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Red Rag: report from a police holding-cell
By: Gideon Spiro
15 June 2011 (English translation 18 June 2011)

Report from a police holding-cell

At 11 AM on Monday 6 June, a policeman knocked on my door and gave me an “invitation to report to the police for questioning” by 11:30!!! I was asked to meet with the investigator Shahar Weiss at the police station in the heart of Tel Aviv on Dizengoff Street. The invitation slip was signed by a police officer with the rank of chief inspector, named Osnat Peleg-Shvili, personal number 1027242. In a telephone conversation with Ms Peleg-Shvili I asked why I was invited for questioning, but she refused to go into details.

At 11:45 I was already in the station and looked for the investigator Weiss. He was not in his office. I waited in the corridor until a man in civilian clothes came along, and I asked him, “do you know Shahar Weiss?” “It’s me,” he replied. “I have been invited for questioning with you,” I said. “Wait, I’ll call you.”

A few minutes later I entered the interrogation room, and there I learned the reason for the investigation. An extreme right-wing group, some of them settlers, calling itself the “Judicial Forum” had filed a complaint of “incitement to violence” because of my “Red Rag” column called “Heart-rending scenes” ( http://www.kibush.co.il/show_file.asp?num=42202

My lawyer Avissar Lev pointed out that according to the twisted logic on which the complaint is based, the Ten Commandments are incitement to murder, lying and adultery. Just omit the words “thou shalt not” from the commandment, “thou shalt not murder”, and you have a commandment to commit murder.

I explained very patiently, and in basic Hebrew that would not be hard for the investigator to understand, that not only did the article not call for violence, it opposed it. The article dealt with an issue that is a legitimate part of the political discourse in Israel: are armed settlers part of the Occupation force, or are they innocent civilian passers-by?

My answer: armed settlers are indeed part of the Occupation force, even if they wear civilian clothes, and the struggle against them by the occupied people is not the same as attacking peaceable civilians. Towards the end of the article I wrote that, as a member of the occupying nation, it would be arrogant of me to presume to give the Palestinians guidance on how they should conduct their struggle against the Occupation; but if they asked me, I would say that I prefer non-violent struggle of the type being conducted in the villages of Bil’in and Ni’lin, which spares human life and moreover is often more effective. I do not know if the investigator reproduced my statement accurately. I did not read what he wrote.

Upon the conclusion of the questioning I was taken to the office of the officer Peleg-Shvili, and she said, “I am arresting you. What do you have to say?” “This is a scandal,” I replied. I have the right to notify a lawyer, so I called the Attorney Michael Sfard, the lawyer for human rights defenders, and Dan Yakir, the legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. They had difficulty believing what they heard. Ms Peleg-Shvili did not tell me exactly what I was being arrested for, but to her it didn’t matter, because it is not every day that a junior police officer [1] has a chance to ingratiate herself to the settlers. Then began the procedure for arresting a person who is suspected of having committed a serious crime. I was asked a series of questions (for example: “do you have suicidal tendencies?”). Some questions I answered, others I refused to answer. I refused every request to sign a piece of paper. I had the impression that the officer was surprised that I did not ask for mercy and beg for my life.

At the end of the questioning stage, a policewoman ordered me to go with her, and I was taken to the police holding-cell. The jingle of keys and the creaking of the hinges of the metal doors sounded very much just like in crime movies. The policeman responsible for processing new detainees ordered me to empty my pockets, the contents of which were put in an envelope. In the detention cell there were seven Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who had been caught while looking for work to get a little bread for their families. (In the language of abbreviation: “Shabahim”, which is the acronym for the Hebrew words meaning people illegally present in the country [2]). The cell was small, quite malodorous, with several places to sit. The ventilation was bad. The Palestinians were understandably a bit nervous, so they constantly smoked and the cell was full of cigarette smoke. Those who didn’t smoke, suffered.

The arrest of a journalist because of what he wrote, moreover at such an early stage in the investigation, and throwing him into a detention cell, is unprecedented in Israel. Especially when it involves a 76 year old man. The officer who decided that I should be arrested (it is not clear if it was her initiative or orders from above) sentenced me to death. Because for a man my age to land in a detention cell without advance preparation could lead to a fatal event, such as a stroke or heart attack.

Half an hour later I was called back to the chief inspector’s office. It turned out that they had forgotten to take a DNA sample from me. I’m a dangerous criminal, after all. I tried to refuse, but I was told that under the law I had no right to refuse, and if I insisted, the sample would be taken by force. Moreover, refusal would increase my sentence by half a year. They gave me the opportunity to consult with a lawyer and he confirmed that this is in fact the law.

A policewoman with surgical gloves took the sample and I was returned to the detention cell. Meanwhile more Palestinian detainees had been put in the cell, and it was more crowded.

Looking back, it seems that nothing was coincidental. After the death penalty by means of a health-related event was not carried out, there was a need to implement plan B. Not by coincidence was I put into a cell full of angry Palestinians. They were supposed to take revenge on me, so the police could then say, “see? Those Palestinians hate all Jews, right-wingers or left-wingers, it makes no difference to them.” There was just one problem: the Palestinians did not cooperate with the police. They did not take the hint. They treated the new detainee who joined them with complete collegiality. They offered me a cigarette, and I helped them get a lighter. It’s true that I suffered from the smoke, but in jail the rules are different.

What does a man think about when he is put into a detention cell for the first time in his life at age 76? He suddenly gets the familiar symptoms of one condemned to death, for indeed he could turn into a corpse at any moment. Your life passes in front of you like a film. What you accomplished, where you succeeded, where you failed, what will you leave behind? I was still lost in my thoughts when I heard the policewoman yelling to the jailer, “take the older man out.” The iron door was opened, I got my belongings and went up to the chief inspector’s office. My friend and lawyer Avissar Lev was already waiting outside. It turns out that the lawyer Michael Sfard did not rest, and he talked to everybody and his brother to secure my release on self-bail and bail from a third party. We went out onto the city streets, drank a cup of coffee and tried to understand what the meaning of all this was.

Beyond personal harassment – and years ago I was fingered by the settlers and the Israeli Right as an enemy of the nation, and I have received telephone threats more than once – my arrest had another objective unconnected to me personally, for after all even the most clueless settler must assume that a 76 year old man cannot be changed or intimidated. It was a message to young people: be careful, don’t express yourselves, and if you cross the line beyond what the Right will tolerate, you will end up in a prison cell. The norms of the violent and dictatorial settlers’ state are penetrating more and more into the State of Israel.

Settlers who complain about incitement to violence are like a man who murders his parents and then asks for the court’s mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. An Orwellian phenomenon. The tyrannical pigs were insulted. The settlers, who are the refined expression of Israeli violence in the Occupied Territories, have suddenly become so sensitive that they ask for police protection from Gideon Spiro, whose only crime is that he does not join in the festival of killing Arabs, expulsion, burning mosques and stealing lands.

My message to the Judicial Forum is short and sharp: you are a bunch of thieves in the sense that you steal understanding. (The Hebrew expression genivat da’at means deceit or false pretences. Literally it means “theft of understanding” or “theft of knowledge”) You are immersed in Mussolini’s sauce. You support and endorse a regime of war crimes in the Occupied Territories. Your very being is incitement to violence. I despise you, and you will not succeed in silencing me. And if the decision is made to press charges against me, it will not be me who is on trial, but you and the Occupation. Even if you lodge a thousand complaints with the police, I will continue to say and write what is in my heart.

For years I have been telling Palestinians with whom I am in regular contact, when they ask my opinion, that I do not disagree that they have the right to resist and to revolt against the Occupation. Attacking an armed settler is not the same thing as attacking a peaceable civilian, but nevertheless it is better to conduct a non-violent struggle, for there is no such thing as a sterile armed struggle. It always harms the non-combatant civilian population as well. You should not take your inspiration from the Irgun, which threw bombs at markets and slaughtered civilians, but from Martin Luther King, who did not cooperate with the racist authorities. Moreover, in your present geo-political situation, faced as you are with an Occupation army that is armed to the teeth, along with its auxiliary settler army, the Palestinians have no chance in an armed struggle.

Therefore, there is no substitute for mass unarmed struggle. It is both the need of the moment and more just in principle. There is no force in the world that could contend for long with a hundred thousand Palestinians from Nablus, a hundred thousand from Ramallah, a Hundred thousand from Hebron and a hundred thousand from Bethlehem marching towards the settlements in a pincer movement, putting them under a siege of humanity with one demand: leave our land, and return to us what you stole.

I also had moments of satisfaction. After I was released I got many calls, most of which expressed encouragement and support. Human rights organizations condemned my arrest and demanded that the attorney general, the state prosecutor and the police commissioner launch an inquiry into the arrest, which the Association for Civil Rights in Israel characterised as illegal. Physicians for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Amnesty International, Knesset Member Zehava Gal-On and “Keshev” – the Centre for the Defence of Democracy in Israel, headed by the journalist Yizhar Be’er all demanded that the governmental authorities and the journalists’ association investigate how it happened that a junior officer blatantly violated freedom of expression by throwing a journalist in jail. In effect, this was state terror.

It seems fitting to conclude with the letter of the general secretary of Amnesty International Israel, Rachel Benziman, to the attorney general and the state prosecutor:

9 June 2011

To: Attorney Yehuda Weinstein, attorney general, and Attorney Moshe Lador, state prosecutor
Fax: 02-6467001 and 02-6467006

Dear Sirs,

The subject: the arrest of Amnesty International member Gideon Spiro – a grave violation of the right to freedom of expression.

Amnesty International has the honour of addressing you in order to request the immediate convening of an inquiry into the circumstances under which the decision was made to invite Mr. Gideon Spiro for questioning about an article he had published and on the decision to arrest him upon the conclusion of the questioning.

Mr. Gideon Spiro serves as a member of the audit committee of Amnesty International Israel, and he is a well-known veteran journalist and human rights activist. The interrogation of Mr. Spiro about an article he wrote, which to the best of our understanding and command of the Hebrew language constituted no grounds for an accusation of incitement to violence, raises a red flag regarding the set of considerations that guide the judicial authorities in the State of Israel.

Moreover, the decision to arrest Mr. Spiro at the end of the interrogation is even more serious. To the best of our understanding, there is no provision in the law that can justify the arrest of Mr. Spiro, who is 76 years old and a respected and law-abiding citizen who presents no danger to the public. There were certainly no grounds to fear that he would compromise the conduct of the investigation or flee justice.

The impression that emerges from the decision is that the central status of the right to freedom of expression in a democratic regime is not clearly understood by the investigating authorities in the Israel Police, and that the duty to uphold human rights is unknown to them. The arrest of a man for having expressed an opinion, who is moreover a journalist, is not only an attack on him personally, but is also likely to be understood among human rights activists and journalists as a “warning” that the police in the State of Israel are not obliged to defend their right to struggle for human rights in this country and in the world.

In the year 2011 Amnesty International documented attacks on freedom of expression, on journalists and human rights defenders in 89 countries in the world. The arrest of journalists is a practice that is characteristic of shady regimes, and the State of Israel must not make itself resemble them by adopting such practices.

In your positions of responsibility for the enforcement of the law in the State of Israel, we urge you to enact measures to ensure that incidents like this one are not repeated and that human rights are appropriately defended in Israel.

Faithfully yours,

Attorney Rachel Benziman
Acting secretary general
Amnesty International Israel




Translator’s notes

1. The word “officer” is used here in the military sense: i.e. the holder of a position of authority in a uniformed service. Hence although as a “chief inspector” she is a high-ranking policewoman, as a member of the police officer corps she is junior, because there are six “officer” ranks above her.

2. Shohim Bilti Huqiyim: literally “illegal stayers”.

Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent
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