A Palestinian man died in a Gaza Strip interrogation cell Monday in what Israeli political analysts and security sources said is likely to turn into another major controversy involving the Shin Bet, Israel’s scandal-plagued security service.
Two other Palestinians were shot and killed by troops during clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in one of the most violent days of protest in the occupied territories in several weeks. Throughout the territories, Palestinians observed a one-day general strike called to protest the closure by Israeli military authorities of all 1,200 schools in the West Bank and eight of the 250 schools in the Gaza Strip.
The latest killings raised to nearly 400 the death toll from the 15-month-old intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied territories.
However, it was the death of 34-year-old Youssef Masri in a Gaza Strip detention cell that captured the most attention Monday, due to what Israel Radio said were the “mysterious circumstances” under which he died.
Palestinian sources said that Masri, from the Gaza town of Rafah, was beaten to death.
Military officials said Masri was suffering from an ulcer and was treated for it shortly before he died. They refused to comment further. But one security source, conceding that the circumstances surrounding Masri’s death were indeed suspect, predicted that the incident would cause “great embarrassment” for the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic secret service, which was interrogating Masri at the time of his death.
Recalling previous incidents in which Shin Bet interrogators were either known or strongly suspected of having beaten prisoners to death, an Israeli political analyst added that Masri’s death was likely to have “real reverberations . . . and assume the proportions of a major scandal.”
Few details about the incident were immediately available. Military officials said only that police and prison authorities were investigating the death, which occurred during the third day of Masri’s interrogation by Shin Bet agents at the Gaza Strip Central Prison.
The Shin Bet sections at this and other prisons in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not under the authority of either the police or the prison system, and normal practice in the occupied territories is for suspects to be held incommunicado during their interrogations by the Shin Bet. Lawyers for Palestinians arrested for most intifada- related offenses such as stone-throwing complain that they are not allowed access to their clients until these interrogations have ended, usually in signed confessions.
The discretion given to the Shin Bet in dealing with Arab prisoners has been hotly debated on several occasions over the last few years because of allegations about the use of torture and other forms of duress to extract confessions.
In the most-publicized case to date, several senior Shin Bet officials were pardoned two years ago for their role in the cover-up of a incident in which two Palestinian terrorists, captured after hijacking a Tel Aviv-to-Ashkelon bus, were beaten to death in 1984.
Israeli officials have long insisted that torture is not condoned. However, an Israeli commission appointed to investigate the bus affair and other allegations of illegality by the security services concluded that the Shin Bet used physical and psychological pressure to obtain confessions from suspects.
In one case, the commission found that a suspect originally said by authorities to have died of pneumonia was in fact choked to death.
Embarrassing for Government
Should it develop into a scandal of similar proportions, Masri’s death would be particularly embarrassing for Israel in view of its heated rejection of a U.S. State Department report last month on alleged human rights violations by Israeli authorities in the occupied territories.
The report cited five cases in 1988 in which it said that “unarmed Palestinians in detention died under questionable circumstances or were clearly killed by the detaining officials.”
Punishments for such offenses, the report added, “were usually lenient, and there were many cases of unjustified killing which did not result in disciplinary actions or prosecutions.”
Whatever the circumstances surrounding Masri’s death, the latest incident is also expected to inflame passions in the occupied territories, where the army reported Monday that soldiers shot and killed one youth throwing stones in the Gaza refugee camp of Jabaliya and another man who tried to escape during a search and arrest operation in the West Bank town of Salem.
Palestinian sources said another 14 demonstrators were shot and wounded in scattered protests across the territories Monday.
Military authorities in the Gaza Strip freed 130 Palestinian prisoners, arrested on suspicion of fomenting strife, in a good-will gesture to mark Sunday’s Muslim holiday that commemorates the Prophet Mohammed’s ascent to heaven.