The Tel Aviv torture trail: Israel’s role in the Abu Ghraib scandal

William Van Wagenen, The Cradle, March 5, 2024 —

Israel’s documented torture and abuse of Palestinians may evoke comparisons to US tactics employed during the Iraqi occupation, but a closer look reveals their distinct origins rooted in the Zionist entity.

Just five days after the start of the war on Gaza, Israeli soldiers and settlers detained three Palestinian men in the occupied West Bank village of Wadi al-Seeq. Stripped down to their underwear, they were then blindfolded, savagely beaten with an iron pipe, photographed in their humiliation, and subjected to the ultimate indignity of being urinated upon.

One victim, Mohammad Matar, recounting the ordeal to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, likened the barbarity to the infamous Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq. “It’s exactly like what happened there,” he stated. “Abu Ghraib with the [Israeli] army.”

The sexual humiliation and torture of Palestinians continued – and expanded – following Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza two weeks later. Soon, Israeli soldiers were detaining and humiliating large groups of Palestinian men and women, subjecting them to sexual abuse across various detention facilities.

On 21 February, Khaled al-Shawish became the ninth Palestinian to die while in Israeli prisons since 7 October, likely due to torture.

However, similarities between the torture perpetrated against Palestinians now and against Iraqis 20 years before in Iraq come as no surprise. Israel and the torture techniques its intelligence services pioneered over decades of occupation played an important and largely overlooked role in the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal, most notably through the use of sexual humiliation and rape.

Civilian contractors

In the chaotic aftermath of the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who had no prior experience in prison management, found herself overseeing Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities – 15 in total, in southern and central Iraq. Though military police (MPs) under her command were ill-equipped for interrogation, Major General Geoffrey Miller, infamous for his tenure at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray, advocated for their involvement in the process.

Karpinski stated that after Miller’s visit, large numbers of civilian contractors began arriving at Abu Ghraib to conduct interrogations. These civilian contractors then gave orders to the low-level reservist MPs who carried out the torture depicted in the notorious torture photos that were later leaked to the media.

She notes further that the MPs seen torturing and humiliating Iraqis in the leaked images were deployed to Abu Ghraib just before the first photographs were taken. This means they began torturing Iraqi prisoners in sophisticated ways immediately upon arrival at the prison:

They replaced the national guard unit serving there because they had been deployed for a year. Soldiers don’t just decide one morning, ‘hey, let’s go to abuse some prisoners’ … The date-stamp on some of the photographs is late October, November. So what happened?

Among the contractors interrogating prisoners were employees of the private security firm CACI. One of the interrogators, Eric Fair, was stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison and in the restive city of Fallujah in 2004. He said interrogators in Iraq were taught to use a torture device known as the “Palestinian chair” by the Israeli military during a joint training exercise.

In January of that year, CACI president Jack London traveled to Israel as part of a high-level delegation of US Congressmen, defense contractors, and pro-Israel lobbyists.

During the visit, then-Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz presented London with an award at a gala dinner for “achievements in the field of defense and national security.”

The trip included a visit to Beit Horon, “the central training camp for the anti-terrorist forces of the Israeli police and the border police,” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Brigadier General Karpinski also noted the presence of Israeli interrogators in Iraq. She explained that at a Baghdad intelligence facility, “I saw an individual there that I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet before, and I asked him what did he do there.” He answered, “Well, I do some of the interrogation here. I speak Arabic, but I’m not an Arab; I’m from Israel.”

Who is Stephen Cambone?

In November, roughly the time the first photos depicting torture at Abu Ghraib were taken, US Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, signed an order to transfer command of Abu Ghraib from Karpinski to Colonel Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade.

US military intelligence at that time was under the control of Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone. The post was created for him in March 2003, just as the Iraq invasion was underway.

Journalist Jason Vest reported for The Nation that Cambone’s post was originally conceived by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a “centralizing measure,” a way to give him “one dog to kick” rather than a “whole kennel” of individual civilian and uniformed defense intelligence agencies.

Although Cambone had no intelligence experience, Rumsfeld viewed him as a protégé and loyal partisan. Under Rumsfeld’s patronage, Cambone rose from his position as principal deputy to Under Secretary Doug Feith, another architect of the Iraq war.

Vest added that a memo from Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Cambone’s immediate superior, indicated that Cambone had the authority to provide oversight and policy guidance for intelligence activities in all organizations within the US Department of Defense.

In other words, Cambone controlled US military intelligence, which controlled Abu Ghraib by November 2003 when the first torture photos were shot.

Like Feith, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, Cambone was a pro-Israel neoconservative who had worked for the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a US think tank that hosted Republican neocons out of government during the Clinton presidency in the 1990s.

In 1998, PNAC famously advocated a shift toward a more assertive US foreign policy, including toppling Saddam Hussein, which would only come following “some catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor.”

Striking similarities

A November 2003 report in the Los Angeles Times described the close relationship between Israeli and US military intelligence under Cambone.

“Those who have to deal with like problems tend to share information as best they can,” he was quoted as saying. A senior US Army official also told the newspaper:

[The Israelis] certainly have a wealth of experience from a military standpoint in dealing with domestic terror, urban terror, military operations in urban terrain, and there is a great deal of intelligence and knowledge sharing going on right now, all of which makes sense … We are certainly tapping into their knowledge base to find out what you do in these kinds of situations.

The torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib came to light two months later, in January 2004, after an MP at the prison, Joseph Darby, passed a CD with photos depicting the torture to the military’s Criminal Investigations Division (CID).

The tactics used to torture the detainees were summarized in an email that circulated in the Defense Department. The email said 10 soldiers were shown, involved in acts including:

Having male detainees pose nude while female guards pointed at their genitals; having female detainees exposing themselves to the guards; having detainees perform indecent acts with each other; and guards physically assaulting detainees by beating and dragging them with choker chains.

These tactics were further described by Army Major General Antonio Taguba, who was tasked with investigating events at Abu Ghraib.

In May 2004, Taguba was summoned to a meeting with Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cambone, and other Defense Department officials, who all professed ignorance of what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Taguba said, “I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, ‘That’s not abuse. That’s torture.’ There was quiet.”

Taguba said elsewhere that he saw “a video of a male American soldier in uniform sodomizing a female detainee” as well as “photographs of Arab men wearing women’s panties.” As he explains it:

From what I knew, troops just don’t take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups.

But Taguba was only allowed to investigate the military police, not the military intelligence brigade in control of the prison after November, nor any higher officials overseeing military intelligence, such as Cambone, or other top Defense Department officials with strong links to Israel, including Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.

These MP troops were not that creative … Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box.

The most infamous of the torture photos showed an Iraqi man, Saad, standing on a box, wearing a black blanket and hood, with electric wires attached to his hands, feet, and penis.

Facility 1391

But the “creative” torture techniques focusing on sexual humiliation and rape have a clear origin.

Israeli interrogators were teaching US contractors and MPs torture techniques that Israel has long used against Palestinians and other Arabs.

In November 2003, as Cambone was lauding Israel for its assistance in Iraq, The Guardian published a report detailing the torture Israel subjected prisoners to at a secret prison known as ‘Facility 1391.’

“I was barefoot in my pajamas when they arrested me, and it was really cold,” says Sameer Jadala, a Palestinian school bus driver. “When I got to that place, they told me to strip and gave me a blue uniform. Then they gave me a black sack,” for his head.

Other former prisoners at Facility 1391 have described how they were stripped naked for interrogation, blindfolded, handcuffed, and threatened with rape.

The Guardian report details how torture took place at the facility for decades. The first prisoners at the facility were Lebanese kidnapped by Israeli forces during their 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon starting in 1982.

Sheikh Abd al-Karim Obeid, a spiritual leader in the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, was abducted in 1989 and taken to Facility 1391. Obeid had been involved in guerilla operations to expel Israeli forces occupying the country. He was kidnapped from his home in the village of Jibchit in southern Lebanon by Israeli commandos arriving by helicopter.

During the raid to take Obeid, Israeli forces also kidnapped a young man, Hashem Fahaf, who was visiting the sheikh to seek religious guidance. Fahaf was never charged with a crime but was held in Israeli prisons, including Facility 1391, for the next 11 years.

Israel held Fahaf and 18 other Lebanese as hostages, or bargaining chips, to win the return of Israeli airman Ron Arad, whose plane crash-landed in Lebanon while bombing PLO targets.

Haaretz reports that a reserve army colonel from Unit 504, known as “Het,” recounted how one interrogator at the facility “stripped a suspect naked and forced him to drink tea or coffee from an ashtray full of cigarette ashes and then forced shaving cream or toothpaste into the suspect’s mouth.”

Het recalled another instance in which the interrogator, known as “Major George,” inserted “a baton into a suspect’s rectum and asked him to sit on the baton unless the suspect was willing to speak.”

Rather than prosecuting Major George, Israeli authorities opened a criminal case against Het for revealing the torture taking place at Facility 1391.

Dividing Iraq for Israel’s interests 

The anger created by the Abu Ghraib revelations is widely viewed as having stoked the Iraqi insurgency seeking to expel US forces. The insurgency itself began after the same pro-Israel conservatives in the Bush administration made the fateful decision to disband the Iraqi army.

This blunder left hundreds of thousands of trained military personnel without employment, many of whom subsequently joined the ranks of the insurgency. With their intimate knowledge of Iraqi army weaponry and tactics, these former soldiers became formidable adversaries in the campaign against US occupation forces.

The violence soon spiraled out of control and evolved into a sectarian civil war, dividing Iraq’s Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed as the country was nearly torn apart.

Wired noted years later that although a consensus eventually emerged in the US defense establishment that “the choice to invade Iraq was ill-considered and that the initial plan to stabilize the country was even worse,” Stephen Cambone had another view.

For Donald Rumsfeld’s one-time intelligence chief, the Iraq war and the chaos it created was “one of the great strategic decisions of the first half of the 21st century, if it proves not to be the greatest.”

In the eyes of the Zionist neocons, the cost of human lives and suffering was a necessary sacrifice to achieve their long-standing objectives in West Asia. The architects of the Iraq war, including Cambone, Rumsfeld, Feith, and Wolfowitz, viewed the devastation they wrought as a means to an end – neutralizing potential threats to Israel.

Yet it’s clear, in light of the actions taken by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, that their grand designs have ultimately floundered.

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