Gabi Ashkenazi

Advanced Management Program, Harvard Business School, 2004

Torture by Proxy

During Israel's decades-long occupation of southern Lebanon, it relied extensively on its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). Staffed by Lebanese Christians and Shi'a, but supervised, armed, financed, and trained by the Israeli military, the SLA developed a particularly notorious reputation for human rights abuses and war crimes.

The SLA's Khiam detention center, where thousands of Lebanese were detained without trial, tortured, and confined under inhuman conditions, was perhaps the most vivid symbol of the abuses of Israel's occupation. The abuses at Khiam were reported internationally, including in public reports issued by Israel's closest ally, the United States.

Gabi Ashkenazi held command responsibility over the SLA twice in his career: From 1992 to 1994, Ashkenazi was effectively the SLA's direct supervisor. And from 1998 until the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, the SLA and its facilities came under Ashkenazi's overall jurisdiction as head of the Northern Command.

Torture at Khiam

In 1985, Israel downsized its Lebanon occupation force and transferred most of its Lebanese detainees to an SLA-staffed facility located at Khiam, in a police station built under the French mandate. The Khiam facility then became the main prison and interrogation center (the horse stables were converted into holding cells) for the Israeli occupation until the 2000 withdrawal. At least 16 detainees died in custody at Khiam.

Khiam prison courtyard
Inside the prison

Detainees were held at Khiam without charge or trial for months or years, some for
more than a decade. Widely reported interrogation techniques included use of electric shock, beatings, whippings, suspending detainees from poles, and prolonged solitary confinement.

Detainees were often tortured as a way of punishing or putting pressure on their families as well, according to a 1999 Human Rights Watch report:
Children were also detained in Khiam prison, some of them taken and held for months to put pressure on their parents or older siblings. Women prisoners were tortured as interrogators attempted to gather information from them and as occupation security authorities hoped to pressure male family members to join or return to the SLA or, because the male relatives were known or suspected members of the Lebanese military resistance to the occupation. [emphasis added]
One of the many cases documented by Amnesty International vividly illustrates the effects of torture in Khiam:
Mahmud Muhammad Ramadan, aged 31, born in Yarin, was arrested on 3 March 1990. In 1993 his hand was amputated and he lost his right eye, reportedly after torture which included electric shocks and suspension. He had also been held for three years in solitary confinement. During this time he was said to have been transferred unconscious to hospital after a suicide attempt. ... On his release [in 1997] he was taken to Beirut Hospital where, blind in one eye, his hand amputated, severely mentally disturbed, he was reportedly unable to recognize his parents and sister and fought with those who tried to treat him. [emphasis added]
The head of the SLA's security apparatus confirmed the use of torture in a 1999 interview with an Israeli newspaper:
If I were to tell you that there are no beatings going on there, I would be lying. They conduct interrogations the way they should be done. If someone made a mistake, he is interrogated in the proper manner. A bit of force, a bit of fear. It’s an investigation, right? If someone conceals an explosive charge or fires at an IDF convoy, how can you get information out of him. By asking nicely? By giving him a cup of coffee? There are many ways to get the truth out of a person. [emphasis added]
New detainees were held in tiny cells, measuring 90cm by 90cm (2.95 ft x 2.95 ft) , in which it was impossible to stand or lie down, for up to two months. "Veteran" detainees were crammed six to a cell, measuring 2.5m by 2.5m (8.2 ft x 8.2 ft). Food, hygiene, and medical conditions failed the most basic international standards.

A 90cm x 90cm solitary confinement cell at Khiam
Lebanese man demonstrating cramped confines of a solitary confinement cell

Israel did not permit the Red Cross to visit the prison until 1995, ten years after it was opened. Detainees' families were also prohibited from visiting from 1987 until 1995.

Israel's control over the SLA

Israel's attempts to disclaim responsibility for the SLA were never taken seriously by the international community, nor even by much of Israeli public opinion, since Israel supervised, armed, financed, equipped, and trained the SLA.

Within the Israeli military, the Liaison Unit for Lebanon (LUL) was given primary responsibility for running the SLA. Gabi Ashkenazi was commander of the LUL from 1992 to 1994.

Major General Yossi Peled, former head of the Israeli military’s Northern Command (1986-1991) and supervisor of the LUL, described the degree of control over the SLA that Israel exerted:
We began a revolution in the SLA… We decided to make the SLA into an army: basic training would be basic training, there would be courses for officers. We replaced their instruments and gave them devices enabling them to see at night. We also set goals for the SLA. For the first time, we assigned the SLA missions: to maintain encampments, defend them, open routes and night crossings. We explained that activity outside the security zone is not the SLA's business [emphasis added].
A soldier who served in the Lebanon Liaison Unit from 1991 to 1994, and hence under Ashkenazi’s command, confirmed this relationship:
LUL is constructed in a manner duplicating the SLA units. It is tantamount to a shadow organization that supervises and commands the SLA. For every SLA officer, there is a LUL officer who instructs and supervises him. ... Regarding Al-Khiam Prison, LUL has an instructor from the military police who advises the SLA jailers and administrators of Al-Khiam. [emphasis added]
In 1998, Ashkenazi was promoted to head of the Northern Command of the Israeli military, with overall responsibility for operations in Lebanon. Once again, he had command responsibility over the SLA, this time with even more discretion to end its abuses.Yet reports of torture at Khiam continued.

In 1999, then Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, chief of the operations branch of the Israeli military, submitted an affidavit to the Israeli Supreme Court in which he confirmed that Israeli officers paid the salaries of SLA guards and interrogators at Khiam directly (he promised that they would henceforth be paid indirectly by Israel through the SLA administration). Halutz also admitted that Israeli personnel visited Khiam regularly and trained SLA interrogators; the BBC reported that Israeli officers would email questions to SLA interrogators at Khiam.


In the wake of Israel's retreat from Lebanon -- a withdrawal that Ashkenazi opposed, demanding a peace agreement with Syria as a precondition -- locals stormed the Khiam prison on 23 May 2000 and freed the last 144 detainees held there. Six days later, a delegation from Amnesty International visited the site and were shown around by former detainees:
They also took us to the electricity pylon placed in a small enclosed courtyard, where so many were tied up, stripped to their underwear and with a hood over their heads, and beaten or doused with water. As the former prisoners related this experience to us standing next to the pylon, other visitors gathered around to listen, many clearly moved. The prisoners themselves were being affected, as we saw in the case of Najwa Semhat, who was returning for the first time after her release six days before, with her daughter and husband - himself a former detainee - especially when she faced her cell with memories all too fresh. [emphasis added]
Hizb Allah soon converted the prison into a museum, preserving the cells and interrogation rooms as a reminder of Israel and the SLA's atrocities. Gabi Ashkenazi went on to serve as deputy head of the Israeli military (2002-2004), Director-General of the Ministry of Defense (2006), and head of the Israeli military (2007-). He has never been held to account for his actions.

On 20 July 2006, during the Lebanon-Israel war, the Israeli air force bombed the prison (below). While the physical evidence may have been destroyed, the memory of what happened Khiam remains.