The Shin Bet and the Persecution of Azmi Bishara

Defending Israel from Democracy

The second Palestinian intifada has been crushed. The 700km wall is sealing the occupied population of the West Bank into a series of prisons. The “demographic timebomb” — the fear that Palestinians, through higher birth rates, will soon outnumber Jews in the Holy Land and that Israel’s continuing rule over them risks being compared to apartheid — has been safely defused through the disengagment from Gaza and its 1.4 million inhabitants. On the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s security establishment is quietly satisfied with its successes.

But like a shark whose physiology requires that, to stay alive, it never sleeps or stops moving, Israel must remain restless, constantly reinventing itself and its policies to ensure its ethnic project does not lose legitimacy, even as it devours the Palestinian homeland. By keeping a step ahead of the analysts and worldwide opinion, Israel creates facts on the ground that cement its supremacist and expansionist agenda.

So, with these achievements under its belt, where next for the Jewish state?

I have been arguing for some time that Israel’s ultimate goal is to create an ethnic fortress, a Jewish space in expanded borders from which all Palestinians — including its 1.2 million Palestinian citizens — will be excluded. That was the purpose of the Gaza disengagement and it is also the point of the wall snaking through the West Bank, effectively annexing to Israel what little is left of a potential Palestinian state.

It should therefore be no surprise that we are witnessing the first moves in Israel’s next phase of conquest of the Palestinians. With the 3.7 million Palestinians in the occupied territories caged inside their ghettos, unable to protest their treatment behind fences and walls, the turn has come of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

These citizens, today nearly a fifth of Israel’s population, are the legacy of an oversight by the country’s Jewish leaders during the ethnic cleansing campaign of the 1948 war. Ever since Israel has been pondering what to do with them. There was a brief debate in the state’s first years about whether they should be converted to Judaism and assimilated, or whether they should be marginalised and eventually expelled. The latter view, favoured by the country’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, dominated. The question has been when and how to do the deed.

The time now finally appears to be upon us, and the crushing of these more than one million unwanted citizens currently inside the walls of the fortress — the Achilles’ heel of the Jewish state — is likely to be just as ruthless as that of the Palestinians under occupation.

In my recent book Blood and Religion, I charted the preparations for this crackdown. Israel has been secretly devising a land swap scheme that would force up to a quarter of a million Palestinian citizens (but hardly any territory) into the Palestinian ghetoes being crafted next door — in return Israel will annex swaths of the West Bank on which the illegal Jewish settlements sit. The Bedouin in the Negev are being reclassified as trespassers on state land so that they can be treated as guest workers rather than citizens. And lawyers in the Justice Ministry are toiling over a loyalty scheme to deal with the remaining Palestinians: pledge an oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (that is, one in which you are not wanted) or face being stripped of your rights and possibly expelled.

There will be no resistance to these moves from Israel’s Jewish public. Opinion polls consistently show that two-thirds of Israeli Jews support “transfer” of the country’s Palestinian population. With a veneer of legality added to the ethnic cleansing, the Jewish consensus will be almost complete.

But these measures cannot be implemented until an important first battle has been waged and won in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. One of Israel’s gurus of the so-called “demographic threat”, Arnon Sofer, a professor at Haifa University, has explained the problem posed by the presence of a growing number of Palestinian voters: “In their hands lies the power to determine the right of return [of Palestinian refugees] or to decide who is a Jew … In another few years, they will be able to decide whether the state of Israel should continue to be a Jewish-Zionist state.”

The warning signs about how Israel might defend itself from this “threat” have been clear for some time. In Silencing Dissent, a report published in 2002 by the Human Rights Association based in Nazareth, the treatment of Israel’s 10 Palestinian Knesset members was documented: over the previous two years, nine had been assaulted by the security services, some on several occasions, and seven hospitalised. The report also found that the state had launched 25 investigations of the 10 MKs in the same period.

All this abuse was reserved for the representatives of a community the Israeli general Moshe Dayan once referred to as “the quietest minority in the world”.

But the state’s violence towards, and intimidation of, Palestinian Knesset members — until now largely the reflex actions of officials offended by the presence of legislators refusing to bow before the principles of Zionism and privileges for Jews — is entering a new, more dangerous phase.

The problem for Israel is that for the past two decades Palestinian legislators have been entering the Knesset not as members of Zionist parties, as was the case for many decades, but as representatives of independent Palestinian parties. (A state claiming to be Jewish and democratic has to make some concessions to its own propaganda, after all.)

The result has been the emergence of an unexpected political platform: the demand for Israel’s constitutional reform. Palestinian political parties have been calling for Israel’s transformation from a Jewish state into a “state of all its citizens” — or what the rest of us would call a liberal democracy.

The figurehead for this political struggle has been the legislator Azmi Bishara. A former philosophy professor, Bishara has been running rings around Jewish politicians in the Knesset for more than a decade, as well as exposing to outsiders the sham of Israel’s self-definition as a “Jewish and democratic” state.

Even more worryingly he has also been making an increasingly convincing case to his constituency of 1.2 million Palestinian citizens that, rather than challenging the hundreds of forms of discrimination they face one law at a time, they should confront the system that props up the discrimination: the Jewish state itself. He has started to persuade a growing number that they will never enjoy equality with Jews as long as they live in ethnic state.

Bishara’s campaign for a state of all its citizens has faced an uphill struggle. Palestinian citizens spent the first two decades after Israel’s creation living under martial law, a time during which their identity, history and memories were all but crushed. Even today the minority has no control over its educational curriculum, which is set by officials charged with promoting Zionism, and its schools are effectively run by the secret police, the Shin Bet, through a network of collaborators among the teachers and pupils.

Given this climate, it may not be surprising that in a recent poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute 75 per cent of Palestinian citizens said they would support the drafting of a constitution defining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (Israel currently has no constitution). Interestingly, however, what concerned commentators was the survey’s small print: only a third of the respondents felt strongly about their position compared to more than half of those questioned in a similar survey three years ago. Also, 72 per cent of Palestinian citizens believed the principle of “equality” should be prominently featured in such a constitution.

These shifts of opinion are at least partly a result of Bishara’s political work. He has been trying to persuade Israel’s Palestinian minority — most of whom, whatever the spin tells us, have had little practical experience of participating in a democracy other than casting a vote — that it is impossible for a Jewish state to enshrine equality in its laws. Israel’s nearest thing to a Bill of Rights, the Basic Law on Freedom and Human Dignity, intentionally does not mention equality anywhere in its text.

It is in this light that the news about Bishara that broke in late April should be read. While he was abroad with his family, the Shin Bet announced that he would face charges of treason on his return. Under emergency regulations — renewed by the Knesset yet again last week, and which have now been in operation for nearly 60 years — he could be executed if found guilty. Bishara so far has chosen not to return.

Coverage of the Bishara case has concentrated on the two main charges against him, which are only vaguely known as the security services have been trying to prevent disclosure of their evidence with a gagging order. The first accusation — for the consumption of Israel’s Jewish population — is that Bishara actively helped Hizbullah in its targeting of Israeli communities in the north during the war against Lebanon last summer.

The Shin Bet claims this after months of listening in on his phone conversations — made possible by a change in the law in 2005 that allows the security services to bug legislators’ phones. The other Palestinian MKs suspect they are being subjected to the same eavesdropping after the Attorney-General Mechahem Mazuz failed to respond to a question from one, Taleb a-Sana, on whether the Shin Bet was using this practice more widely.

Few informed observers, however, take this allegation seriously. An editorial in Israel’s leading newspaper Haaretz compared Bishara’s case to that of the Israeli Jewish dissident Tali Fahima, who was jailed on trumped-up charges that she translated a military plan, a piece of paper dropped by the army in the Jenin refugee camp, on behalf of a Palestinian militant, Zacharia Zbeidi, even though it was widely known that Zbeidi was himself fluent in Hebrew.

The editorial noted that it seemed likely the charge of treason against Bishara “will turn out to be a tendentious exaggeration of his telephone conversations and meetings with Lebanese and Syrian nationals, and possibly also of his expressions of support for their military activities. It seems very doubtful that MK Bishara even has access to defense-related secrets that he could sell to the enemy, and like in the Fahima case, the fact that he identified with the enemy during wartime appears to be what fueled the desire to seek and find an excuse for bringing him to trial.”

Such doubts were reinforced by reports in the Israeli media that the charge of treason was based on claims that Bishara had helped Hizbullah conduct “psychological warfare through the media”.

The other allegation made by the secret police has a different target audience. The Shin Bet claims that Bishara laundered money from terrorist organisations. The implication, though the specifics are unclear, is that Bishara both helped fund terror and that he squirrelled some of the money away, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, presumably for his own benefit. This is supposed to discredit him with his own constituency of Palestinian citizens.

It should be noted that none of this money has been found in extensive searches of Bishara’s home and office, and the evidence is based on testimony from a far from reliable source: a family of money-changers in East Jerusalem.

This second charge closely resembles the allegations faced by the only other Palestinian of national prominence in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement and a spiritual leader of the Palestinian minority. He was arrested in 2003, originally on charges that he laundered money for the armed wing of Hamas, helping them buy guns and bombs.

As with Bishara, the Shin Bet had been bugging Salah’s every phone call for many months and had supposedly accumulated mountains of evidence against him. Salah spent more than two years in jail, the judges repeatedly accepting the Shin Bet’s advice that his requests for bail be refused, as this secret evidence was studied in minute detail at his lengthy trial. In the closing stages, as it became clear that the Shin Bet’s case was evaporating, the prosecution announced a plea bargain. Salah agreed (possibly unwisely, but understandably after two years in jail) to admit minor charges of financial impropriety in return for his release.

To this day, Salah does not know what he did wrong. His organisation had funded social programmes for orphans, students and widows in the occupied territories and had submitted its accounts to the security services for approval. In a recent interview, Salah observed that in the new reality he and his party had discovered that it was “as if helping orphans, sick persons, widows and students had now become illegal activities in support of terrorism”.

Why was Salah targeted? In the same interview, he noted that shortly before his arrest the prime minister of the day, Ariel Sharon, had called for the outlawing of the Islamic Movement, whose popularity was greatly concerning the security establishment. Sharon was worried by what he regarded as Salah’s interference in Israel’s crushing of Palestinian nationalism.

Sharon’s concern was two-fold: the Islamic Movement was raising funds for welfare organisations in the occupied territories at the very moment Israel was trying to isolate and starve the Palestinian population there; and Salah’s main campaign, “al-Aqsa is in danger”, was successfully rallying Palestinians inside Israel to visit the mosques of the Noble Sanctuary in the Old City of Jersualem, the most important symbols of a future Palestinian state.

Salah believed that responsibility fell to Palestinians inside Israel to protect these holy places as Israel’s closure policies and its checkpoints were preventing Muslims in the occupied territories from reaching them. Salah also suspected that Israel was using the exclusion of Palestinians under occupation from East Jerusalem to assert its own claims to sovereignty over the site, known to Jews as Temple Mount. This was where Sharon had made his inflammatory visit backed by 1,000 armed guards that triggered the intifada; and it was control of the Temple Mount, much longed for by his predecessor, Ehud Barak, that “blew up” the Camp David negotiations, as one of Barak’s advisers later noted.

Salah had become a nuisance, an obstacle to Israel realising its goals in East Jersualem and possibly in the intifada, and needed to be neutralised. The trial removed him from the scene at a key moment when he might have been able to make a difference.

That now is the fate of Bishara.

Indications that the Shin Bet wanted Bishara’s scalp over his campaign for Israel’s reform to a state of all its citizens can be dated back to at least the start of the second intifada in 2000. That was when, as Israel prepared for a coming general election, the departing head of the Shin Bet observed: “Bishara does not recognise the right of the Jewish people to a state and he has crossed the line. The decision to disqualify him [from standing for election] has been submitted to the Attorney General.” Who expressed that view? None other than Ami Ayalon, currently contesting the leadership of the Labor party and hoping to become the official head of Israel’s peace camp.

In the meantime, Bishara has been put on trial twice (unnoticed the charges later fizzled out); he has been called in for police interrogations on a regular basis; he has been warned by a state commission of inquiry; and the laws concerning Knesset immunity and travel to foreign states have been changed specifically to prevent Bishara from fulfilling his parliamentary duties.

True to Ayalon’s advice, Bishara and his political party, the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), were disqualified by the Central Elections Committee during the 2003 elections. The committee cited the “expert” opinion of the Shin Bet: “It is our opinion that the inclusion of the NDA in the Knesset has increased the threat inherent in the party. Evidence of this can also be found in the ideological progress from the margins of Arab society (such as a limited circle of intellectuals who dealt with these ideas theoretically) to center stage. Today these ideas [concerning a state of all its citizens] have a discernible effect on the content of political discourse and on the public ‘agenda’ of the Arab sector.”

But on this occasion the Shin Bet failed to get its way. Bishara’s disqualification was overturned on appeal by a narrow majority of the Supreme Court’s justices.

The Shin Bet’s fears of Bishara resurfaced with a vengeance in March this year, when the Ma’ariv newspaper reported on a closed meeting between the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, and senior Shin Bet officials “concerning the issue of the Arab minority in Israel, the extent of its steadily decreasing identification with the State and the rise of subversive elements”.

Ma’ariv quoted the assessment of the Shin Bet: “Particularly disturbing is the growing phenomenon of ‘visionary documents’ among the various elites of Israeli Arabs. At this time, there are four different visionary documents sharing the perception of Israel as a state of all citizens and not as a Jewish state. The isolationist and subversive aims presented by the elites might determine a direction that will win over the masses.”

In other words, the secret police were worried that the influence of Bishara’s political platform was spreading. The proof was to be found in the four recent documents cited by the Shin Bet and published by very diffrerent groups: the Democratic Constitution by the Adalah legal centre; the Ten Points by the Mossawa political lobbying group; the Future Vision by the traditionally conservative political body comprising mostly mayors known as the High Follow-Up Committee; and the Haifa Declaration, overseen by a group of academics known as Mada.

What all these documents share in common is two assumptions: first, that existing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are based on two states and that in such an arrangement the Palestinian minority will continue living inside Israel as citizens; and second, that reforms of Israel are needed if the state is to realise equality for all citizens, as promised in its Declaration of Independence.

Nothing too subversive there, one would have thought. But that was not the view of the Shin Bet.

Following the report in Ma’ariv, the editor of a weekly Arab newspaper wrote to the Shin Bet asking for more information. Did the Shin Bet’s policy not constitute an undemocratic attempt to silence the Palestinian minority and its leaders, he asked. A reply from the Shin Bet was not long in coming. The secret police had a responsibility to guard Israel “against subversive threats”, it was noted. “By virtue of this responsibility, the Shin Bet is required to thwart subversive activity by elements who wish to harm the nature of the State of Israel as a democratic Jewish State — even if they act by means of democratically provided tools — by virtue of the principle of ‘defensive democracy’.”

Questioned by Israeli legal groups about this policy when it became public, the head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, wrote a letter clarifying what he meant. Israel had to be protected from anyone “seeking to change the state’s basic principles while abolishing its democratic character or its Jewish character”. He was basing his opinion on a law passed in 2002 that charges the Shin Bet with safeguarding the country from “threats of terror, sabotage, subversion”.

In other words, in the view of the Shin Bet, a Jewish and democratic state is democratic only if you are a Jew or a Zionist. If you try to use Israel’s supposed democracy to challenge the privileges reserved for Jews inside a Jewish state, that same state is entitled to defend itself against you.

The extension in the future of this principle from Bishara to the other Palestinian MKs and then on to the wider Palestinian community inside Israel should not be doubted. In the wake of the Bishara case, Israel Hasson, a former deputy director of the Shin Bet and now a right-wing Knesset member, described Israel’s struggle against its Palestinian citizens as “a second War of Independence” — the war in 1948 that founded Israel by cleansing it of 80 per cent of its Palestinians.

The Shin Bet is not, admittedly, a democratic institution, even if it is operating in a supposedly democratic environment. So how do the state’s more accountable officials view the Shin Bet’s position? Diskin’s reply had a covering letter from Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz, the country’s most senior legal officer. Mazuz wrote: “The letter of the Shin Bet director was written in coordination with the attorney general and with his agreement, and the stance detailed in it is acceptable to the attorney general.”

So now we know. As Israel’s Palestinian politicians have long been claiming, a Jewish and democratic state is intended as a democracy for Jews only. No one else is allowed a say — or even an opinion.

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Daoud Ali said on June 6th, 2007 at 1:47pm #

    Eye-opening. Thank you.

  2. Saeed said on June 7th, 2007 at 4:59pm #

    Thanks for this Jonathan – Very articulate and full of very relevant information – It is a very sad state of affairs the utter hypocrisy that is spewed from the Zionist regime and its big brother the US – People need to wake up and realize that the Zionist regime is one of the most suppressive, racist and violent groups in the world

    Keep up your great work, it is appreciated by all whom consider themselves decent and moral human beings