[News] Israel Uses Vague Law to Make Meeting Another Arab a Crime

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Sep 22 11:50:40 EDT 2010

September 22, 2010

Israel Uses Vague Law to Make Meeting Another Arab a Crime

Locking Up Activists


A vague security offence of "contact with a foreign agent" is being 
used by Israel's secret police, the Shin Bet, to lock up Arab 
political activists in Israel without evidence that a crime has been 
committed, human rights lawyers alleged this week.

The lawyers said the Shin Bet was exploiting the law to characterise 
innocent or accidental meetings between members of Israel's large 
Arab minority and Arab foreign nationals as criminal activity.

The chances of such contacts have increased rapidly with advances in 
new technology and opportunities for Israel's Arab citizens to travel 
to the wider Arab world, said Hussein Abu Hussein, a lawyer who 
represents security detainees.

The lawyers' criticisms come at a particularly sensitive moment, as 
Israel has been widely accused of hounding two prominent political 
activists. Both were arrested on the grounds that they spied for the 
Lebanese militant group Hizbollah.

One, Omar Said, was released last week after a plea bargain in which 
the Shin Bet reduced a serious security charge of "aggravated 
espionage" to "contact with a foreign agent".

The evidence it revealed suggested that Said had attended the meeting 
in Egypt unaware that his contact was a possible Hizbollah agent and 
that he had turned down an alleged offer to spy for the organisation.

Amnesty International has termed the continuing prosecution of the 
other defendant, Ameer Makhoul, as "pure harassment".

As he was freed, Said, from Kfar Kana, near Nazareth, accused Israel 
of persecuting activists whose politics it does not like.

Abir Baker, a lawyer with the Adalah legal centre, said cases such as 
Said's were intended to have a "chilling effect" on Israel's Arab 
community, which comprises one-fifth of the population.

She said his arrest should be seen in the context of efforts by 
Israel to limit the right of Arab citizens to strengthen cultural and 
political ties to the rest of the Arab world.

Several of Israel's Arab political parties, including the one Said 
belongs to, have been trying to inform the Arab world about the 
minority's campaign for democratic reforms to end Israel's status as 
a Jewish state.

A 2008 law removed the diplomatic immunity from Arab members of the 
Israeli parliament to visit Arab countries defined as enemy states.

One MP, Said Nafaa, who is to be tried over a visit to Syria with a 
party of Druze clerics in 2007, faces charges of contact with a 
foreign agent for meetings he held with Syrian politicians.

"There are laws to stop us from visiting countries classified as 
enemy states such as Syria and Lebanon, but Israel uses this 
particular offence to make us afraid to talk to any Arab national, 
whether at international conferences or online," said Baker. "Israel 
wants to make us invisible."

Khaled Ghanayim, a law professor at Haifa University, said misuse of 
the offence of contact with a foreign agent had grown with the right 
wing's ascendance in Israel.

"Paradoxically, the Soviet Union advanced a similar policy for 
decades to prevent Jews in the Eastern bloc from meeting Israeli 
Jews. Israel and the West denounced that policy as a violation of 
their human rights, but today Israel is doing the same to its Arab citizens."

Abu Hussein said the offence was particularly hard to challenge 
because, uniquely in Israeli criminal law, the onus to prove that the 
meeting did not harm state security rested with the defendant, not 
the prosecution.

The Shin Bet was unavailable for comment. But the agency is believed 
to be concerned that Hizbollah, which fired thousands of rockets into 
Israel during a month of hostilities in 2006, is trying to recruit 
spies among Israel's Arab community.

According to the Shin Bet's website, Hizbollah is particularly keen 
to identify the sites of Israeli security facilities in the north 
that might be targeted in a future confrontation and gauge the Jewish 
public's mood.

Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet and now a member of 
parliament, said: "The state of Israel does not seek to put people in 
jail, but to carry out proper investigations. There is always a gap 
between what is known at first and the final outcome."

Baker, who is studying the use of the "contact" offence, said there 
was a clear pattern in which the Shin Bet started its investigation 
with a serious security violation, such as transferring information 
to the enemy, which carries a life sentence, in addition to the 
allegation of contact.

"That way an impression is created with the public and the media that 
the suspect was harming state security."

As the investigation proceeded, she said, the Shin Bet typically 
dropped the serious charge and sought a plea bargain on contact with 
a foreign agent. The charge carries a sentence of up to seven years in jail.

Defendants, faced with secret evidence and limited rights as security 
prisoners, were under pressure to agree, Abu Hussein said.

Baker said it was difficult to be sure exactly how often the law was 
being used but pointed to several notable recent cases.

In 2005, Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the main wing of the Islamic 
Movement in Israel, and Suleiman Aghbaria, mayor of the city of Umm 
al Fahm, served jail terms of 30 months and 46 months, respectively, 
after agreeing a plea bargain.

The Shin Bet's case that the pair belonged to a terrorist 
organisation, Hamas, and supplied it with weapons, collapsed during the trial.

In the most recent case, both Said and Makhoul claimed they were 
tortured while they were held without access to a lawyer.

Ghanayim said it was notable that both men were publicly involved in 
activities to challenge Israeli policies. Makhoul is known to have 
angered the Shin Bet by leading demonstrations against Israel's 
attack on Gaza in winter 2008 and by heading calls for a boycott of Israel.

In the past the Shin Bet has warned that it would use all the powers 
at its disposal to "thwart" political activities it regarded as a 
threat to the state's legitimacy.

Baker said use of the law against contact with a foreign agent had 
begun shortly after the start of the second intifada in 2000 to 
prevent Arab citizens meeting Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Last year, in a case that attracted wide attention in Israel, Rawi 
Sultani, a 24-year-old activist from Tira in central Israel, was 
sentenced to five and a half years after attending an international 
Arab summer camp in Morocco at which he was approached by a Hizbollah agent.

Mr Sultani was originally accused of conspiring to assassinate Gabi 
Ashkenazi, Israel's chief of staff. The charge was dropped but he was 
convicted of giving information to the enemy by revealing that he had 
visited a gym used by Ashkenazi.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. 
His latest books are 
and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the 
Middle East" (Pluto Press) and 
Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair" (Zed Books). His 
website is <http://www.jkcook.net>www.jkcook.net.

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