Israeli peace activist, Yonatan Shapira has been a busy guy lately. Recently returned from Warsaw, where he spray-painted one of the last remaining vestiges of the Holocaust-era ghetto wall with the slogan: “No more ghettos,” protesting the Gaza siege, Shapira has also been regular protestor at the Bilin anti-Wall (“something there is that does not like a Wall”) demonstrations, and is an active supporter of the BDS movement. Amid this flurry of activity, Yonatan has hurt the feelings of some in the Shin Bet. Apparently, he’s been a bad boy and let the chevra down, who expected more of him as a decorated IDF helicopter pilot.
The secret police are so distressed that they “invited” him to a “friendly” discussion with an agent at a Tel Aviv police station. Yonatan’s narration of his story is alternately funny and infuriating, which is the only way you can describe Israeli politics these days:
Yesterday Rona from the Shabak called me and asked me to come talk to meet her in the police station on Dizengof st. (Tel Aviv). She refused to tell me what was it about, but made it clear I wasn’t going to be arrested, and that this is just an acquaintance or “a friendly talk”…
At five o’clock I got to the Dizengof police station and was sent to the second floor of the rear building, where a guy who presented himself as Rona’s security guard waited for me. I was taken to a room and subjected to a pretty intimate search to make sure I didn’t install any recording device on my testicles. After I was found clean I was let into Rona’s room. She was a nice looking girl, apparently from a Yemeni origin, in her early thirties.
Rona told me that I she knew I was active in the BDS (movement) and (calling for) an economic boycott of Israel, and she wanted to know what else do I do as part of these activities. I told her that everything (that I do) is well-known and published on the internet and in the media, and that I have nothing to add, and that I wasn’t going to talk to her.
Rona emphasized that there is a Knesset bill that might soon make my activities illegal. She went on and tried to get me into a political debate, asking if I know that the BDS is in fact a Palestinian organization.
Rona raised the issue of the graffiti in Warsaw and asked it was my own idea or another part of the BDS. She asked if I understood that I crossed a line and hurt many people’s feelings. Obviously the Shabak’s feelings as well…I offered to her again to listen to interviews and read articles on the issue. She said she did listen and read, but she wanted to know more. I told her I would be happy to give a public lecture to anyone who wants to hear, but not in a Shabak interrogation.
Apart from the BDS issue she asked me if I knew that the demonstrations in Bil’in and Ni’ilin are illegal, and that the entire area is closed for Israelis and internationals each Friday from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm. She went into length explaining how the soldiers feel in these demonstrations and that it irritates them when I talk to them and when I answer them.
Rona said she was there herself and that stones were thrown at her, and that it war really unpleasant. She said that the fact that Israelis are present there makes the Palestinians more violent, and that I have to think how the poor soldiers feel, and that all she is trying to do is for the good of the country and out of her will to defend the people living here.
I answered that all I do is out of a will to defend the people living here as well, and I asked where did she get all the information on my activities and whether they are listening to my phone. She said that she can’t answer this, but that generally speaking the Shabak has more important things to do, so I asked her what I was doing here and why was I invited to a kind political interrogation if they have more important things to do.
I asked again if they are listening to my phone calls and Rona said she can’t answer that.
She asked me not to publish the content of our conversation because she wasn’t the type who wants publicity… I answered that as a person committed to a non-violent struggle against the occupation I would talk and publish anything I can, including the content of this conversation and future ones, if these will be such.
I documented the entire conversation on a piece of paper until Rona started discussing this paper and what I was writing down. Eventually she confiscated the dangerous piece of paper, claiming that I was not allowed to have any recording device in, and that what I was doing was illegal.
Luckily I remembered most of the conversation and Rona hasn’t confiscated my memory yet. Maybe (it will happen) in our next meeting.
That’s it. There might have been more details but from what I get these were the main issues. I understood that what they were after was our involvement in the BDS, and that they might even be preparing files for the moment the new law is passed.
A few notes and observations: in the U.S. no one in their right mind in Shapira’s shoes would willingly agree to an FBI meeting and certainly not without their lawyer. I don’t know what, if any consequences there might’ve been for him if he’d refused, but clearly the civil liberties-free speech protections are considerably weaker in Israel.
Note the “intimate” body search Shapira experienced before he was allowed to meet “Rona.” This surely happened because Chaim Pearlman managed to record 20 hours of audio conversations with another Shin Bet agent, Dada, who incited him to assassinate Sheikh Ra’ah Salah. A well-informed Rotter member says that Dada has lost his job because he couldn’t manage to prevent himself from being recorded by his target. I guess Rona wanted to keep her job and avoid the same fate. Rumor has it that Dada will be treated well and probably end up as a private security guard somewhere where he’ll be out of the way and no longer embarrass the agency.
Another astonishing aspect of this interrogation which could never happen in the U.S. is that Shapira is essentially being warned that he will be prosecuted by the secret police if the Knesset passes a law criminalizing Israeli support for BDS. This is an a priori warning that his behavior will (they hope) become illegal and end with his prosecution. I was always under the impression that the secret police in a democracy enforced the laws on the books. I didn’t realize they could warn people that behavior that was perfectly legal would shortly become illegal and subject them to arrest. And this from the Only Democracy in the Middle East.
The global BDS movement is an entirely legal and legitimate form of protest against the Occupation. It does not threaten the Israeli State any more than the divestment movement threatened the South African state. The last I checked there was still a South Africa. The only thing that country lost was a racist, immoral political system that dispossessed its majority and favored its minority. If the aims of the BDS movement are achieved Israel will not be destroyed. It will be different. And last I checked it was perfectly legal to try to change the immoral nature of a political system without mounting a coup against the government or destroying the State. We did this ourselves in the 1960s.
Further, I was shocked that the Shin Bet would haul a suspect in for questioning because their activities “upset” people. Again, I always thought you needed a violation of law to intrude upon a citizen’s life in the way they did to Shapira. Apparently, in Israel pure pique can result in getting on the wrong side of the authorities.
Those great kidders at the ‘intelligence’ agency released this statement paraphrased by Haaretz:
The Shin Bet said in a response, that it is authorized as part of its duty to preserve state security and democracy from terror threats, sabotage, subversion and espionage, to receive and to gather information…
So which one was Shapira guilty of? Terror? Sabotage? Subversion? Or espionage? Or none of the above? And do they really expect us to believe that they hauled him in in order to preserve Israeli democracy???
The paranoia of the Shin Bet reminds me a great deal of the COINTELPRO era of the 1960s, in which the FBI ran roughshod over civil liberties because it truly believed that the Black Panthers, SDS and others were a genuine threat to the Republic. This allowed them to bug, arrest, harass, threaten, beat and even kill activists mostly going about their perfectly legal business. The difference between here and Israel is that we have a constitution and checks and balances that require accountability from every branch. There will always be violations and overreaching by one branch or another. But the pendulum always swings back to a more stable equilibrium. This is what does not happen in Israel. There is no check on the Shin Bet–not judicial, not political. They have carte blanche to haul pretty much anyone they like in for questioning. The only check on their power, and it is a small one, is the media–or those in the media who are not in cahoots with them or who are not so cowed that they refuse to cross them.
On an entirely frivolous note, a young Israeli pop singer, Aya Korem, went to art school with Shapira and apparently had a playful crush on him and wrote an absolutely wonderful song called Mom Didn’t Know Yonatan Shapira. The funniest line in the song is: “Yonatan Shapira, make me babies.” It was a smash hit in Israel a few years ago. This is the guy the Shin Bet wants to hound.
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- Israeli BDS activist’s account of “a friendly talk” with the Shin Beit (promisedlandblog.com)
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.