In a landmark decision, Israel's Supreme Court on Monday banned Israeli security agents from using physically coercive methods to interrogate Palestinian prisoners, implicitly accepting the view of human rights advocates that the practices amount to torture.
The decision, which marked the first time the court has ruled on the legality of techniques used to extract information from thousands of Palestinians, was celebrated by human rights groups here and abroad as a watershed in their long struggle to outlaw the use of force in Israeli jails.
The unanimous ruling by a nine-judge panel outlaws specific techniques that have been in use by the security forces for at least 12 years.
The panel said the Israeli secret service, known as the Shin Bet, "does not have the authority to shake a man, to force him into a [contorted] position, to force him into a 'frog-crouch' position or deprive him of sleep" for extended periods.
Written by Chief Justice Aharon Barak, the decision said Shin Bet investigators will now be governed by the same rules as the Israeli police. A reasonable investigation, Barak wrote, is one "free of torture, free of cruel, inhuman treatment . . . and free of any degrading handling whatsoever."
His words received ready praise. "For many years, Israel has undermined the universal, international consensus against torture," said Eitan Felner, executive director of B'Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group. "Now, finally, the court has put an end to the policy of systematic, routine torture in Israel."
But many other Israelis, including government officials, deplored the court ruling, warning that it could deprive the security services of tools necessary to prevent attacks by extremists. They pointed to Sunday's twin car bomb attacks in northern Israel, which apparently killed the bombers and injured four Israeli bystanders, as evidence of the need for such methods.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, from the left-of-center Labor Party, said the decision could do "real damage" to Israel's ability to combat terrorism.
"It's very nice to have liberal legislation," Sneh told Israel Radio on Monday. "It's good in Scandinavia, in Western Europe, maybe North America. But in this part of the world, where we fight so bitterly against terrorism, it's such a burden. It's almost irrelevant to the reality that we live in."
In a statement released by his office, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he respected the court's decision but added that it seemed likely to cause "difficulties" for interrogators. He said a way must be found to interrogate suspects in so-called ticking bomb cases, in which security forces insist that they must beat the clock to save lives.
Monday's ruling was far from the last word on an issue that has troubled Israelis for many years.
In the decision, in fact, the court invited the Israeli parliament to legislate whether the state, "because of its security problems, should allow the use of physical measures in investigations . . . that deviate from normal interrogation techniques." Several legislators said Monday that they would press for such action.
In the lobby outside the courtroom, however, human rights lawyers and activists celebrated the ruling with hugs, tears and backslaps. Several called it a victory for Israeli democracy as well as for Palestinian detainees and human rights activists.
"We are very happy and proud that our Supreme Court can make this decision at a time when we have to fight so hard against terrorism," said a beaming Hannah Friedman, who heads the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, an advocacy group.
Israel has struggled for years with the dilemma of how to balance its democratic principles with the need to protect its citizens from the threat of terrorist attacks. Its solution, a departure from the values of Western democracies, has been to try to codify and legally justify the use of violence during interrogations while arguing that the methods do not constitute torture.
A 1987 commission, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau, gave the Shin Bet the right to use "moderate physical pressure" in interrogating suspects believed to have information about planned attacks. The commission established guidelines on the use of force that were included in an unpublished annex to its report, human rights groups have said.
In response to suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israelis, a separate ministerial committee formed in 1994 has approved the use of "increased physical pressure" during interrogations. And in several cases, the Supreme Court has allowed the use of such methods against detainees, earning fierce criticism from Amnesty International and other groups.
The court said the ruling was difficult in light of Israel's troubled history.
"We live the life of this country," Chief Justice Barak wrote. "We are aware of the harsh reality of terrorism. . . . Our apprehension, that this decision will hamper the ability to properly deal with terrorists and terrorism, disturbs us."
Human rights advocates argue, however, that the methods banned by the court are not used only to prevent imminent attacks; many of those who endure the harsh practices are later released without being charged. The activists say other countries, including Britain, have developed techniques for coping with the threat of terrorism without resorting to torture.
At a news conference Monday at the Jerusalem offices of B'Tselem, a former prisoner, Nawwaf Qeisi, 24, demonstrated the various contorted positions in which he said he was forced to spend hours a day for his three-month detention in 1997.
He said he was also made to wear an opaque, foul-smelling hood as Shin Bet agents interrogated him about suspected membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical Palestinian faction. He smiled but did not respond to a question about whether he was a member of the faction.
Qeisi, from the Azza refugee camp near Bethlehem, said he had suffered damage to his back and legs during his interrogation. He was released without being charged.
Asked whether he believed that the court ruling would force the Shin Bet to change its methods, he did not hesitate.
"No," he said.
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