Abir Baker webpage http://law.haifa.ac.il/clinics/clinic3/staffe.asp
Daniel Monterescu webpage http://web.ceu.hu/soc_ant/faculty/monterescu.htm
Behind a Shabak squeeze
By Mya Guarnieri
Alarms sounded through Israel’s leftist camps when Jewish-Israeli activist Yonatan Shapira was summoned for an interview with the country's General Security Services, known by the Hebrew acronym Shabak.
Shapira's questioning followed the summons of a middle-aged Arabic teacher, a religious leader, and a high school drop-out—none of who were involved in political activities, all who seem unlikely candidates for security interviews.
Though it was the detention of a Jewish activist which raised eyebrows, it was the last of a long trail of signs that Israel's security apparatus was clamping down, and some say marching the country away from the democratic process.
The string of summons, targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Israeli left in general, was preceded by a landmark case; the May detention and arrest of Ameer Makhoul, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and director of Ittijah—a platform for local Arab NGOs and an organization dedicated to empowering Palestinians in the country.
Mahkoul and respected political activist and businessman Omar Said, were detained at the same time and accused of spying for the Lebanese political party and militant group Hezbollah. The two were indicted for espionage, amongst other crimes—charges both deny.
Palestinians in Israel decried the arrests as political persecution, and the Israeli left tuned in, realizing a trend of silencing dissent following the interrogation of Shapira.
Analyzing a trend
Abeer Baker, an attorney with Adalah, an organization dedicated to defending and promoting the human rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, noted the Shabak squeeze on persons identified as 'dissenters,' was not uncommon.
Interrogations targeting unlikely civilians serve different purposes, he explained, saying interviews "can attempt to recruit people and [gather] information, even if it’s not secret information." Interviewees could be asked "If you hear anything about your neighbors, if there has been any sort of political activity [in the area]," to inform the security official.
One Jaffa man was questioned about the mood in Ajami, a Palestinain neighborhood in the area struggling with an influx of settlers.
As the man was called in, reports of violent intimidation targeting Palestinians by the new settler residents continued. In July, Muslim officials said settlers were behind an arson attempt on the local mosque.
There is no way of knowing how many civilians are called in for interviews each year, the lawyer explained, saying "the Shabak will refuse to tell us because, according to the Freedom of Information Act, [who is interviewed and why] can be classified as security."
Baker said his organization was considering the launch of a court challenge to gain hold of the information, saying the data was a matter of "transparency and it has nothing to do with security."
The lawyer said that "The only way we can prove this phenomenon is by data and numbers.” For now, the information remains anecdotal, but many said that they had noticed a spike.
Fear hides rights violations
“Many people prefer not to tell us that they have been called [for an interview],” Baker explained, saying Palestinian citizens of Israel often believe that "it’s better not to share with anybody. [They’re] afraid that if the Shabak knows [they told] it will make trouble.”
But, in some cases, interviews are a violation of civil rights.
Shabak sets up the meetings with citizens of the state by calling the interviewee and asking them to meet. If the interviewee requests that the Shabak send an order, the police do so. This is illegal. For the police to send an order, Baker explained, “You should be either a witness or a suspect [in a crime]. But they’re not. So this is an illegal thing they’re doing and they’re giving themselves a legal cover, [creating] an illusion of legality.”
And there’s another problem. Interviewees, having received a police order to come to the chat, are usually unaware of the fact that they do not have to cooperate, Baker added.
It is the position of Adalah, that the Shabak has an obligation to inform interviewees of their right to choose whether or not to cooperate.
"Another kind of interview that we are worried [about] are warning investigations with political activists," Baker said, explaining that the purpose of such meetings—which the Shabak sometimes calls "conversations” or "chats"—is to "warn [activists] that they are being watched.
“The beginning [of the interview] is calm and peaceful ... but soon after the person asks the nature of the interview, once they show awareness of rights, it takes another shape." The interviewee is often intimidated to the point of being terrified.
The process of a Shabak interview with Palestinian citizens of Israel who are not politically active can be terrifying for the individual targeted. And purposefully so, Baker explained. Sometimes Shabak interviews loved ones of political activists, she said, “to send a message to the activist—'Your family members are under stress, watch it.'
"I would not be surprised if my father is called by the Shabak, by the way,” Baker adds. “He's not an activist at all ... but they can use him to put pressure on me."
While political activists might be the intended target, such methods have a ripple effect, amounting to psychological warfare on Palestinian citizens of the state.
Gaining psychological control
Daniel Monterescu, a professor in Central Europe University’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology in Budapest, explained, “[Jaffa] has always posed a problem of the security services and their attempt to establish full closure and surveillance over the Arab population.
"In the aftermath of the 1948 war military rule was imposed for a year. It ended in June '49 and was substituted by a civil administration. Unlike villages in [the] Galilee and the Triangle, which suffered under Martial Law until 1966, such measures could not be enforced in mixed towns."
In Jaffa, Monterescu continued, Israel had to employ a "more subtle mechanism of control and containment, which sought to limit political activity and to produce ‘obedient subjects.’ The myth of the all-knowing, omnipresent Shabak and police forces was a powerful tool."
And it continues to be so.
"Shabak is well aware of the impact the fear of the Big Brother has on most people," Monterescu comments.
"The educational system became a major site to monitor nationalistic teachers and potential 'uprising.' There was, a few years ago, a public debate about the role the Shabak has in approving teachers appointments," Monterescu says, adding that he knew an instructor personally who was fired "because someone in the system didn't like his attitude.
“Religious figures are targeted because the Shabak is guided by the Orientalist assumption that Islamic Movement activists are always nationalist and potentially dangerous,” but in reality, most religious leaders are "pretty docile," only becoming a problem when alienation and anger from the system become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Not only do interviews create a general environment of fear, Monterescu explained, the so called “chats” can have a lasting impact on the interviewees. Some even suffer from depression following a Shabak interview, Monterescu added.
Shabak usually intensifies its activity—putting stress on Palestinian citizens of Israel and the nation's left—during times of political turmoil, and the recent spike in interviews could reflect Israel’s march right. Critics have said that increasing hostility to dissent—on both the state and public level—is a symptom of the erosion of democracy in Israel.