Secret Arrests, Media Censorship Nothing New in ‘Democratic’ Israel
By Richard Walker
The secret arrests and imprisonment of journalists and human rights activists in Israel mirror a long-established policy that those deemed threats to the state should be denied legal and human rights.
Nothing illustrates that more than the recent admission by the Israeli authorities that they had prominent Arab-Israeli human rights figure Amir Makhoul in custody.
He had been dragged from his bed days earlier and spirited to a secret holding center. His arrest and detention were justified by a claim he had been spying for Hezbollah. It was a charge few believed outside Israel, where his role as director of a prominent Palestinian organization (Ittijah, the Union of Arab Community-Based Associations) was highly respected.
When he was removed from his home in the early hours of May 6, his wife was not told where he was being taken or the reason for his arrest. A computer and documents belonging to him were later seized from his home and office. The authorities only admitted he was in custody when they were pressured by his brother, a former Israeli parliamentarian, and human rights groups in Israel and in neighboring Arab countries.
Makhoul’s case illustrates the willingness of the Israeli government to silence critics in its midst. He was a formidable advocate for Palestinian rights and a leading personality within Israel’s Arab-Israeli community, which numbers 20 percent of the country’s 7.5 million population. His brother claims Amir had become a thorn in the side of the Israeli leadership because he campaigned publicly to highlight how Arab-Israelis were being treated like second-class citizens. That was something Israel did not want the outside world to see, and in its efforts to silence him they banned him from traveling abroad.
Now, his fate is uncertain, and his community is missing a persuasive advocate. His loss to the human rights lobby is believed to be have been orchestrated by the Israeli government as part of an overall strategy to weaken and discredit critics of the state, many of whom are often labeled “anti-Semitic.” That is a familiar tactic when Israel’s government wants to silence legitimate opponents of the system.
But this is nothing new. In December 2009, a 23- year-old Israeli journalist, Anat Kamm, was arrested on charges of espionage and has been kept under house arrest ever since. She is not even permitted to leave her home to take some air, and her visitors have to be approved by the authorities.
She copied documents while in the Israeli Defense Forces and passed them to a journalist at the newspaper Haaretz. Her aim was to expose what she believed were war crimes, in particular the targeted killings of Palestinians, many of whom were not linked to terror and who could have been arrested safely. The documents she photocopied within IDF command headquarters also highlighted corruption within the higher ranks of the military. For nearly five months after her arrest no media outlet in Israel was permitted to mention her name under censorship rules enacted by the military.
Now, she finds herself facing a possible life sentence. Many Israeli journalists have taken the view she is a traitor and will get what she deserves. Those same journalists capitulated to a gag order denying the public the right to know about the recent arrest of Makhoul. Surveys in Israel confirm that a majority of the population, including a lot of journalists, think human rights bodies are a threat to the state and should not be allowed to function without very strict controls. This increasing lurch toward a policy that does not respect freedom has worried some Israelis, who have spoken out courageously on the issue.
In the Jewish journal Zeek, there have been a series of articles confronting the question of what Israel is steadily becoming. In an article entitled “Publish and Be Damned,” Zeek journalist Mya Guarnieri described how she had to seek legal advice before writing about Ms. Kamm and how she eventually settled for a pseudonym when penning a piece for a foreign publication.
She condemned the media blackout during the invasion of Gaza and lamented the fact that Israel fell dramatically in the international rankings for countries that respected press freedom. Israel is now at 93rd place in those rankings, behind Lebanon and Kuwait. The rankings were established by the Reporters Without Borders, which placed Kuwait and Lebanon at 60th and 61st places respectively.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former NY news producer.
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(Issue # 22, May 31, 2010)