Israel’s Liturgy of Torture


February 24, 2013

Over the last week, thousands of Palestinians, Jews, and internationals protested the illegal and inhumane treatment of Palestinian prisoners.  800 Palestinian prisoners declared a one-day fast in protest of Israel’s detention policies, an act of solidarity with four men who continue an ongoing hunger strike calling an end to the unjust detention of Palestinians without charge and without trial.  The UN officials, remarking on the hunger strike that reached its 200th day, commented: “Israel must end the appalling and unlawful treatment of Palestinian detainees. The international community must react with a sense of urgency and use whatever leverage it possesses to end Israel’s abusive reliance on administrative detention.”  Clashes between the Israel Defense Force and protesting Palestinians became routine throughout the West Bank, as stones seemed to warrant a vast array of responses from the IDF: tear gas, skunk water, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and in some cases live ammunition.


And just as the international community began to report on the ongoing hunger strikes, Palestinian Arafat Jaradat was detained, questioned, tortured, and subsequently died at Megiddo Prison.  Israeli officials reported the 30 year-old’s death as a heart attack with no prior health issues before detention.  He was being held under investigation for throwing rocks at demonstration last fall.  After the autopsy, it was determined that Jaradat had undergone intense torture: beatings on the chest, lashes on the back and shoulder blades, bruising in the mouth, and two broken ribs.  Chief Pathologist of the Palestinian Authority, a witness to the autopsy, reports that there was no sign that heart failure was the initial cause of death.  And as tension continues to rise, Palestine seems on the verge of a third-Intifada.


Torture is prohibited under every system of law, and is denounced by every major religion.  And yet, it is practiced by half of the world’s countries, often under the guise of some-sort of doublespeak.  But torture serves a particular function for nation-states, and rarely does it revolve around extracting information.  Rather, torture represents, according to William Cavanaugh, a “perverse liturgy” that enables the state to use fear to become “both menace and protector; to be truly omnipotent the state must be both the taker and giver of life” (33).  In this way, torture ramifies from the body of individuals into the social fabric of society, creating isolated bodies whose only mode of community is fear.  And fear fragments relationships in such a way to lose control to the governing politic, which is normally the politics of the torturer.  Cavanaugh thus says that torture doesn’t so much punish enemies as it creates them, and thus becomes a production of the “imagination of the state. To speak of imagination is not, of course, to imply that state power is ‘merely imaginary,’ a disembodied thought. The imagination of the state has a tremendous power to discipline bodies, to habituate them and script them into a drama of its own making” (31).


Israel’s imagination is very strong.  Take the military practice of ‘mapping,’ for example.  At any time, but mostly always at night, soldiers can break into a Palestinian homes, force the family into the streets, as they draw maps of the apartment or house.  The family sits at gunpoint waiting for the soldiers to finish drawing the maps.  According to Israeli testimonies of such events, the soldiers were never asked for the maps.  One soldier had collected 6 months worth of maps and had never had to turn them in.  When he asked, he was told not to worry about it. (Breaking the Silence, Interview July, 2010).  The practice was not meant to get apartment logistics, but to instill fear into the minds of the people.  Socialized fear accomplishes Israel’s goal to be omnipotent, both the giver and taker of life.


In a weird twist, after the death of Arafat Jaradat, Israel gave the Palestinian Authority $100,000 of their own collected taxes in order to squelch the numerous protests.  As a friend of mine living in Hebron puts succinctly, “So if I understand correctly Israel tortured Arafat Jaradat, a Palestinian, to death. Then when Palestinians violently revolted against the Israeli military occupying their land, Israel asked the Palestinian Authority (PA) to stop the protests, and bribed them with the PA’s own tax dollars,” which Israel originally withheld from them.  In this way, violence is used against Palestinians not in response to a threat of Israel’s security, but rather to create threats from which the Palestinian Authority becomes dependent upon the State of Israel.  This is a perverse liturgy indeed.