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War on Gaza: How Israeli torture methods resemble Islamic State horrors

Palestinian victims have reported sexual assaults, stress positions and other brutal forms of humiliation
Israeli soldiers stand by a truck packed with shirtless Palestinian detainees in the Gaza Strip on 8 December 2023 (Yossi Zeliger/Reuters)
Israeli soldiers stand by a truck packed with shirtless Palestinian detainees in the Gaza Strip on 8 December 2023 (Yossi Zeliger/Reuters)

Although torture is prohibited worldwide in all circumstances, and is designated as a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Palestinians in Israeli custody are enduring patterns of torture and ill treatment akin to the most notorious perpetrators of the modern era. 

Despite the unprecedented scrutiny by the International Court of Justice of Israel’s plausibly genocidal actions in Gaza, authoritative reports from the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa), UN rights experts, and Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups present shocking details of a severe escalation in torture since October. 

Some of the methods of torture being inflicted on Palestinians are best known for being used by the self-proclaimed Daesh or the Islamic State (IS) and other highly oppressive regimes, including Bashar al-Assad's Syria.

IS is notorious for discrimination and sexual violence against women. Israel’s war on Gaza has disproportionately killed, injured and impacted Palestinian women and girls, constituting a “war on women”, according to UN Women. 

According to UN human rights experts, hundreds of Palestinian women and girls have been arbitrarily detained in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, with some “severely beaten” and subjected to “multiple forms of sexual assault”. 

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Sexual violence against men and boys also occurs in Israeli custody. Unrwa has reported on two Palestinian men who had a hot or electric metal stick inserted into their anus, with one victim dying of his injuries. Sexual assault and threats of sexual assault against children in Israeli military detention are longstanding concerns. 

IS killed hundreds of captives in summary executions, burying some victims alive, and left their bodies in mass graves. Israeli forces in Gaza are suspected of similar atrocities, with UN human rights experts expressing alarm that “Palestinian women and girls have reportedly been arbitrarily executed in Gaza, often together with family members, including their children”. 

Cages and attack dogs

Earlier this month, the UN assistant secretary general for human rights expressed horror at mass graves in Gaza, as more than 520 bodies were unearthed at Nasser and al-Shifa hospitals, “with many reportedly showing signs of torture and summary executions, and potential instances of people buried alive”. 

Both IS and Israel have held detainees in cages, dehumanising those inside and exposing them to the elements. IS held women in metal cages with human skulls in them in Raqqa, and placed a captured Jordanian pilot in a cage and burned him to death. 

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Palestinians from Gaza, including women and children, have allegedly been held by Israel in metal cages, unprotected from the cold, sun and rain. In some cases, attack dogs have reportedly been set on the caged detainees, terrorising and biting children. 

The starkest contrast relates less to the abusive practices, than to the international actions taken to halt them

Just as IS filmed and broadcast killings of captives and other abuses, Israeli forces have recorded and distributed countless clips and images of abuses against detainees. Israeli personnel have filmed themselves perpetrating abuses - often in apparent states of joy, luxuriating in perceived impunity - and shared the images on social media. 

Both Israeli and IS personnel have severely beaten both male and female detainees, including to death, with rifle butts, sticks and metal bars. IS has also flogged victims. Children are not spared beatings in Israeli custody; they are also verbally abused and threatened, and held for periods incommunicado and in isolation. Some have suffered broken bones.

While IS imposed amputations as punishment on people under its control, Palestinians have developed infected wounds on their ankles and wrists from being tied by cables or zip-ties while in Israeli custody, requiring amputations

Shocked and stripped

Both Israel and IS are also documented to have used the “shabeh” or phantom method of torture, whereby the victim is hanged by their tightly manacled wrists for hours or days, causing extreme pain, dislocated joints and potential long-term disability. 

Both forces are also reported to have given detainees electric shocks. In addition, Israeli forces are accused of pulling out detainees’ fingernails with pliers, stubbing out cigarettes on their bodies, and using a nail gun on them.

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Both IS and Israel have forced large numbers of detainees to be stripped of their clothes and kept in humiliating conditions for prolonged periods, including in overcrowded cells and public places, during transport, and on forced marches. 

Whistleblowers have revealed a grotesquely torturous and humiliating practice at the Sde Teiman detention camp, where Palestinian detainees are stripped and made to wear diapers, strapped to beds and fed through straws. Other documented acts of humiliation include urinating on detainees, making them imitate animals, and using the Israeli national anthem as noise torture. 

Even after the deaths of detainees, both IS and Israel have withheld the bodies from families, preventing them from grieving and burying their loved ones in line with their faiths and traditions. Israel has enacted different policies to withhold bodies over many years, constituting collective punishment and a form of torture for the families. 

The starkest contrast relates less to the abusive practices, than to the international actions taken to halt them. The violent conquest of territory by IS, marked by systematic torture of detainees and other atrocities, led to global outcries, the creation of a US-led military coalition to fight it, and sanctions from the UN Security Council, EU and others.

Israel’s onslaught against Palestinians, marked by systematic torture and other atrocities, has similarly caused global outcries, but has been largely supported by the Global North. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Neil Sammonds is a human rights researcher and advocate. He currently works as War on Want’s Senior Campaigner on Palestine. He previously worked for Medical Aid for Palestinians as well as Amnesty International, with whom he investigated patterns of torture and other abuses primarily in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Bahrain, Iraq and Egypt. He tweets @neilsai
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