[News] Shin Bet and the Persecution of Azmi Bishara
news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 5 14:18:26 EDT 2007
June 5, 2007
The Shin Bet and the Persecution of Azmi Bishara
Defending Israel from Democracy
By JONATHAN COOK
The second Palestinian intifada has been crushed. The 700km wall is
sealing the occupied population of the West Bank into a series of
prisons. The "demographic timebomb" -- the fear that Palestinians,
through higher birth rates, will soon outnumber Jews in the Holy Land
and that Israel's continuing rule over them risks being compared to
apartheid -- has been safely defused through the disengagment from
Gaza and its 1.4 million inhabitants. On the fortieth anniversary of
Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel's security
establishment is quitely satisfied with its successes.
But like a shark whose physiology requires that, to stay alive, it
never sleeps or stops moving, Israel must remain restless, constantly
reinventing itself and its policies to ensure its ethnic project does
not lose legitimacy, even as it devours the Palestinian homeland. By
keeping a step ahead of the analysts and worldwide opinion, Israel
creates facts on the ground that cement its supremacist and
So, with these achievements under its belt, where next for the Jewish state?
I have been arguing for some time that Israel's ultimate goal is to
create an ethnic fortress, a Jewish space in expanded borders from
which all Palestinians -- including its 1.2 million Palestinian
citizens -- will be excluded. That was the purpose of the Gaza
disengagement and it is also the point of the wall snaking through
the West Bank, effectively annexing to Israel what little is left of
a potential Palestinian state.
It should therefore be no surprise that we are witnessing the first
moves in Israel's next phase of conquest of the Palestinians. With
the 3.7 million Palestinians in the occupied territories caged inside
their ghettos, unable to protest their treatment behind fences and
walls, the turn has come of Israel's Palestinian citizens.
These citizens, today nearly a fifth of Israel's population, are the
legacy of an oversight by the country's Jewish leaders during the
ethnic cleansing campaign of the 1948 war. Ever since Israel has been
pondering what to do with them. There was a brief debate in the
state's first years about whether they should be converted to Judaism
and assimilated, or whether they
should be marginalised and eventually expelled. The latter view,
favoured by the country's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion,
dominated. The question has been when and how to do the deed.
The time now finally appears to be upon us, and the crushing of these
more than one million unwanted citizens currently inside the walls of
the fortress -- the Achilles' heel of the Jewish state -- is likely
to be just as ruthless as that of the Palestinians under occupation.
In my recent book
and Religion, I charted the preparations for this crackdown. Israel
has been secretly devising a land swap scheme that would force up to
a quarter of a million Palestinian citizens (but hardly any
territory) into the Palestinian ghetoes being crafted next door -- in
return Israel will annex swaths of the West Bank on which the illegal
Jewish settlements sit. The Bedouin in the Negev are being
reclassified as trespassers on state land so that they can be treated
as guest workers rather than citizens. And lawyers in the Justice
Ministry are toiling over a loyalty scheme to deal with the remaining
Palestinians: pledge an oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic
state (that is, one in which you are not wanted) or face being
stripped of your rights and possibly expelled.
There will be no resistance to these moves from Israel's Jewish
public. Opinion polls consistently show that two-thirds of Israeli
Jews support "transfer" of the country's Palestinian population. With
a veneer of legality added to the ethnic cleansing, the Jewish
consensus will be almost complete.
But these measures cannot be implemented until an important first
battle has been waged and won in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
One of Israel's gurus of the so-called "demographic threat", Arnon
Sofer, a professor at Haifa University, has explained the problem
posed by the presence of a growing number of Palestinian voters: "In
their hands lies the power to determine the right of return [of
Palestinian refugees] or to decide who is a Jew In another few years,
they will be able to decide whether the state of Israel should
continue to be a Jewish-Zionist state."
The warning signs about how Israel might defend itself from this
"threat" have been clear for some time. In Silencing Dissent, a
report published in 2002 by the Human Rights Association based in
Nazareth, the treatment of Israel's 10 Palestinian Knesset members
was documented: over the previous two years, nine had been assaulted
by the security services, some on several occasions, and seven
hospitalised. The report also found that the state had launched 25
investigations of the 10 MKs in the same period.
All this abuse was reserved for the representatives of a community
the Israeli general Moshe Dayan once referred to as "the quietest
minority in the world".
But the state's violence towards, and intimidation of, Palestinian
Knesset members -- until now largely the reflex actions of officials
offended by the presence of legislators refusing to bow before the
principles of Zionism and privileges for Jews -- is entering a new,
more dangerous phase.
The problem for Israel is that for the past two decades Palestinian
legislators have been entering the Knesset not as members of Zionist
parties, as was the case for many decades, but as representatives of
independent Palestinian parties. (A state claiming to be Jewish and
democratic has to make some concessions to its own propaganda, after all.)
The result has been the emergence of an unexpected political
platform: the demand for Israel's constitutional reform. Palestinian
political parties have been calling for Israel's transformation from
a Jewish state into a "state of all its citizens" -- or what the rest
of us would call a liberal democracy.
The figurehead for this political struggle has been the legislator
Azmi Bishara. A former philosophy professor, Bishara has been running
rings around Jewish politicians in the Knesset for more than a
decade, as well as exposing to outsiders the sham of Israel's
self-definition as a "Jewish and democratic" state.
Even more worryingly he has also been making an increasingly
convincing case to his constituency of 1.2 million Palestinian
citizens that, rather than challenging the hundreds of forms of
discrimination they face one law at a time, they should confront the
system that props up the discrimination: the Jewish state itself. He
has started to persuade a growing number that they will never enjoy
equality with Jews as long as they live in ethnic state.
Bishara's campaign for a state of all its citizens has faced an
uphill struggle. Palestinian citizens spent the first two decades
after Israel's creation living under martial law, a time during which
their identity, history and memories were all but crushed. Even today
the minority has no control over its educational curriculum, which is
set by officials charged with promoting Zionism, and its schools are
effectively run by the secret police, the Shin Bet, through a network
of collaborators among the teachers and pupils.
Given this climate, it may not be surprising that in a recent poll
conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute 75 per cent of
Palestinian citizens said they would support the drafting of a
constitution defining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (Israel
currently has no constitution). Interestingly, however, what
concerned commentators was the survey's small print: only a third of
the respondents felt strongly about their position compared to more
than half of those questioned in a similar survey three years ago.
Also, 72 per cent of Palestinian citizens believed the principle of
"equality" should be prominently featured in such a constitution.
These shifts of opinion are at least partly a result of Bishara's
political work. He has been trying to persuade Israel's Palestinian
minority -- most of whom, whatever the spin tells us, have had little
practical experience of participating in a democracy other than
casting a vote -- that it is impossible for a Jewish state to
enshrine equality in its laws. Israel's nearest thing to a Bill of
Rights, the Basic Law on Freedom and Human Dignity, intentionally
does not mention equality anywhere in its text.
It is in this light that the news about Bishara that broke in late
April should be read. While he was abroad with his family, the Shin
Bet announced that he would face charges of treason on his return.
Under emergency regulations -- renewed by the Knesset yet again last
week, and which have now been in operation for nearly 60 years -- he
could be executed if found guilty. Bishara so far has chosen not to return.
Coverage of the Bishara case has concentrated on the two main charges
against him, which are only vaguely known as the security services
have been trying to prevent disclosure of their evidence with a
gagging order. The first accusation -- for the consumption of
Israel's Jewish population -- is that Bishara actively helped
Hizbullah in its targeting of Israeli communities in the north during
the war against Lebanon last summer.
The Shin Bet claim this after months of listening in on his phone
conversations -- made possible by a change in the law in 2005 that
allows the security services to bug legislators' phones. The other
Palestinian MKs suspect they are being subjected to the same
eavesdropping after the Attorney-General Mechahem Mazuz failed to
respond to a question from one, Taleb a-Sana, on whether the Shin Bet
was using this practice more widely.
Few informed observers, however, take this allegation seriously. An
editorial in Israel's leading newspaper Haaretz compared Bishara's
case to that of the Israeli Jewish dissident Tali Fahima, who was
jailed on trumped-up charges that she translated a military plan, a
piece of paper dropped by the army in the Jenin refugee camp, on
behalf of a Palestinian militant, Zacharia Zbeidi, even though it was
widely known that Zbeidi was himself fluent in Hebrew.
The editorial noted that it seemed likely the charge of treason
against Bishara "will turn out to be a tendentious exaggeration of
his telephone conversations and meetings with Lebanese and Syrian
nationals, and possibly also of his expressions of support for their
military activities. It seems very doubtful that MK Bishara even has
access to defense-related secrets that he could sell to the enemy,
and like in the Fahima case, the fact that he identified with the
enemy during wartime appears to be what fueled the desire to seek and
find an excuse for bringing him to trial."
Such doubts were reinforced by reports in the Israeli media that the
charge of treason was based on claims that Bishara had helped
Hizbullah conduct "psychological warfare through the media".
The other allegation made by the secret police has a different target
audience. The Shin Bet claim that Bishara laundered money from
terrorist organisations. The implication, though the specifics are
unclear, is that Bishara both helped fund terror and that he
squirrelled some of the money away, possibly hundreds of thousands of
dollars, presumably for his own benefit. This is supposed to
discredit him with his own constituency of Palestinian citizens.
It should be noted that none of this money has been found in
extensive searches of Bishara's home and office, and the evidence is
based on testimony from a far from reliable source: a family of
money-changers in East Jerusalem.
This second charge closely resembles the allegations faced by the
only other Palestinian of national prominence in Israel, Sheikh Raed
Salah, head of the Islamic Movement and a spiritual leader of the
Palestinian minority. He was arrested in 2003, originally on charges
that he laundered money for the armed wing of Hamas, helping them buy
guns and bombs.
As with Bishara, the Shin Bet had been bugging Salah's every phone
call for many months and had supposedly accumulated mountains of
evidence against him. Salah spent more than two years in jail, the
judges repeatedly accepting the Shin Bet's advice that his requests
for bail be refused, as this secret evidence was studied in minute
detail at his lengthy trial. In the closing stages, as it became
clear that the Shin Bet's case was evaporating, the prosecution
announced a plea bargain. Salah agreed (possibly unwisely, but
understandably after two years in jail) to admit minor charges of
financial impropriety in return for his release.
To this day, Salah does not know what he did wrong. His organisation
had funded social programmes for orphans, students and widows in the
occupied territories and had submitted its accounts to the security
services for approval. In a recent interview, Salah observed that in
the new reality he and his party had discovered that it was "as if
helping orphans, sick persons, widows and students had now become
illegal activities in support of terrorism".
Why was Salah targeted? In the same interview, he noted that shortly
before his arrest the prime minister of the day, Ariel Sharon, had
called for the outlawing of the Islamic Movement, whose popularity
was greatly concerning the security establishment. Sharon was worried
by what he regarded as Salah's interference in Israel's crushing of
Sharon's concern was two-fold: the Islamic Movement was raising funds
for welfare organisations in the occupied territories at the very
moment Israel was trying to isolate and starve the Palestinian
population there; and Salah's main campaign, "al-Aqsa is in danger",
was successfully rallying Palestinians inside Israel to visit the
mosques of the Noble Sanctuary in the Old City of Jersualem, the most
important symbols of a future Palestinian state.
Salah believed that responsibility fell to Palestinians inside Israel
to protect these holy places as Israel's closure policies and its
checkpoints were preventing Muslims in the occupied territories from
reaching them. Salah also suspected that Israel was using the
exclusion of Palestinians under occupation from East Jerusalem to
assert its own claims to sovereignty over the site, known to Jews as
Temple Mount. This was where Sharon had made his inflammatory visit
backed by 1,000 armed guards that triggered the intifada; and it was
control of the Temple Mount, much longed for by his predecessor, Ehud
Barak, that "blew up" the Camp David negotiations, as one of Barak's
advisers later noted.
Salah had become a nuisance, an obstacle to Israel realising its
goals in East Jersualem and possibly in the intifada, and needed to
be neutralised. The trial removed him from the scene at a key moment
when he might have been able to make a difference.
That now is the fate of Bishara.
Indications that the Shin Bet wanted Bishara's scalp over his
campaign for Israel's reform to a state of all its citizens can be
dated back to at least the start of the second intifada in 2000. That
was when, as Israel prepared for a coming general election, the
departing head of the Shin Bet observed: "Bishara does not recognise
the right of the Jewish people to a state and he has crossed the
line. The decision to disqualify him [from standing for election] has
been submitted to the Attorney General." Who expressed that view?
None other than Ami Ayalon, currently contesting the leadership of
the Labor party and hoping to become the official head of Israel's peace camp.
In the meantime, Bishara has been put on trial twice (unnoticed the
charges later fizzled out); he has been called in for police
interrogations on a regular basis; he has been warned by a state
commission of inquiry; and the laws concerning Knesset immunity and
travel to foreign states have been changed specifically to prevent
Bishara from fulfilling his parliamentary duties.
True to Ayalon's advice, Bishara and his political party, the
National Democratic Assembly (NDA), were disqualified by the Central
Elections Committee during the 2003 elections. The committee cited
the "expert" opinion of the Shin Bet: "It is our opinion that the
inclusion of the NDA in the Knesset has increased the threat inherent
in the party. Evidence of this can also be found in the ideological
progress from the margins of Arab society (such as a limited circle
of intellectuals who dealt with these ideas theoretically) to center
stage. Today these ideas [concerning a state of all its citizens]
have a discernible effect on the content of political discourse and
on the public 'agenda' of the Arab sector."
But on this occasion the Shin Bet failed to get its way. Bishara's
disqualification was overturned on appeal by a narrow majority of the
Supreme Court's justices.
The Shin Bet's fears of Bishara resurfaced with a vengeance in March
this year, when the Ma'ariv newspaper reported on a closed meeting
between the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, and senior Shin Bet
officials "concerning the issue of the Arab minority in Israel, the
extent of its steadily decreasing identification with the State and
the rise of subversive elements".
Ma'ariv quoted the assessment of the Shin Bet: "Particularly
disturbing is the growing phenomenon of 'visionary documents' among
the various elites of Israeli Arabs. At this time, there are four
different visionary documents sharing the perception of Israel as a
state of all citizens and not as a Jewish state. The isolationist and
subversive aims presented by the elites might determine a direction
that will win over the masses."
In other words, the secret police were worried that the influence of
Bishara's political platform was spreading. The proof was to be found
in the four recent documents cited by the Shin Bet and published by
very diffrerent groups: the Democratic Constitution by the Adalah
legal centre; the Ten Points by the Mossawa political lobbying group;
the Future Vision by the traditionally conservative political body
comprising mostly mayors known as the High Follow-Up Committee; and
the Haifa Declaration, overseen by a group of academics known as Mada.
What all these documents share in common is two assumptions: first,
that existing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are based
on two states and that in such an arrangement the Palestinian
minority will continue living inside Israel as citizens; and second,
that reforms of Israel are needed if the state is to realise equality
for all citizens, as promised in its Declaration of Independence.
Nothing too subversive there, one would have thought. But that was
not the view of the Shin Bet.
Following the report in Ma'ariv, the editor of a weekly Arab
newspaper wrote to the Shin Bet asking for more information. Did the
Shin Bet's policy not constitute an undemocratic attempt to silence
the Palestinian minority and its leaders, he asked. A reply from the
Shin Bet was not long in coming. The secret police had a
responsibility to guard Israel "against subversive threats", it was
noted. "By virtue of this responsibility, the Shin Bet is required to
thwart subversive activity by elements who wish to harm the nature of
the State of Israel as a democratic Jewish State -- even if they act
by means of democratically provided tools -- by virtue of the
principle of 'defensive democracy'.
Questioned by Israeli legal groups about this policy when it became
public, the head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, wrote a letter
clarifying what he meant. Israel had to be protected from anyone
"seeking to change the state's basic principles while abolishing its
democratic character or its Jewish character". He was basing his
opinion on a law passed in 2002 that charges the Shin Bet with
safeguarding the country from "threats of terror, sabotage, subversion".
In other words, in the view of the Shin Bet, a Jewish and democratic
state is democratic only if you are a Jew or a Zionist. If you try to
use Israel's supposed democracy to challenge the privileges reserved
for Jews inside a Jewish state, that same state is entitled to defend
itself against you.
The extension in the future of this principle from Bishara to the
other Palestinian MKs and then on to the wider Palestinian community
inside Israel should not be doubted. In the wake of the Bishara case,
Israel Hasson, a former deputy director of the Shin Bet and now a
right-wing Knesset member, described Israel's struggle against its
Palestinian citizens as "a second War of Independence" -- the war in
1948 that founded Israel by cleansing it of 80 per cent of its Palestinians.
The Shin Bet is not, admittedly, a democratic institution, even if it
is operating in a supposedly democratic environment. So how do the
state's more accountable officials view the Shin Bet's position?
Diskin's reply had a covering letter from Attorney-General Menachem
Mazuz, the country's most senior legal officer. Mazuz wrote: "The
letter of the Shin Bet director was written in coordination with the
attorney general and with his agreement, and the stance detailed in
it is acceptable to the attorney general."
So now we know. As Israel's Palestinian politicians have long been
claiming, a Jewish and democratic state is intended as a democracy
for Jews only. No one else is allowed a say -- or even an opinion.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel.
He is the author of the forthcoming
and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State"
published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the
University of Michigan Press. His website is
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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