‘The Shin Bet was very nice, and therein lies their racism’

Majd Kayyal, the Palestinian journalist from Haifa who Israel detained incommunicado when he returned from Lebanon, speaks to +972 about what it’s like visiting Beirut as a Palestinian, his Shin Bet interrogation and why Israel wants to deter Palestinian citizens of Israel from visiting the Arab world.

Text by Rami Younis
Photos by Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org

He just sat there. I’d look at him occasionally, taking little sips from his cold beer, looking very peaceful, almost aloof from all the phones and commotion of activists around him. He’d give a piece of advice or share a joke with whoever was beside him, but that’s it. As we were trying to get the rest of the world’s help in freeing all the detainees, Majd Kayyal included, Mbada Kayyal, the father, maintained a cool temperament and nonchalant appearance that I would only learn to understand and appreciate much later.

That was almost three years ago, during the Nakba events of 2011 when Palestinian activists in Syria and Lebanon decided to peacefully march to their southern borders; local activists, Majd among them, were supposed to be waiting on this side of the border. The only democracy in the Middle East decided to preempt this creative, non-violent act of resistance and started arresting people on their way north.

The Kayyal family’s cool temper is not unique to the father and eldest son. Two years ago, in the midst of a demonstration in support of hunger striking Palestinian political prisoners, police brutally beat and arrested 17 activists; Ward, Majd’s younger brother, and yours truly were among them. He was only 16 back then, a minor. While still in custody, police refused to allow his mother, Souhair, to be present with him (as required by law). The latter fought that decision like a lioness outside. Her pressure worked, but Ward, who had been beaten along with the rest of us, refused to leave us behind. Only after his lawyers interfered did he reluctantly leave. The next day, when we were all released following a court remand hearing, Souhair insisted on waiting outside for the very last detainee to walk out. I called her up last Friday and explained that I was interested in interviewing her son, Majd, a Palestinian reporter for the Lebanese newspaper As-Saffir, who was under house arrest, fresh from a five-day secret detention that awaited him back in Israel after he flew to Lebanon via Amman in order to take part in the newspaper’s anniversary convention.

Ahla wsahla,” she said happily. “But I won’t be there to welcome you. I am about to cross to Jordan.”

“For a light visit, I hope,” I tell her.

“You could say that, I guess. I’m on my way to a special activity I have with Syrian refugee children,” she explained.

In recent days, many have tried to understand who exactly is this person capable of such an inspiring act – to travel to Beirut as if it were a short trip to Cyprus. Souhair’s last sentence encapsulated the mindset and worldview of the Kayyal family. Her detained son was just returned to her after five nerve-wracking days with the Shin Bet (Israel’s secret security service), on house arrest, still pending trial, and she was going on as usual.

Saturday Morning

We arrive at the Kayyal residence in the Halisa neighborhood of Haifa. Majd comes down to greet us. “Hamdella Alsalameh, man!” and a hug. We go up and sit on the terrace facing the sea. Mbada, Majd’s father, pours us coffee. To my dismay, it wasn’t Lebanese coffee.

Majd Kayyal (left) sits on the terrace of his Haifa home, discussing what he describes as his unforgettable trip to Beirut, and his detention upon returning to Israel, with Rami Younis (Photo by Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org)
Journalist Majd Kayyal (left) sits on the terrace of his family home in Haifa, discussing what he describes as an unforgettable trip to Beirut, and his detention upon returning to Israel, with journalist Rami Younis (Photo by Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org)

Let me live (vicariously) through you. Tell me about Beirut.

“It’s crazy, man,” he says while shooting back his coffee like something harder. “There is political mess everywhere there. We all know how Lebanon is divided – Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, Amal Party, Hezbollah, communists, Druze, Palestinians – and you can add to that existing salad, or at least it’s more noticeable lately, the arguments for or against Assad.”

How did they welcome you? Other than at your newspaper’s conference, I assume you took the liberty of presenting yourself as a Palestinian in other places as well.

You know, with all the factions in Lebanon, you get lost in the beginning. You can’t know in front of whom you can safely identify yourself as a Palestinian. Of course it’s easy when you meet communists; their local history is rich with support for Palestinians — in some cases, more than the PLO itself.

Anyway, In Beirut, you get into a store to buy gum or water. You have to know to whom the store belongs – Sunni, Shiite, Amal etc. By knowing who you’re dealing with you can know how far you’re allowed to go in a small talk. Lebanese people always prefer to deal with people like them in daily routine.

Get this story: I’m riding this taxi, I look at the taxi driver’s left hand and see that all of his fingers are cut off. He starts talking to me and it turns out he fought with the Samir Geagea Brigades (A notorious militant leader who commanded several brigades that slaughtered, among many others, Palestinians. R.Y.). He checks me out and notices an unusual accent. I was terrified for the whole ride while he wouldn’t stop questioning me. The moment I got out of the taxi was one of the happiest of my life.

So how would you define most of your experiences?

Definitely positive. Nothing can prepare you for a random encounter with a Palestinian from Haifa, for example. It’s an experience you can never forget.

Where did you meet Palestinians? Were you in Sabra & Shatila, for example?

I was, I visited an UNRWA school there. As I was walking down the school halls and I noticed one of the locals following, and then escorting me. At first, he probably just took me for another outsider, since we all look pretty much alike. We started talking and he asks where I’m from. Turns out he was originally from Haifa, too, from the Saloum family. His joy from meeting a real Palestinian residing in Haifa nowadays was very hard to put to words. I felt like a rock star.

Weren’t you afraid he was a Shin Bet agent or something? Someone they sent to try and incriminate you?

The thought would cross my mind every time someone I didn’t know would come up and talk to me. But then he took me to the local café, to a place called “Saloum Café.” I thought to myself the Shin Bet could easily send me someone, but they wouldn’t build me a coffee shop. I sat down, and word of my presence started spreading. People gathered around, taking photos, asking questions. Funny, but they all looked very similar to the remaining Saloum family members in Haifa today. During the conversation I discovered that the guy’s cousin, the one who brought me in, had died from a direct missile hit in Haifa during the Second Lebanese war in 2006. I decided to be sensitive and not raise the issue until the guy called his cousin from Haifa, the sister of the deceased. So I found myself talking on the phone, from a refugee camp in Lebanon, with someone who lives close to me in Palestine, with whom I have never spoken before. Only a Palestinian could experience such a thing. It was very surreal.

The political complexity of Lebanon is among the world’s most complicated. How did you notice its effects on the public discourse?

Oh, arguments are very different there. Most Lebanese are very politically aware, and I’m not just talking about the educated. I didn’t encounter anyone who claimed the Arabs of ’48 (those who remained in Israel following the 1948 war) are traitors or something, which unfortunately happens in other Arab countries. Debates are on a whole different level there – they’re more deep and profound, and they argue, debate and disagree about pretty much everything.

I enjoyed arguing with Assad supporters. When you live in such a political complexity on a daily basis, you’re forced to never stop thinking. The Israelis go to the army; they know things. The problem is that in Israel, the culture of censorship – due to the military/security culture – is the mainstream; that prevents Israelis from having important and profound thought processes. Add to that the fact we as Palestinians living here are not aware of many things for various reasons, and you get a lower level of debate than the one they have in Lebanon. I say if we’re doomed to have a war, at least have people capable of writing about it properly.

Back to… detention in Israel

Majd shares his experiences from Beirut and Lebanon, and I’m fascinated. His eyes sparkle and it is evident that this was a life-changing experience. He claims he learned a lot and approached even the least-positive experiences with love. But as expected, the end of this story is accompanied by a truly bad part.

Majd Kayyal at his home in Haifa days after he was released from Shin Bet custody. (Photo by Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org)
Majd Kayyal at his family home in Haifa days after he was released from Shin Bet custody. (Photo by Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org)

Your 20 days in an ‘enemy state,’ as defined by the Israeli authorities, were unforgettable, I presume.

They really were. And I assume responsibility for passing what I’ve learned on to the rest of my people, who are prohibited from visiting Lebanon. When I got arrested on my way back to Israel, I had expected it, so there wasn’t really any fear. But you know what really scared me?


That they would fabricate some accusation, as they did, and manage to dump me in an Israeli jail for an undefined period of time. How do you preserve experiences? Through sharing. You return from abroad and share what you’ve been through with people. I had feared they would take my notes, photos … that I would be put somewhere without the ability to share my mental pictures and stories as I’ve been doing ever since I got out.

(Majd’s fears partly came true. I ask him to show me some pictures he took during his visit. He tells me the Shin Bet took his usb flash drive, where he had stored all of his pictures.)

Do you really think that was one of the Shin Bet’s goals? Secretly detaining a Palestinian journalist who has just returned from Lebanon? Baseless accusation of ‘contact with a foreign agent,’ as they put it?

No. It was simply incidental to the detention. As far as the Israeli establishment is concerned, all contact between ‘48 Palestinians and the Arab world is criminal and a danger to national security. Their goal is to intimidate and try to cut us off from the Arab sphere in which we live; they really do not want us to be in contact with our brothers abroad.

Why? They fear it will hurt their efforts to integrate us in their mainstream of Israeli security-patriotism? It will hurt our ‘loyalty’?

No doubt. They are afraid of setting a precedent. They do not want more journalists or activists to travel. We were educated as a Palestinian minority that the Shin Bet wants to scare us through persecution, as if they “decide” when and how to haunt us. But what we do not understand is that the Shin Bet has no will, they cannot see us as anything a security threat. It’s a clearly inflexible mechanism; you cannot change its character, thinking and modus operandi. There isn’t a government decision to prevent Arabs from traveling to Lebanon; that’s not the Israeli government’s policy so we do not have a problem of policy. Other problems, occupation and settlements, are not resultant from a flexible, changeable policy. The problem is of a racist regime, so it does not really matter if Netanyahu or someone else is running the show, it’s all the same.

So how was detention? How you were treated?

I’ll surprise you. They were very nice, and therein lies their racism.

Nice and racism don’t not sound like two things that go together.

On the surface, but every behavior has a reason, and here, the reason is conceptual: how they see me. In front of them sits a “white boy” with green eyes from an educated family, and in their understanding, I am closer to them on the human scale, the same Zionist scale that categorizes people in Israel. Though I’m not a whole person like them, I’m more of a person than a detainee or a prisoner who arrived from Gaza or the Occupied Territories, for example. Think of the “not-so-nice” attitude the rest of our people get from them and there you have racism at its best.

How were the five days in a closed room without a window and a tiny mattress for you? How were the interrogations?

“I had coffee! All the time!” Majd says out loud and then bursts into laughter.

The conditions were tough evidently, but not unbearable, especially since I was expecting it. So I was mentally prepared. The interrogations were a bit silly. They kept mentioning the name of a girl and asking if I met her. I did not have the slightest clue who they were talking about. I answered that I did not know her and had never met her, then another investigator would come to ask the same question. At some point I realized that they had nothing to ask and the whole thing became a bit pathetic. They realized that they had no material to work with. You wouldn’t believe what they started to ask me!

Don’t tell me they asked about past arrests.

Exactly! I was shocked. They asked me about the flotilla I was involved in (after the Marmara, Majd was on a flotilla from Turkey to Gaza that the Israeli navy stopped on the way and apprehended its activists), and previous demonstrations I attended, in Israel! I found myself reminding them over and over again that I’m suspected of contact with a foreign agent. I’m the detainee, reminding my investigators what to ask.

So you did get the feeling they knew exactly whom you met and where you’d been?

It’s hard to answer. They probably won’t tell you. If I had to rely on my instincts, I’d say it’s 50-50. They might have known, and it’s also reasonable to say that they did not know. Not that it matters though – I’d happily share [it with them].

Where you surprised by the support of Israeli journalists, such as Itai Anghel, who claimed your arrest was racially motivated?

Not really, for several reasons. The first reason is that it is clear the arrest stemmed from discrimination and racism and you have to be blind or stupid not to see it – and many Israeli journalists are aware of how the establishment works. Another reason is the camaraderie that exists between journalists. It bothers me, too, to hear about the arrest of a journalist, no matter who he is and where it happens.

(During the interview I occasionally sneak glances at Shiraz, our photographer. The interview was conducted in Arabic, and Shiraz, an Israeli, made out half sentences. However, I see that she was mesmerized and inhaled every word that came out of Majd. The passion in which Majd has spoken must have pinched her heart. I wonder whether she would like to travel, too. R.Y.)

Majd, I have to ask you. What do you have to say about the claims directed at you? Journalists aside, that Israeli Jews can’t travel to Lebanon either.

I’ll answer that in the Zionist method of answering questions, with my own question: What about our right of return? We do not ask for any millennia-old, irrational historical right; the last 60 years is enough. Where is our right?

Given another chance, would you do it again and go?

Majd Kayyal leans back in his chair. His little grin becomes the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on him.

“Hell yeah. If I could, I would go tomorrow.”

The author is a Palestinian activist and writer.

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