‘Hi, this is Rona from the Shin Bet’

The logic of Israel’s secret police dictates that it can summon left-wing activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel for friendly ‘chats’ about their political activities. Sounds like a movie script? Illegal? The State, it turns out, insists that this state of affairs is perfectly appropriate.

By Hagai El-Ad (translated by Sol Salbe) / ‘The Hottest Place in Hell’
Read this post in Hebrew here

In Israeli airports, certain people always “endanger security.” Well, it turns out that there are certain ideas that can also “endanger security” if there are people struggling on their behalf. If you’re in the first category but still want to fly, they will rummage through your clothing; if you’re in the latter category and you want to remain conscientious people, they’ll rummage through your thoughts.

Imagine, one day, you receive an unexpected phone call: “Rona” from the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency, also known as the “Shabak”), is on the line. She wants you to come in for a “chat.” You summon enough courage to ask what would happen if, instead of accepting Rona’s invitation, you pass the day chatting with other people. Rona explains that it is for your own good, and that it would be a shame if they had to send a cop car. You are convinced and show up – after all, the cops have other things to do…

During the “chat” they let you know that “they know what you are up to” – you’re involved in demonstrations against the occupation, or for Bedouin rights, for example. They ask about your friends and other activists who you don’t really know. About your studies, salary and family. Rona is quite curious. Basically, they tell you that you’re close to the edge, that they’re watching you, that for your own sake you better not slip, that you have an “opportunity to stop.” Otherwise it could become “a lot less pleasant.”

Sounds like a movie script? A bit exaggerated? Illegal? The State, it turns out, insists that this state of affairs is perfectly appropriate. In response to a petition filed by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) against the “warning chats” that the Shin Bet conducts with various citizens, it stated: “Demonstrations by ‘Leftists’ against the Prawer Plan may develop into widespread confrontations between Jews and Arabs which may have broad security implications. Therefore, disturbances of this kind could pose a threat to state security, and consequently, dealing with them is within the scope of the Shin Bet’s powers and range of activities.”

That is, if until now you have been under the possibly erroneous impression that in Israel demonstrations are a matter of interest to the public at large and at most – if things get out of hand – the police, you’re wrong. It turns out there are some demonstrations that — before they happen! — are of interest to the Shin Bet. For the Shin Bet, merely expressing interest in some issues – guess which ones – puts you out of the realm of a free-flowing discourse of attitudes, policies and values of a democratic country. Instead one becomes part of a shadowy world in which the state allows itself to “gather information,” deter and prevent.

After deciding what is considered “dangerous to state security,” the Shin Bet makes its own rules and grants itself the power to act this way. But if demonstrations about an issue that is so obviously pertinent to public interest, such as the future of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, potentially “endanger state security,” then which “safe matters” are we permitted to protest without risking state security? And what about other dangers, such as ultra-Orthodox protests against the draft? Or demonstrations by reform Jews against the Rabbinate? And what about demonstrations by Israelis against the occupation, or in favor of it? Which ones “endanger state security?”

The degree of adaptability of this reckless interpretation of “state security” is directly related to the Shin Bet’s enthusiasm for serving the government’s political agenda at any given time. Because who really knows whether demonstrations against the Prawer Plan endanger state security, or whether they enhance it? Perhaps public pressure in a particular direction, following an intense political struggle, will lead to the development of the Negev for the benefit of all its inhabitants, as opposed to the discriminatory policies of the last 60 years? Which country is “safer” – the one with a greater equality for all citizens, or the one that grants privileges to some certain segments of the population?

Working out who should determine such complex maters is no trifling matter. That is the very reason why there are debates, demonstrations, elections, etc. in a free society. But it is obvious who ought to keep their distance from such public issues: the Shin Bet. Indeed, thoughts, ideas and opinions can be boring, original, bothersome or dangerous. But given the secret services’ powers, composition and methods of work, it is far more dangerous to give them the authority to sort through the marketplace of ideas. Other than terrorism, espionage or an attempted violent coup, it is not up to them to determine what should be deemed dangerous.

In a world where campaigning for human rights is presented by some politicians as “aiding and abetting terrorism” there is nothing far-fetched about worrying about the continuing, deliberate attempt to blur the difference between democratic resistance (I only wish it were determined and effective) and the different policy measures of a given government. In a country where the Jewish majority frequently designates Arab citizens as a security threat – particularly when that Arab community struggles for its rights – it is not unreasonable to point out the unfounded nature of a situation in which the majority determines that minority is dangerous by virtue of its very existence.

The Shin Bet must be reminded that there is a difference between demonstrations against the Prawer Plan and terrorism. Those who position the two of them on the same continuum are not acting on behalf of an embattled democracy, but on the behalf of tyrannical rule. Do such activities by the secret services constitute subversion of democratic governance (Article 7 of the Shin Bet Law)? The real danger is not in demonstrations by citizens, but in improper attempts to undermine our freedom of speech.

P.S.: Still not worried? Earlier this week, Finance Minister Yair Lapid made the following astonishing comment: “Most of the Trajtenberg committee [appointed by Netanyahu to deal with socio-economic problems] did not even possess a proper security clearance.” It turns out that in Israel, taking part in the discussion dealing with even the most civil of issues – housing, welfare, health, education – requires, in Lapid’s opinion, a security clearance. So, if you require a security clearance in order to discuss such topics such as private medical care, child allowances and the building of classrooms, which discussions can people without a security clearance participate in? According to Lapid’s logic, there is no reason for the Shin Bet to not summon Daphni Leef, who sparked the J14 socio-economic protest movement, for a warning chat.

Hagai El-Ad is the CEO of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. This article was first published in Hebrew on ‘The Hottest Place in Hell.’

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