When the Shin Bet rounds up Palestinians, Israeli media stops asking questions

When the Shin Bet announced it arrested 50 Palestinians linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the media simply parroted the agency's talking points.

Palestinian boys dressed up as prisoners protest for the release of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, Gaza City, April 21 2007. (Ahmad Khateib/ Flash90)
Palestinian boys dressed up as prisoners protest for the release of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, Gaza City, April 21 2007. (Ahmad Khateib/ Flash90)

The Shin Bet revealed Wednesday that it had arrested over 50 members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) over the past few months, including those who were allegedly involved in the murder of an Israeli teenager earlier this year.

Although the story had been widely publicized on international media outlets and social media over the past few months, Israeli outlets were barred from reporting on the story due to a court-imposed gag order. When the Shin Bet published its announcement, the Israeli media not only shied away from reporting the facts and providing context, it parroted the agency’s talking points.

A closer examination reveals the roundups included activists, students affiliated with the PFLP, and political leaders, including renowned feminist Palestinian lawmaker Khalida Jarrar. A number of those arrested, the agency said, were not involved in militant activities. The statement included the names of only seven members of the PFLP, three of whom are suspected of taking part in Shnerb’s murder, and four who belong to the organization’s political leadership. The names of the remaining 43 Palestinians who were arrested were not mentioned in the statement. The Shin Bet has yet to respond to +972’s requests to reveal the names of the remaining detainees, as well as what they were accused of.

The wave of arrests began following the murder 17-year-old Israeli Rena Shnerb, who was killed by a roadside bomb while hiking with her father and brother in the West Bank on August 23. Attorneys and human rights activists who have been following the arrests were surprised by the announcement, considering the Jerusalem Magistrates Court recently acceded to the agency’s request to extend a gag order on the arrests until December 31. Palestinian prisoners’ rights organization Addameer accused the Shin Bet of “taking advantage of its authority” by publicizing the details of the arrests after asking for the gag order extension.

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman at the eight annual International UVID Conference at the Avenue Convention Center, Airport City, Israel, November 7, 2019. (Flash90)
Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman at the eight annual International UVID Conference at the Avenue Convention Center, Airport City, Israel, November 7, 2019. (Flash90)

Addameer also said that the organization is “worried about the details that were published by the Israeli media,” especially in light of the fact that the military prosecution never submitted a list of indictments against some of the detainees under interrogation.

In many cases, prominent Israeli media outlets simply published parts of the Shin Bet statement as truth without adding any context, including by erroneously tying all 50 detainees to militant activities. Furthermore, not a single article in the Hebrew media used the word “suspects” (Editor’s note: apart from this article, which was first published in Hebrew on Local Call) — as is common when describing detainees in Israel — despite the fact that not a single detainee has been convicted and at least a few of them are being held in administrative detention without trial.

The Shin Bet’s statement demonstrates the absurdity of gag orders in an era in which arrests have already been widely published on Arabic media outlets, social media, and in English. The gag order prevents any public or political discussion on the arrests and serves as a tool for political censorship, which allows the Shin Bet to publish statements when it serves its interests.

Acccording to Addameer General Director Sahar Francis, “the entire idea of a [gag] order is to censor and prevent talking about torture in this case,” referring to Samer Arbeed, who was interrogated over Shnerb’s murder. Arbeed was reportedly tortured by the Shin Bet and hospitalized in critical condition in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center. According to sources with knowledge of the interrogations, the confessions of the other detainees were also extracted through torture.

Sahar Francis, director of Addameer, seen at the organization’s offices in Ramallah, West Bank on February 19, 2019. (Photo: Mohannad Darabee for +972 Magazine)
Sahar Francis, director of Addameer, seen at the organization’s offices in Ramallah, West Bank on February 19, 2019. (Photo: Mohannad Darabee for +972 Magazine)

Francis says that not all the detainees were indicted, making it difficult to count how many of them are involved in political activities, adding that there is a large number of students and activists who stay out of “militant activities.” She estimates that the first time the Shin Bet published a statement regarding the arrests back in September — despite the gag order — was a result of the publicity surrounding Arbeed’s grave injuries. “We believe that this was because they were afraid that Samer would succumb to his wounds.”

“They frequently renewed the gag order and in most of the court hearings insisted on not allowing family members to sit in the courtroom,” Francis continues. “The torture was very brutal and took place with the consent of the military court and the Supreme Court, both of which approved the decision to prevent meetings with attorneys, and as such there was no legal defense [for the detainees] throughout the entire period of interrogations.”

Sahar points out that the timing of the arrests may be related to the fact that just one day before the Shin Bet’s statement, Human Rights Watch published a comprehensive report on Israel’s expansive use of military orders to repress Palestinians in the West Bank. The report is based on interviews and analyses of various cases, mentioning the practice of administrative detention as a tool of political repression.

No need for administrative detention

The Shin Bet statement described Palestinian Legislative Council member for the PFLP, Khalida Jarrar, as someone who “appears to stand at the head of the PFLP in the West Bank, and thus is responsible for all actions of the group.” Jarrar has been arrested before, in 2015 and 2017. She was last released from Israel’s Damon prison in February, after nearly two years under administrative detention — a method used by the Israeli army to imprison people without charge or trial, used almost exclusively against Palestinians. According to Addameer, there are currently 5,000 Palestinians in administrative detention, including five members of the PLC.

Israel has repeatedly targeted Jarrar for her association with the PFLP, as well as participating in protests, giving speeches and interviews to the media, a visit to a solidarity tent for Palestinian prisoners, and alleged incitement to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

According to Francis, however, the charges against Jarrar earlier this month include only one charge: “Holds a position in a terrorist organization.” The charges include no mention of Shnerb’s murder, which led to the wave of arrests. “They did not tie her directly to militant activity,” said Francis, “she is not accused of this.”

The gag order slapped on the case prevented media outlets from reporting on the roundups, including Jarrar’s legal proceedings. +972 requested to be present at a hearing in Ofer Military Court to extend Jarrar’s remand last week. The military judge presiding over the hearing ruled that it would be held behind closed doors.

Palestinian political parties in the West Bank, including the PFLP, are defined by Israel as terrorist organizations. Therefore, the civil or political activities of those parties may also be cause for arrest. Jarrar herself has already spent time in administrative detention for membership in the PFLP, which she represents as an elected member of the Palestinian parliament, when the activities for which she was convicted included speeches and demonstrations. As mentioned, there is no indication of her involvement in militant activity.

Jarrar’s daughter, Yaffa, said that “we never had any trust in the Shin Bet, but this time they are officially disseminating false information, all while violating a gag order that was put in place in order to hide evidence regarding torture they committed in contravention of international law. They are detaining my mother under the premise that she is a leader of the PFLP, and thus is responsible for everything. Show us what evidence you have.”

Palestinian legislator Khalida Jarrar of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hugging her daughter upon her release from an Israeli prison, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, February 28, 2019. (STR/Flash90)
Palestinian legislator Khalida Jarrar of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hugging her daughter upon her release from an Israeli prison, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, February 28, 2019. (STR/Flash90)

“I’ve been aware of these practices since the day I was born yet I was still surprised,” Yaffa says. “This campaign was intended to harm my mother’s image, based on false reports by the Israeli authorities, all because of her activities as a feminist and defender of human rights.” Yaffa says that this time, the authorities decided not to put her mother back in administrative detention, but to put her on trial over a single charge. “They don’t want the headache of having to deal with administrative detention. Imprisoning her without trial or evidence will lead to international protests, so they do the same thing through fabricating charges.”

The detainees

Among the 50 detainees are students from Bir Zeit University — some of whom are part the Progressive Democratic Student Pole, known as “Al-Qutub,” the student arm of the PFLP on campus — are Mais Abu Ghosh and Samah Jaradat. According to Nitza Aminov, an Israeli activist reported in Jaradat’s remand extension hearing, she was arrested in early September and barred from meeting with a lawyer for close to a month. Like other detainees, her attorney noted that her confession was under pressure.

One of the detainees who was not mentioned by the Shin Bet is scientist Ubai Aboudi, who is also a U.S. citizen. Aboudi is the director of Palestinian NGO Bisan Center for Research and Development, which focuses on education. In the early hours of November 13, Israeli soldiers arrested Aboudi during a raid on his home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Kufr Aqab. On November 18, an Israeli military court decided to put him in administrative detention for four months. His term was later shortened to two months.

Israeli soldiers patrol Birzeit University, on the outskirts of the city of Ramallah in the West Bank during an operation on June 19, 2014. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers patrol Birzeit University, on the outskirts of the city of Ramallah in the West Bank during an operation on June 19, 2014. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

As the director of Bisan, Aboudi helped organize an international conference in support of science research and education in Palestine, and was working on a report on the state of science in Palestine and Israel’s harassment of Palestinian scientists. After his arrest, Aboudi’s friends and colleagues abroad launched a campaign for his release, including a letter signed by over 1,000 prominent scientists and academics from around the world.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.