In recent weeks, freedom of expression in Israel has come under attack. Rambunctious police interventions during the weekly protests in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarakh, have caught international attention. On Friday, 17 protestors were detained including Haggai Elad, the CEO of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an organization inspired by the ACLU and widely accepted as the leading voice in human rights advocacy in Israel. As Haaretz, Israel’s major liberal newspaper, noted in an editorial this weekend, detention has increasingly been used for political ends.
Last Tuesday, Jared Malsin ’07 became a victim of political detention. For the past two years, Malsin has worked for Ma’an, a news agency dedicated to presenting news from the perspective of Palestinians in Israel. This perspective is often highly critical of Israeli policy, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza and is unsurprisingly not one the Israeli government is particularly fond of. When Malsin returned to Israel after a vacation in the Czech Republic, he was picked up at Ben Gurion airport and was detained for almost a week before his case was argued in court Sunday morning.
The state submitted a brief that attempted to paint the case in non-political colors. But even from the state’s position, the links between Malsin’s detention and the weekend events in Sheikh Jarakh are clear. The state uses the fact that he was “refusing to give information about his friends” as evidence that he has not cooperated with security questioning and a reason to deny entry. Furthermore, the government claims that he initially tried to conceal the fact that he mostly reports on West Bank — sending the message that disseminating information from this area is an undesirable activity, if not a crime. But Malsin’s work as a reporter can have nothing to do with the decision to bar his entry.
Malsin’s story can only be understood in the context of political detentions. In the last couple of years, Israel has taken increasingly drastic steps to prevent unwanted information or opinions from being disseminated. To a large extent, these actions have coincided with the development of a grassroots movement of non-violent protest against the continuing military occupation.
Resistance to occupation and the consequent Israeli police action is, of course, nothing new. Towards the end of the ’80s, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously told his soldiers to “break their arms and legs” as a way to cope with local resistors who were often armed merely with rocks. Later, when Palestinian resistance took up rifles and began suicide bombings within Israeli civilian centers, policing transformed into military force with rockets from choppers and commando operations. As Israeli actress Einat Weitzman wrote yesterday in an op-ed in Ma’ariv, a third non-violent “Intifada” is now developing. In this Intifada, Palestinians, foreign activists and Jewish Israelis are protesting together.
When protestors are armed only with drums and multicolored attire, Israeli forces cannot easily respond with fire. Military violence leaves long lasting damage, and causes serious liability concerns. Arresting a person, on the other hand, is highly uncomfortable, but can be done with relatively low visibility. And once a detainee is freed by a court, it is very hard to take action against the violation of his rights. It is unsurprising then that to fight this unarmed Intifada, the Israeli police have turned to detention.
I was never a very active activist, mainly because I was always afraid to crack my skull. But I have some first-hand knowledge about Israeli tactics. Once, during a demonstration in a Palestinian village that was blocked from access to the main road, I was arrested. When I asked for a reason, the solider responded that I had entered a “closed military zone.” I asked to see the map of this zone. It was drawn around the particular junction where we were standing and had a military order appended. The order was from 10 a.m., two hours before I was arrested.
Political detention takes very different forms, according to the varying vulnerability of its targets. As an Israeli citizen with high access to the justice system, someone like me is probably the least vulnerable: I was freed after a few hours, and my criminal record was erased. As a foreigner, Malsin, is more vulnerable. As the cases of international activists and journalists have shown, deportation is relatively easy for the government — which has wide discretion on visa issues. Unsurprisingly, Palestinian activists are the most vulnerable and at times face many months of detention as Mohammad Othman, a non-violent activist from the “Stop the Wall” campaign did.
In the end, though, the detained are almost never charged with a crime.
Itamar Mann is a master’s candidate at the Law School and a human rights lawyer from Tel Aviv.