Agents of Israel’s security services raid the homes of several young Bedouin activists, summon them for ‘friendly chats’ and attempt to coax them into suppressing protests they claim undermine the ‘fundamental principles of the state.’
By John Brown*
It’s Tuesday, just after midnight in the Bedouin town of Lakia in the Negev Desert. Black jeeps carrying approximately 15 plainclothes Shin Bet agents come to a screeching halt in front of one of the houses before bursting into it. The agents wake all the residents, including a young girl with a flashlight to her face, and take all the men outside. The men are forced to line up facing the outer wall of the house while the agents search them.
The agents demand to know the whereabouts of R., one of the brothers in the family. The men do not know. An agent who presents himself as “Haim” (a pseudonym) instructs one of them to phone R. and demand that he come home. R. doesn’t even live in this house, and the men refuse to call him. Haim happens to have R.’s number on his phone, so he makes the call instead.
R., who works as an organizer at the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, eventually arrives at the family home, where he sees his brothers lined up against the wall. Haim hands him a Shin Bet summons for questioning, a “chat,” two days later. In a conversation following the incident, R. said that when he asked the agent why he was summoned, Haim answered: “Think for yourself about what you did — you know,” as if he were his school teacher.
R., it turns out, had no idea what Haim was talking about. “Maybe it has to do with work,” he told me later on, although it was clear that Haim’s request had far more to do with threatening R. than work-related issues.
‘I need the protests to stop’
Although there is no legal requirement to show up for these “chats,” the threatening nature of the summons, which the Shin Bet agents said would repeat itself, was enough to make R. show up for the interrogation last Thursday, hoping to understand what it was all about. Very quickly, he understood that Haim was not planning to interrogate him about anything specific. “The conversation was friendly. Haim asked about my life, friends, work, and studies,” R. tells me.
Throughout the conversation, Haim explained to R. that he knows he was one of the organizers of the Hura protest two years ago against the Prawer Plan, a government plan to expropriate large tracts of Bedouin land and displace their residents. Haim told R. that the Shin Bet is tracking his phone and asked to see the numbers on it. R., however, had been wise enough not to bring his phone to the interrogation. Then Haim began mentioning the names of R.’s family members one by one, even those he did not recognize.
At this point Haim began threatening R. over the latter’s participation in protests. He even used perfect Arabic when he used the expression: “Play with anything, just don’t play with your father’s dick.” The father in this case is the Shin Bet; R. explains that Haim was essentially telling him he could do anything aside from participating in political activities, which are likely to get him in trouble with the security services.
At one point R. says that Haim began to ask him about his work in the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. “How are the salaries there? Is it enough for you to live off?” asked Haim, explaining that he could solve R.’s financial troubles. This was the beginning of Haim’s attempt to recruit R. to work with the Shin Bet. “You are a prominent leader. I need these protests to not happen,” said Haim, getting to the actual point of of the summons and interrogation.
The stick: we are watching you. The carrot: cooperate with us and we will reward you.
R. politely refused and an hour later the interrogation was over. At the exit he met “Captain Tahar” (pseudonym), who at the time was interrogating M., another political activist from the Negev. In the days following the break-in to R.’s home, the Shin Bet made similar visits to other towns in the Negev.
These are not isolated incidents, and the Shin Bet’s policy of issuing summonses and warning interrogations did not begin this week. A., who previously held R.’s position at the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, was summoned for an interrogation in 2012. He was also invited for a “clarification chat,” where he was strip-searched and asked similar questions. Since A. happened to bring his phone, the interrogator looked through his contacts and asked A. to call a specific person. The reason for doing so was unclear. The interrogator then suggested that A. “pray” not to be summoned again. His prayers weren’t answered, although the next time the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) intervened and managed to cancel the summons.
Back in 2010, ACRI asked the attorney general to put an end to “the illegitimate use of Shin Bet interrogations to dissuade citizens from legitimate political activities.” The practice has since continued. ACRI petitioned the High Court of Justice in 2013 against the practice, claiming that “a summons for a friendly chat ‘over a cup of tea’ with the secret services is not characteristic of a democratic regime.
Last May the Hight Court held its first hearing on the petition, during which Justice Zilbertal asked the state representative whether political activists who protested against the Prawer Plan had been summoned to interrogations. The state’s response was unclear. At first, State Attorney Briskman responded that “… there are protests that have nothing to do with state security. The same goes for Prawer.” However, in response to a question later on by Justice Hendel, Briskman said: “It is not that every activist was summoned. We are talking about isolated cases.” Either way, Briskman’s initial response is embarrassing, since he was asked how it could be that some protests are seen as having to do with state security.
The Shin Bet claims that it is authorized to hold these kinds of threatening conversations with activists involved in “subversion,” a term that casts a very wide net. In 2007, then head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, explained it this way: “The service’s position is that the category of ‘subversion’ may also contain attempts to undermine the fundamental values of the state by negating either its democratic or Jewish character, as an act of subversion against the democratic regime and its institutions.” Any act that promotes civic equality could easily fall under that category by challenging the Jewish character of the state — which inherently privileges its Jewish citizens.
According to the Shin Bet, the definition of “subversion” was updated in 2009 and no longer includes activities against the Jewish character of the state. But this is merely a cosmetic difference. Since then the Shin Bet has claimed that it summonses activists for threatening conversations only if they take part in a protest that may end up turning into a riot with nationalist undertones, or a riot that could potentially take place during times of tension. But because Israel is constantly facing security tensions, the Shin Bet has a free hand to act as it wants. Furthermore, most protests by Arab citizens are nationalistically motivated, which means the Shin Bet can get involved whenever and however it wants. When it came up in the High Court hearing, the state argued that activities against Prawer fell under this category, since they may “develop into clashes between Jews and Arabs,” without ever explaining the basis for such a claim.
Even worse than the Shin Bet authorizing itself to exercise such powers is, like in the case of R., the fabricated claim that it summonses activists to prevent them from taking part in illegal activities. R. does not take part in such activities. His interrogation was intended to preempt him from taking part in some vague political activity in the unforeseen future in order to recruit him as an informant. This is one of many attempts that is destroying Arab society from within, leading to violence and a lack of trust, a direct contradiction of the rule of law.
It is important to emphasize that the powers the Shin Bet has taken on, while exploiting the security situation — especially in the wake of the terrorist attack in Be’er Sheva — is only a taste of what is to come. Even if today we are only seeing attempts to scare and suppress Arab political activists, it is likely that these same tools will be used against other protest movements on both sides of the political map in the future.
‘A short, friendly chat’
The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality issued the following response to the summonses and interrogations:
Summoning central activists from the Bedouin community, as well as human rights activists, to Shin Bet interrogations constitutes a fatal blow to the Bedouin community’s right to protest, organize, and struggle for its future. It is inconceivable that the the Bedouin workers in an Arab-Jewish organization be summoned to a Shin Bet interrogation on a regular basis, months after starting the job, and be harassed by the authorities.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel issued the following response:
The Shin Bet acts illegally and takes advantage of its power when it summonses people for interrogations without any authority. It is important to emphasize that there is no obligation to come to these conversations, and those who choose to attend are not obligated to respond to questions or cooperate in any way. The goals of these conversations are illegitimate — to dissuade people from taking part in legitimate political protests on one hand, while also trying to recruit them to cooperate with the Shin Bet on the other. This is why we asked the High Court to order the Shin Bet to stop summonsing people to these kinds of conversations.
The Prime Minister’s Office, which handles all press queries on behalf of the Shin Bet, responded to R.’s claims as follows:
R. was summoned for a conversation with a Shin Bet agent. The summons was personally delivered by a representative of the Shin Bet and representatives of the Israeli Police outside his house. As opposed to your claim, the children were not taken out of their beds nor were the men forced to stand in a line near the wall. Instead, the agents had a short, friendly chat with R. and his brothers. At no point was R. told that he was obligated to attend the meeting. The conversation with R. was no-nonsense and dealt with issues that the Shin Bet is responsible for, due to the worsening security situation, and a fear of events that may disrupt the public order. We would also like to clarify that, despite your claims, R. was not asked about political issues, and there was no attempt to recruit him.
*John Brown is the pseudonym of an Israeli academic and a blogger. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is a blogger. Read it here.