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Red Rag column: The same tune again
Gideon Spiro

Red Rag, 13 May 2010

The same tune again

Songs in praise of the army are often heard at national events in Israel. One of those songs is called “You can’t stop this melody.” That title is also appropriate in other contexts, for example, the Israeli government’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens: it cannot stop the melody of discrimination, harassment and slander. As part of that regular harassment, two leading activist Palestinian citizens of Israel were arrested recently: Amir Makhoul of Haifa and Dr. Omar Said of Kfar Kana. They were arrested in night raids on their homes, in front of their families, their homes were ransacked, and of course they were ordered by the courts not to speak to the media. They were also forbidden to meet with lawyers. That way the Israel Security Agency (ISA – Shin Bet) investigators can interrogate the detainees without being disturbed, wear them down and torture them if necessary, all with the objective of extracting some statement from them. When it comes to the torture and the humiliation of detainees, the ISA people are world-class experts.

Fortunately for us, today we have the Internet, and the news about the arrests spread like wildfire in the blogosphere. Since everybody knew about it anyway, the ISA decided to ask the court to rescind the blackout and permit the publication of the arrests as well as the accusations of “spying for Hezbollah” and “contact with a foreign agent.” The details of the accusations remain secret. The military and court reporters of the Israeli media stood as one in the service of the ISA and the police, and published accounts of all the incidents in which citizens were accused of spying for Hezbollah in the past, the idea being that there is no smoke without fire. They all emphasized the case of the former Knesset Member Dr. Azmi Bishara as if he had been convicted of a crime, when in fact he is merely a suspect who has not even been put on trial.

At that time I wrote that Dr. Bishara did the right thing when he left Israel, for there is no
Way an Arab can get a fair trial after he has been accused of a security offense. The judges are captives of the ISA and the conviction of the accused is a foregone conclusion.

Regarding the accusation of espionage, the whole thing sounds absurd. A necessary condition for espionage is that the accused be in possession of classified information that may be of interest to a foreign intelligence agency. These two activists – apart from the fact that they are secular people who abhor religious fundamentalism – are not parties to any substantial information that could be of interest to foreign agents. They did not serve in the army and they have no access to anyone in Israel’s intelligence agencies. All the information they have on Israel is from newspapers and Internet websites, information that is in any case available to all foreign agents who read newspapers and visit Israeli websites.

“Contact with a foreign agent” is a catch-all provision that can be applied to anyone who meets anyone with a non-Israeli passport. When the ISA wants to nab someone, the easiest thing is to accuse them of “contact with a foreign agent.”

I have met with thousands of “foreign agents” in my time. Delegates from Arab states participate in international conferences, and I do not have the authority to investigate them, nor do I want to. It is the same with all Israelis on the Left, both Jews and Arabs.

Whereas the ISA exercises a certain degree of restraint in using that provision against Jews, even those on the Left, that is not the case when it comes to Arab Israeli citizens. With them, the ISA gives free rein to its inclination to harass political activists. It is to be hoped that Makhoul and Said do not break under interrogation. That way they may avoid being charged. If a charge-sheet is submitted, their situation will be worse. They won’t have a chance, for all practical purposes. In those matters the Israeli justice system resembles that of a totalitarian regime – a show for protocol purposes only.

A relevant personal anecdote: in 1986 I was on a lecture tour in several countries. During that same period a law was passed in Israel that barred Israelis from meeting with “members of terrorist organizations.”

In September 1986 I sent a letter along the following lines to the Israeli ambassadors in Germany, Holland and the US:

“I am currently on a speaking tour the objective of which is to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“I request of you, Mr. Ambassador, to provide me with a list of Palestinians with whom contact is forbidden under the law that was passed in the Knesset not long ago, which forbids Israelis from meeting with those who are called ‘members of terrorist organizations.’

“I am sure that the Embassies of Israel are in close contact with emissaries of the Israeli intelligence services, and the latter have certainly supplied the Embassies an updated list of all the Palestinians in Holland, Germany and the USA who are included in the relevant category under the above-mentioned law. As a law-abiding citizen I do not want to find myself in violation of the law, even if I think that the law is foolish and superfluous.

“I am sure you will agree, Mr. Ambassador, that it is not possible for me to investigate every Palestinian before they meet with me, in order to find out what organization they belong to and their role in that organization. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of Palestinians in Holland, Germany and the US, and I do not have the tools to conduct inquiries into the background of every one of them.

“It is the role of the Embassy to help every Israeli obey the above-mentioned law, and to provide them with a list of all Palestinians upon request. Otherwise, the embassy will be acting as one who puts a stumblingblock in the path of a blind person (“Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind” – Leviticus 19:14).

“I would be grateful if you sent the list to the address that appears at the top of this page.

Sincerely, Gideon Spiro”

Israel’s embassy in Holland answered me with a letter dated 12 September 1986:


“To Mr. Gideon Spiro, Amsterdam.

“Honourable Sir,

“I hereby acknowledge with thanks receipt of your letter, in which you requested a list of Palestinians in Holland, and inform you that the Foreign Ministry does not provide opinions on judicial matters to private individuals.

Very sincerely,

D. Megiddo, Counsellor.”

My advice to the lawyers for Makhoul and Said is that they use this exchange of letters as evidence that even the Foreign Ministry is not willing to provide Israelis with that kind of information, and so that draconian provision should be removed from the statute-book.

”The most dangerous man”

The film The most dangerous man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is being shown in the “DocAviv” festival, a documentary film festival that is currently taking place in Tel Aviv.

This brilliant film, which has won a citation, tells the exceptional story of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg. He began his career in the American Establishment as an officer in the Marines, then he served as a senior researcher at the Pentagon who had access to the most secret materials during the Vietnam War. In the early stages he supported the war, but his discomfort grew as it became more prolonged and the cruelty increased. It was President Nixon’s lies to the American people about the war that finally led to his decision to disclose the documents at the beginning of 1971. The documents proved not only that Nixon was lying, but that all the presidents connected to the war, starting with Kennedy, through Johnson and then Nixon, had lied to the people. Ellsberg’s conscience outweighed his loyalty to the Administration.

The disclosure of the documents to the American press aroused a great deal of controversy. There were those in the New York Times who thought that they should not be published due to the secret nature of the material; but after hesitating, the editor decided to publish. The Administration tried to prevent publication by means of judicial orders, but in the end the US Supreme Court decided that the publication of the documents was not subject to prior restraint and was protected by the provisions of the US Constitution that guarantee freedom of expression. Daniel Ellsberg was put on trial on charges that could have carried up to 115 years in prison upon conviction. The trial against Ellsberg was cancelled after a judge ruled that the Administration had violated his civil rights.

Today, with hindsight, it is clear to all that Ellsberg’s act saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, because it contributed to the shortening of the war. At the same time, it brought about the strengthening of freedom of expression through a series of judicial decisions. Ellsberg is a kind of national hero because he realized an important principle: “The right of the public to know;” and not only to know, but to know the truth, without which the public has little ability to hold the regime accountable.

The publication of the documents drove President Nixon out of his mind. The White House recordings tell us that he did not shrink from swearing and gutter language, and saw in the affair a plot by liberal journalists and judges whom he referred to as “sons of bitches.”

Most similar to Ellsberg is Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Vanunu was party to one of the most closely-guarded secrets in Israel, the production of nuclear weapons. Like Ellsberg, Vanunu learned in the course of his work that the government was lying to the people, and that Israel’s production of nuclear weapons was jeopardizing its survival as well as that of the entire region. The right of citizens to receive information on government acts that are endangering their lives is one of the anchors of democratic government, for after all it is they who will be the first to pay the price for the nuclear adventure. Therefore, like Ellsberg, Vanunu took action and brought the secret information to the knowledge of the public. And that is where the similarities end.

In Israel there were no liberal “sons of bitches” of the type so hated by Nixon, who believed that Vanunu should not be put on trial because his civil rights were violated after he was kidnapped. By all accounts Vanunu’s judges acted like sons of bitches, without quotation marks, of the corrupt type that was much loved by Nixon. Vanunu’s trial took place behind closed doors and he was sent to prison for 18 years, including 12 in solitary confinement, a punishment which the human rights organization Amnesty International has defined as “cruel, humiliating and inhumane.” Vanunu served his full sentence and was released from prison on 21 April 2004. Vanunu did not play by the ISA’s rules: he did not ask forgiveness, he did not express regret, and he remained true to the principle for which he was sent to prison: opposition to nuclear weapons. Not for nothing does Dr. Daniel Ellsberg call him “my hero – my brother who is an inspiration to me.”

The ISA could not stand the spirits of freedom and humanity that emanated from Vanunu, and in revenge they imposed draconian restrictions on him upon his release, including a ban on leaving the country and a ban on talking to foreigners. Those restrictions contravene basic civil rights, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of movement. The formal pretext for the restrictions is a supposed “danger to the security of the State.” Every sane person knows that that claim is groundless. After he revealed what he knew to the British newspaper The Sunday Times in 1986, and after the passage of 24 years during which he never entered the reactor, including 18 years in prison, what danger could he represent?

The judges, in a satanic act, have bought the ISA’s shoddy merchandise and continue to authorize the restrictions.

Vanunu lives in East Jerusalem, a place where hostility to him is not prevalent. Naturally he meets tourists and talks with them. Some of them were journalists, so again he was put on trial. He was not accused of revealing secrets, for of course he has none, but of violating the above-mentioned order issued by the head of the Central Command that forbids him from talking with foreigners. A general forbids a civilian from talking and judges ratify it: that is Israeli democracy in the 21st century. The Magistrate’s Court sentenced him to a half year’s imprisonment, the District Court cut it to three months, and recently three judges of the Supreme Court – Edmund Levy, Edna Arbel and Esther Hayut – decided that Vanunu must go to prison on 23 May to serve three months. Vanunu was willing to serve the three months in community service for the benefit of the public in East Jerusalem, but the State did not agree, and insisted instead that he do it in the west of the city. That is another face of the fraud called “the unification of Jerusalem.” In East Jerusalem there are two Palestinian hospitals where Vanunu was willing to do community service, but the State refused. Another expression of Israeli racism: a Jew helping Palestinians? Unacceptable! And the Supreme Court agreed.

This is a cruel and despicable decision that violates the principles of natural justice, and does an injustice to a beloved man who is an Israeli and international hero (and not just in my eyes), a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize and winner of many peace prizes, including the Alternative Nobel Prize. A man who was willing to pay a high price for his noble conscience. The judges who threw him into jail do not possess the stature of one of Mordechai Vanunu’s fingernails. An eternal curse will be their reward for this unjust ruling. My hope is that there will be an international protest. I also expect that human rights organizations in Israel too will join in and raise their voices.

The film about Ellsberg was received with much interest by the public. All the screenings were in full theatres. If the hundreds of spectators who applauded that film would also demonstrate for Vanunu instead of leaving the struggle to a handful of Israelis, his situation would probably be a lot better, and already he would be in another country for some time now, living as a free man and maybe starting a family. The vast majority of Israelis love people of conscience in other countries. At home they are cowards and collaborators with evil. It is sad.

Jerusalem racism day

This year too Israel commemorated the weird festival called “Jerusalem Unification Day,” which is nothing but a celebration of Jerusalem racism and the theft of the lands of Palestinians and discrimination against them. Jews celebrate while the Palestinian residents of the city are tormented.

As long as Israel annually commemorates this “festival,” which should more appropriately be called a horror-fest, [1] I will continue to recycle what I wrote in 1983 in one of the articles for which I was put on trial and dismissed from my job in the Education Ministry. (Civil Service Appeal 5/86 – published in Vol. M, fourth part of the Decisions of the Supreme Court). I wrote:

“This day, which is called “Jerusalem Liberation Day” or Jerusalem Unification Day, is a forced and affected festival, a disfigurement of Israeli society and a distortion of the Hebrew language.

“What liberation is here, what unification do we celebrate? On this day the other half of what is supposed to be a ‘unified and liberated’ city, Arab Jerusalem, feels the crushing presence of the soldiers of the Israeli army and the Border Guards. On this day citizens of East Jerusalem, who were involuntarily annexed to Israel, are more aware of the fact that they are discriminated against, occupied and humiliated than on any other day.

“How can we speak of liberation when a hundred thousand Arabs (today nearly 300 thousand – GS) who live under forced unification, suffer every day from the Israeli Occupation, which violates their rights. Citizens of East Jerusalem are being slowly strangled by the new neighbourhoods like Gilo, Ramot, Talpiot and Neve Yaakov, that are closing in on them from all sides.

Jerusalem will be entitled to celebrate Liberation Day only on the day when there is an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. On that day it will be possible to celebrate the liberation from Occupation and true unity between Israelis and Palestinians who live side-by-side in mutual respect of human and national rights.” (Maariv 6/6/1983)”

Those words were written when Teddy Kollek was the mayor. Since then it’s only gotten worse.


Translator’s note

1. In Hebrew: “hag” – festival or holiday; “haga” – a non-Jewish holiday, or a horror or terror.

Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent.
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