish extremists accused of committed acts of terrorism against Palestinians say the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal secret police, used methods amounting to torture in order to extract confessions from them.

There has been much public discussion in Israel about whether authorities use the same methods and dedication in thwarting and solving Jewish terrorism against Palestinians as they do with Palestinian terrorism against Jews.

The poll, published by the Israel Democracy Institute on Monday, found significant ethno-religious divides on the question of against whom torture is permissible.

Over 30 percent of Jewish respondents in the monthly Peace Index said interrogation methods and punishments for Jews suspected of committing acts of terrorism against Palestinians should be less harsh than for Palestinians suspected of terrorism against Jews.

Likewise, only 7 percent of Jews polled thought that the Shin Bet’s interrogation methods for Palestinian terrorism suspects are too harsh. On the other hand, nearly a quarter (23 percent) of Jewish respondents said the security agency’s interrogation methods against Jews are too harsh; 21 percent of Arab respondents agreed.

The biggest cleavage, however, was on the question of whether “physical methods” of interrogation are ever permissible. Six percent of Jewish respondents and 83 percent of Arabs said it is never permissible, ticking bomb or not.

One might surmise that the vastly higher number of Arabs who say torture is never permissible has something to do with the presumption that Israeli authorities are more likely to use physically and mentally abusive methods of interrogation against Arabs, thus only increasing the ethnic-religious divides in attitudes toward torture.

It is important to note that the pollsters never used the word “torture” in their questions.

Expanding the legality of torture

Israel's Supreme Court sits as the High Court of Justice, April 1, 2014. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills)
Israel’s Supreme Court sits as the High Court of Justice, April 1, 2014. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Strictly speaking, torture is not legal in Israel, but the High Court of Justice created a loop-hole to allow for its use in certain situations — when it is “necessary” to stop an imminent attack.

Statements by Israeli authorities relating to the recent interrogations of Jewish terror suspects, however, indicate that the loop-hole has been worryingly expanded in recent months.

The loop-hole was originally intended to be a post-facto defense Shin Bet agents who committed torture in order to stop a “ticking bomb.” It has been widely reported, and hinted at by top officials, that the attorney general is now proactively approving the use of torture by telling the Shin Bet he will not prosecute agents who commit the crime of torture.

We already know from previous cases in which the Shin Bet has acknowledged using torture —outside the framework of the ever-expanding loophole — that its agents are not prosecuted for doing so.

Those cases, however, involved Palestinian suspects and received scant mention in the Israeli media. The use of torture against Jewish terrorism, on the other hand, has been the topic of a heated national discussion for the past month.

Claims to the land

Palestinians put a sign marking the destroyed village of Lajjun in northern Israel, Nakba Day, May 15, 2015. (Photo by Omar Sameer/
Palestinians place a sign marking the destroyed Palestinian village of Lajjun in northern Israel, Nakba Day, May 15, 2015. (Photo by Omar Sameer/

The monthly Peace Index, as it name might suggest, is primarily a tracker of Israelis’ — Jewish and Arab alike — attitudes toward peace.

The main indicators are relatively stable over time: a majority of both Jews and Arabs support peace talks in theory but a minority of both groups believe that such talks, should they exist, would actually lead to peace in the coming years.

More interesting, however, is how Jews and Palestinians recognize — or don’t recognize — the other’s bond to the plot of land both peoples claim as their own.

Over 20 percent of Jews and 41 percent of Arabs said they believe that both groups’ historical, religious and cultural bond to the land is equally strong. In other words, that the “other” has as much a right to be here as they do.

It is refreshing to hear that even one in five Jewish Israelis and two out of five Palestinian citizens of Israel recognize the other’s legitimacy here in terms that mirror the way they see their own.

What the poll did not explore, however, was whether recognition of those bonds translates into conferred legitimacy for national self-determination or ownership in a nation-state explicitly associated with one national group over the other. Or in other words, whether Jews believe Palestinians can be fully equal to Jews in a Jewish state, or whether Jews can be equal citizens in a Palestinian state.

The responses that adopted a more zero-sum tone, however, got a bit more interesting. Whereas only 1.3 percent of Jewish respondents said Palestinians have a stronger bond with “the land” than Jews, a surprising 15.9 percent of Arabs said Jews have a stronger bond with the land than the Palestinians do.

The survey was conducted by telephone between December 29-30, and included a sample of 600 respondents representative of Jewish and Arab Israelis aged 18 and over. The margins of error is +/- 4.1 percent.