The profile of Tikun Olam published yesterday:
Ha-Ir Tel Aviv Magazine – Issue 1557, 6 August 2010 p. 42
Translated by Dena Shunra of http://hebrew.shunra.net/
Coming Soon to Shabak’s Dungeons
The blog published by Richard Silverstein – an American Jew from Seattle – is one of the few places the long arm of the State of Israel has not yet reached. That explains why he was the first to unveil the Anat Kamm case, to publish the full name of “Captain George” [Doron Zehavi], and shed light on many affairs covered by gag orders. For more information about our lives – step into the blog.
by Lital Grosman
Captain George’s New Job: Arab Affairs Consultant to the Commander of the Jerusalem District – read the headline of the news item published in Haaretz last Wednesday. ‘Captain George’ is the alias of a former interrogator [Doron Zahavi] in Intelligence Unit 504, responsible for the interrogation of Mustafa Dirani after the latter had been abducted and brought to Israel.
Years later, in a lawsuit Dirani filed against the state, that same ‘George’ was accused of having sodomized him (inserted a baton into his rectum) and that on another occasion, he had instructed another soldier to rape him. Despite his denials of the claims against him, George left the army following that case, and entered into service with the police. Since then, his name has been gone from the headlines. The trial about him has been going slowly since Dirani was returned in 2004, in the Tannenbaum prisoner swap.
But George’s comeback last week rekindled public interest in him: the day after the news item was published, a complaint surfaced, filed by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) several months ago, relating to a threatening interrogation in his current position. However, despite the fact that this new [police] job is not done under the cover of the same darkness that characterized his previous ones, and despite the fact that the official complaint contained his full name (as did several of the comments on the Haaretz news items) – the publication of his full name was prohibited by three separate gag orders. The violation of such an order could lead to a detention cell.
Richard Silverstein, an American Jew from Seattle who writes the Tikun Olam blog and is not bound by Israeli law, stepped into this vacuüm. In a post that he published that very day he exposes George’s full name. “[T]hank God we’re not bound by any such nonsense,” writes Silverstein at the end of the post, “and [so] we offer (and here he uses the real name of Captain George) to the world in all his glory.”
But that was not the end of the story. A few hours later two additional bloggers, Israeli ones this time, Yossi Gurvitz and Itamar Shaatiel, also published posts revealing the true name of “George”. The path from here to the publication of the full name throughout the Internet was short, which apparently displeased some unnamed people. Several hours after the publication of those posts, a denial-of-service (DoS) attack begin against the three sites…Silverstein’s blog underwent the most intense attack: it was brought down again and again, over a period of several days. As of Monday morning, reports Silverstein in a phone interview from his home, the attack has eased. He adds that despite speculations on the Internet that the attack may have been by establishment persons, he himself believes that it was carried out by readers of Ultra-Orthodox Rotter website’s Scoops forum (Silverstein’s site collapsed a few hours after someone, acting on his behalf, published a link to the post in question in that forum.)
It should be noted in this context that an attack of the type carried out against Tikun Olam does not require extraordinary technological means or knowledge. It should also be noted that Silverstein was not really upset by it. “If you write a political blog about Israel, you have to expect a certain degree of hostility,” he says. A few hours later he would find the following comment on the Rotter forum: “I am for erasing Silverstein from the world, at the hands of a Mossad assassination squad.”
The Last Journalist
Despite the fact that his blog has been in existence for seven years, until several months ago the number of his readers in Israel was small. The turning point was when Silverstein became the first to publish the full details of the Anat Kamm case. As you will remember, when Kamm was arrested on suspicion of security offenses in December 2009, a sweeping gag order was applied to the entire case, which prohibited even the publication of the fact that there was a security case to which a gag order had been applied. That’s how, for months on end, despite hints on the Internet and even graffiti asking “Where did Anat Kamm disappear?”, the details of the case were unknown.
That is, until Silverstein got into the story. “Someone in Israel contacted me, and informed me about what was going on with Anat Kamm,” he says. “He said that there was a gag order, and asked if I wanted to publish it. I believe in the principle of transparency in democracy – in Israel, too, which I see as a partial democracy today – and I think that the public in Israel has the right to know things that are blocked by censorship or by other security organizations. For this reason, I leapt at the chance to do this, although I knew that many powerful people in Israel would be angered by it.”
Details about the case were actually first published on the Indymedia website, but they were soon removed, at Kamm’s own request. On March 14th, Silverstein first published the suspicions against Kamm, the fact that she had been arrested, and her full name (incidentally, he deleted it from the news item after hearing that Kamm did not want it to be made public, but her reinstated it 48 hours later). Several days later the story made it to JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), which published it, and it’s at that point the matter became a massive snowball that would not stop. Eventually, it led to an Israeli court on April 8th, instructing that the facts of the arrest could be published.
Silverstein has worked as a fundraiser for the Jewish community. He holds an M.A. in comparative literature, and his specialty is Hebrew literature. In the past he also started working on a Ph.D. on this subject, for the purpose of which he moved to Israel for two years, in order to study at the Hebrew University. He did not complete the degree.
Doubtless, his role in the Anat Kamm case upgraded his status. The case made it clear to Silverstein that he had a start-up available: a blog which could fight against the Israeli cloak of secrecy, thanks to the fact that he was not subject to local censorship. “For years in writing the blog, most of what I did was to read Haaretz and Ynet in English and reports about Israel in the New York Times, and I’d write my opinions about what they said,” he tells us. “My blog was not original, in the sense that I would not create stories, but primarily respond to them. But now, this has changed.” Today, relying on Israeli sources who contact him, and especially one central contact person – about whom Silverstein is only prepared to say that he is “not a public person, but one who has access to a lot of information, and who wishes to lay low” – is responsible for the exposure of a long line of important cases.
The next “initiative” after the Kamm case was born of a report aired on Channel 2 TV on April 19th this year, on the eve of the Day of Remembrance [Israel’s Memorial Day]. The story was about a Mossad agent [Immanuel Sonino] killed in the line of duty about 17 years ago, whose parents wanted to memorialize him in a school in the city where they lived. “After the story aired, it was disappeared (meaning the link to the news company’s site was removed, as well as the link to it on YouTube). The reason for the disappearance was probably the possibility of identifying the Mossad agent through it, and a sensitive affair he was associated with, despite the fact that his full name was not mentioned – LG). “I saw that as scandalous, and tried to break the seal of secrecy, simply because there was no justification for it. The secrecy in this case was arbitrary and capricious: they do not permit the publication of a news story which wishes to memorialize a person, despite his parents’ explicit desire to do so. So I wrote about it.”
A month later Silverstein again took it upon himself to shed light on a security affair which had been put into darkness, this time, while it was still in progress. The case in question was the arrest of Amir Makhoul, a writer, human rights activist, and member of the Israeli-Palestinian NGO, Ittijah, on suspicion of spying for Hizb’Allah. Tikun Olam’s attention was draw to the fact that since his arrest, on May 6th, Makhoul was isolated for 12 days, without being permitted to see an attorney, while under cover of a gag order (a short time thereafter charges were filed against him, claiming that he had been recruited to the Hizb’Allah by a Lebanese businessman residing in Jordan, Hassan Jajah by name, that he had conveyed a list of six additional potential agents, and had also received software from the Hizb’Allah for use in sending encrypted information. It was claimed that in his interrogation Makhoul admitted to having met a Hizb’Allah agent in Denmark, in 2008, and agreed to collect information about Israel. Makhoul later claimed that the “information” had been extracted under torture.)
“What I found interesting was the claim that Amir Makhoul and Omar Said (who was also arrested in the same case – LG) were allegedly recruited by a Hizb’Allah agent. I invested some research into understanding what the story was about this man, whom the Shabak claimed was an agent (Jajah – LG) and if it made sense the he was. That’s how I found out where he lives and what he does.”
That’s already proper journalism.
“Yes. I had to use the help of many people. Later I also found a declaration by the wife of the alleged agent, in an interview in a Jordanian newspaper, and I translated it [with the help of Rechavia Berman]. We even tried to persuade Jajah to do an interview, but that didn’t work out.
Related to the Prosecution
Another case, whose details have not been made clear to this day, is that of “Prisoner X” – a detainee with no name or identification. An item about his was published on the Ynet [news portal] website on June 13th, but it was removed less than a day later, due to a gag order about the subject. Silverstein wrote a post about it in which he reported the gag order and also discussed the question of the man’s identity, and the background for his arrest. That same day the KamWatch blog published a screenshot of the original news item (which Ynet confirms it had indeed removed due to the gag order.)
“I have no problem with the existence of intelligence agencies, a military, and the whole issue of maintaining secrecy,” explains Silverstein about the limitations that he is trying to pierce, “but I think they should be accountable for what they do. I do not feel that this is happening in Israel. I think they have a blank check to do pretty much whatever they want, and no one thinks that it is important for them to bring forth support for the accusations they make. I may be perceived by certain people as an enemy because I do this, but in a true democracy every person must be accountable for what they do – including spies and the intelligence community. So if the Shabak wants to claim that Amir Makhoul was recruited by Hizb’Allah, let it bring forth its arguments properly, rather than holding him in prison for two weeks, denying him access to an attorney, and extracting confessions under duress. You can talk to the public without revealing secrets. In America, in cases equivalent to the ones that I covered, a great deal more information is presented to the public.”
Do you really think that the situation in the U.S. is much better? Look at how the administration responded to solider Bradley Manning, who leaked documents to the Wikileaks site.
“True, the government is very harsh to him, but he has a certain amount of public support and he has a good attorney. I feel that in Israel, if you want to be Anat Kamm, you have to be prepared to go it alone, with no support network, and to be the target of burning hatred. It’s not that the situation in the U.S. is perfect: it is not. Obama is continuing the Bush polices in many fields, and this is especially jarring in the context of sensitive security issues, such as prosecuting whistleblowers, as in the Wikileaks case. But the difference is that in America there is a system of checks and balances. There are the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court, and they all review each other’s acts, so that even if there is a president like Bush who causes damage for eight long years, Congress can counteract possible harm to the Constitution. In Israel the army stands alone. Who can check it?”
Where do you see this being expressed?
“For example, the inflated number of gag orders and the ease with which the judiciary approves them. In other democracies, the judiciary serves as a check for the security system, and requires that it bring forth proof for its actions. This does not seem to be happening in Israel.
Another example is the first judge who heard the Anat Kamm case, Einat Ron, who had been a prosecutor with the Military Judge Advocate’s Office. That indicates that the relationship between the judiciary and the military is too close. The relationship between the media and the security apparatus is also problematic. The media quotes the latter’s version of events, often without credit and without requiring anyone to be accountable for what they say.
“There were cases of excessive closeness between media and the CIA or FBI in the U.S., too, but many more questions are asked by media about the motivations and action of the agents, not to mention the judiciary’s relationship with these organizations. Gag orders are quite rare here. In the U.S. it is well-known that agents can be fired if they exceed their authority, while in Israel, even if this happens, most likely you wouldn’t even find out about it, but rather might hear some rumor or other.”
I Haven’t Been Subpoenaed Yet
When Silverstein talks about the absence of support networks to aid whistleblowers about security cases, such as in the case of Anat Kamm, he knows what he’s talking about. He has learned it the hard way. Since he started the blog about seven years ago, he has become the target of ongoing defamation, primarily by American Jews who do not like his radical opinions and his harsh criticism of Israel. “Anti-Semite” and “Jew-hater” are only some of the curses he gets in response to his posts. A week ago he even received a death threat, and that was not even on the Rotter site. “Another American blogger had a comment which mentioned my name, along with the statement that I should be killed,” he says. “I think this crossed a line. We alerted the FBI. Considering the world we live in, we can’t ignore the possibility that someone might have the capability and the means to act on this statement.”
“People are also trying to run me out me out of the Jewish community,” he says, “but I do not intend to let that happen. I want there to be room in the community for people with opinions like mine, too.”
Was that the motivation for starting the blog, in the first place?
“I’ve always felt that the Jewish press in the U.S. has not really given attention to alternative views such as my own, and I wanted there to be a place where I could express them. Since the Israel/Palestine dispute has always interested me, and since I enjoyed writing but never worked professionally as one – when I heard about blogs in 2003, I found them very attractive. They let an individual become his own publisher. But still, I treated it as a big experiment.”
Since that time, the blog became the primary occupation in the life of Silverstein, who is married and has a nine year old son. “I consider my blog to be a full-time job,” he says, “despite the fact that this is not a job where I make a full-time salary. It is something I work at very intensively. I spend a lot of time on the blog, investigating stories. I also spend a lot of time on comments in the blog. The comments are very important to me, as this is a community of readers. I also learn a lot from them.”
There is a constant claim in the comments that you receive money from Saudi Arabia
“Then I will have to take this occasion to disappoint the commenters – no-one finances me. Quite the contrary, I would be delighted if a foundation would do so. Not to mention that blogging is not all that expensive, either.”
After your blog went in a new direction, which set off warning lights with the people in charge of keeping [Israeli] state secrets, has anyone contacted you or put any pressure on you to refrain from publishing certain things?
No one has approached me officially and there has been no attempt to discourage me or call me in for a conversation. Nothing like that. I think that they have to be very careful here, and they understand that if they try and do something, they might exceed their limits. That’s part of the delicate balance here.”
But a few minutes later, Silverstein admits that there is actually one thing which does concern him. “I have not been in Israel since I started writing the blog. I did live in Israel in the past, I studied Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University for two years, but my son has already started asking why we don’t go visit. I wonder if when I visit Israel, my fate would be the same as that of other people who were not allowed entry, such as Noam Chomsky. I would actually like to come and discuss politics with bloggers whom I’ve had the opportunity to talk to, but not meet face to face. I’d be glad to do that sometime. I have to say that some of the bloggers who write here in the U.S. travelled to Israel and had no problems, so I don’t assume that they would necessarily treat me badly, but we both know that Israel holds a grudge, and that anything could happen.”
Attorney Shlomi Tzipori, who represents “Captain George”, said that he does not wish to respond. Spokespeople for the Jerusalem [Police] District said that they refuse to discuss the issue. Channel 2 News said about the censored report that they do not wish to respond. No response was available from the Rotter site.
This article originally appeared in Hebrew in the Ha-Ir magazine, Issue 1557, 6 August 2010 p. 42
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.