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Arab Spy Arrests, ‘Payback’ for Decades-Old Shin Bet Murder Scandal?

marsawah arrested

The Magdal Shams 3 brought to court

An Israeli source brings me a fascinating take on the recent arrests of two Golani Druze and an Israeli Palestinian for allegedly spying against Israel on behalf of Syria.  The Shin Bet arrested two residents of the village of Majdal Shams and one from the Triangle charging them with espionage.  The case has all the markings of the trumped-up charges for which the security services are known, especially regarding Arab victim/suspects.

Here is how Haaretz described the case:

Three residents of villages in northern Israel were indicted by a Nazareth court on Thursday on charges they allegedly spied for and passed information to agents in Syria, authorities revealed after a gag order was lifted in the case.

…Fada Sha’ar, his father Majd Sha’ar and Mahmoud Masarwah were to be charged with spying, contact with foreign agents and passing information to the enemy. They were allegedly in contact with a Syrian agent, Madhat Salah, to whom they passed information and video footage of submarine activity off the coast of Haifa.

The most serious charge to be brought against them was that they allegedly planned to kidnap from Israel a man whom they mistakenly believed to be a Syrian pilot who defected to Israel in 1989. They allegedly planned to render him unconscious and return him to Syrian hands.

…According to the charges, Madhat Salah used to live in Majdal Shams, a Druze village in northern Israel where the Sha’ar family lives, but moved to Syria. He allegedly has been friends with Mona Sha’ar since childhood. The suspects knew that Salah was working for the Syrian government and had contacts with Syrian intelligence agents. They were in touch with him starting in either 2007 or 2008, at which point they began to meet and be in contact with him and pass information that could potentially harm Israel’s security, prosecutors said.

…The defense attorneys deny that Salah has any connection to Syrian intelligence agents. They say that he worked for a branch of the Syrian government which was in charge of villages in the Golan Heights region, which is where the border between Israel and Syria is located.

My source knows Masarwah well over many years and attended some of the hearings in this case, which is how some of the following information was secured:

Mahmoud Masarweh, 62 years old, is a political activist and trade unionist from the town Baqa el Gharbeyah. He is a construction worker, has heart disease & diabetes, and spent 20 years in prison for various charges. He was active in the Trotskyite Workers’ League in the 1970s where he was an activist on behalf of poor workers all over the Tel Aviv area.

His first arrest was a young high school student before 1967. He tried to cross the border to Gaza, which was than under Egyptian control, and was caught and sentenced to 5 years in prison.

In 1972 he was arrested and jailed for 6 years with about 50 members of the “Red Front” (led by Daud Turkey and Udi Adiv). It was an attempt to form an Arab-Jewish common leftist anti-Zionist front. They were called somewhat hysterically in Israel’s media “the espionage and terrorist network” even though neither espionage equipment or implements of terror were ever found.

kav 300 attacker led away before murder

Famous image of a Kav 300 attacker led away alive before his murder at hands of Shin Bet (Alex Levac)

He is most notorious for a case of “spying” for a British newspaper published by the ‘Militant” fraction in the British Labour Party. He was working as a security guard near a recycling facility for some years. One of the benefits of this work was that he was built a marvelous collection of books that other people threw into the garbage. One day, however, he found a real treasure amid the refuse: unshredded internal documents of the GSS summarizing the internal GSS investigation into the “Bus 300 affair.”  After a terror attack, two militants were captured alive and subsequently beaten to death with a rock by a Shin Bet agent at the scene.  The scandal led to the establishment of the Landau Commission, which allegedly limited the measures of torture that may be used by the GSS interrogators. [Leonard Fein correctly adds that several senior Shin Bet officers also objected to the murders and compelled the agency's chief to order an investigation by the state attorney general.--R.S.].

Mahmoud leaked the documents to the newspaper, which published a series of articles about the case and torture in israeli jails.  As a consequence, he was arrested, tortured untill he “confessed” not only to leaking of document but also to an arson that didn’t happened.  His lawyer brought testimonies from the fire brigade that there was no arson, no attempted arson, or any evidence of any materials in the area which could be used for arson.  He was convicted of  espionage and arson, and sentenced to 10 years (the appeals court reduced his sentence to 7).  Since then, the GSS really hates him [because the documents revealed the cold-blooded execution of the terror suspects, in effect one of the first targeted assassinations!].

During the first Intifada (1988-89), Masarwah was active with another group that tried to revive Trotskyism in Palestine under the leadership of the Militant (which were at the time in the British Labor party) – and was unlucky to be this time sentenced for “spying” for the British paper. The latter forged an international campaign in his defense at the time – including some rock group issuing a special musical record in his honor.

After serving another 7 years in prison, Mahmoud settled for the more “mainstream” activism in the Palestinian left through Abnaa elBalad.

He was arrested several times afterwards for short periods (tortured, interrogated, but never succeeding in framing him).  It seems now the bad guys are trying their luck one more time.”

It is a common practice of Israeli state prosecutions to create major media “exposure” of their victims at the day of indictment. The accused are brought to the court after spending a month in complete isolation and are dragged to the court room before a herd of some 20 photographers, with neither their consent nor knowledge of what they should expect [aka the "perp walk" here in the States]. If they try to speak and deny the accusations, as Mahmoud tried, they are told to stop and dragged away.

I was together in the elevator with a defense lawyer and a Galey Tzahal reporter, who asked the lawyer what he though about the case. The lawyer was circumspect and said that he didn’t have all the evidence and other documents so couldn’t very well say. Then the journalist (from quite a mainstream media outlet) interrupted him and said that he had a lot of experience in covering security trials, and from what he saw of the evidence it was clear to him that it was a case of a “mountain giving birth to a mouse.” Anyway, Mahmoud Masarweh is old and sick , and the only fear is that he’ll not last until the charges and case go away.

My Israeli source also adds this information about the other two suspects and conditions under which they were detained.  A lot of this will be familiar to readers who’s followed my reports on the interrogations of Omar Said, Ameer Makhoul and even Chaim Pearlman:

For the first 2 weeks of their detention, the arrestees were prevented from meeting their lawyers.  Only after the Supreme Court decided in the case of a Jewish settler terrorist that such an order abuses the detainee’s human rights, were these three permitted to see a lawyer.

The arrestees deny all the accusations and unlike Shin Bet claims in the Makhoul case, they didn’t “confess” during interrogation.  All three state that they were tortured in the usual GSS’ ways: they were interrogated for long hours, deprived from sleeping, cuffed to a small chair in a painful position etc….

The wife of one of the arrestees was detained “for interrogation” and was released in an agreement that the other detainees would not seek bail.

The first two arrested are a 58 year-old father, Majed E-Sha’er and his 27 year-old son, artist Fidaa from Majgal Shams in the occupied-Syrian Golan heights. The father is a known social activist in the Golan.  He was arrested for three years back in the 1970s when he was a youth, but after being released he chose to be involved in peaceful social public action.

The son Fidaa is a music graduate student who studied for his BA degree in Syria, and pursued graduate studies in France, where he used to live until the arrest.  He was arrested at Ben Gurion, while coming to visit his family during the summer. He is accused of meeting Syrian governmental officials.  To which, he replies that as he was living in Syria for five years during his studies – with the full knowledge and permission of Israeli security services.  He couldn’t avoid any connection with Syrian officials.  The alleged Syrian intelligence agent, Madhat Salah, is the official responsible for the special status and scholarships for Golan Height students, a person one can’t avoid meeting for procedural reasons.  Further, Salah is a former resident of Majdal Shams (Fidaa’s hometown), was a neighbour and is a close family friend.  Even under Israeli security law it is not illegal to meet with specific individuals in the course of everyday, necessary business as was true in this case.

So there you have it.  Another likely Shin Bet frame-up, inelegantly and unartfully contrived by the bullies-in-charge of Israel’s security.  One suspect is old, seriously ill and guilty of morally embarrassing the agency decades ago.  The other is a traditional Arab musician guilty of nothing worse than pursuing graduate studies in a country considered an enemy by the secret police, and coming home during the summer to visit his family.

The Shabak’s purpose in all this: to warn young Druze in the Golan not to travel to, visit or study in Syria; and to further pay back a pain in the secret police’s neck.  As I’ve written here, these guys’ memories are long, as are the grudges.  You never pay your debt to them.  Once you finish paying one debt by jail time they’re plotting the next time they can get you.  Further, this prosecution is an implicit swipe at Syria and its president, who has been unsuccessfully pursuing a peace offensive which Israel has studiously ignored.  It’s no accident that Syria’s foreign minister took the unusual step of directly denouncing the prosecution since he’s aware of the tendentious political agenda that lies behind it.

I suppose death might end the vendetta against Masarwah, and if they treat him as they have in the past, any one of his serious ailments could kill him.  But would the Shin Bet care?  Not likely.  Even if he died on their hands, Israel maintains a special secret court that adjudicates all offenses committed by agents.  So either the individual would get off scot-free or in the unlikely event of being punished, we would never hear about it unless it served the agency’s interests to notify us.

A final irony of the case is that Ehud Yatom, the Shin Bet spook accused of actually stoving in the heads of the Kav 300 accused with a rock, upon orders from the Shin Bet chief and with the approval of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, was pardoned for the murders. In an interview, he boasted about his role:

“I smashed their skulls,” on orders from GSS head Avraham Shalom, and “I’m proud of everything I’ve done.  Only clean, moral hands in Shin Bet (GSS) can do what is needed in a democratic state.”

Ariel Sharon rewarded him in 2001 by naming him counter-terrorism chief. Even the Supreme Court blanched at this and nixed the appointment. Apparently, they thought the idea of murdering Arabs in cold blood as a qualification for high government office was a bit much.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Vera August 9, 2010, 6:07 AM

    Whenever I hear claims in which it’s one side’s word against the other, I try to figure out who would benefit from the results. Which Arab citizen of Israel would benefit from real collaboration with Hizballah or Syria, and how? And what would be the benefit for the Shabac from convincing Israelis and the world that there are networks of pro-terrorist spies among the Arabs in Israel? And how would the government benefit from the silencing of liberal-nationalist discourse that is not Zionist inside Israel?

    I think the Israeli establishment is threatened by the legitimate and reasoned discourse of Arab-Palestinians who insist on taking Israel’s self-definition as a democracy seriously, by demanding both full civil equality (as Israeli citizens) and the right to collective national self-determination (as Palestinians). The threat stems from the fact that they are engaging in fully kosher legal methods (rallies, court cases, texts) to make their point. In order to silence them it is necessary to invoke ‘terrorism’ or ‘espionage’ which can’t be challenged without implicating the challengers with similar support for terrorism – i.e, ‘espionage for Hizb’allah/Syria’ equals end of argument and debate in Israeli society on the issue of the State’s identity, and intimidation and fearful silence among Arabs/Druse. If you look, you will see that the various Arabs arrested are mainly from Abnaa El Balad/Balad or other known nationalist activists. QED. It is also kept just arbitrary and mysterious enough to be completely scary and incomprehensible and to keep most Arabs in Israel guessing fearfully – most of them will now just keep quiet. So will many NGOs overseas and even in Israel – lest they be accused of supporting Hizb’allah or Syria. Mission accomplished – now who will remember them when they languish in jail.

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