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Palestinian activists are hounded

The National – 7 August 2008

Niveen Abu Rahmoun appears an unlikely target for the interest of Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet. The quietly spoken 26-year-old from the village of Reine, near Nazareth, is a civics teacher in a local high school.

However, she has been barely out of the thoughts of Shin Bet agents since her interrogation at a Nazareth police station in March. Officials have phoned her three more times demanding that she come for further investigation. She has refused. “It’s clear that they have no evidence against me. They are simply trying to intimidate me because of my political views.”

Ms Abu Rahmoun is a senior activist in the National Democratic Assembly, one of the main parties representing Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens. The party is fully registered and currently has three representatives sitting in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

But it is also led by Azmi Bishara, a Knesset member himself until last year when he was forced into exile in Jordan accused by the Shin Bet of being a “foreign agent” on behalf of Hizbollah during the 2006 Lebanon war.

Though no evidence has yet been produced to support Shin Bet’s claims, the party fears Mr Bishara would be subjected to a secret trial on treason charges if he returned and would be denied the chance to defend himself properly. Several Israeli commentators have ridiculed the idea that Mr Bishara was ever in a position to help Hizbollah.

Ms Abu Rahmoun’s experience at the hands of the Shin Bet has been shared by dozens of other party members over the past few months, though she is the only woman to be called for interrogation. Leaders of the party’s student wing, one as young as 17, have also been investigated.

Israel’s main human rights group, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, said the Shin Bet is waging a “Big Brother-like” campaign of harassment of the party’s leaders, “summoning for investigation people whose political or public activity it does not like”. The interrogations, ACRI said, are designed to send a message that party activists “are under constant surveillance”.

Most of those called for interrogation, such as Mamduah Aghbaria, 24, from the town of Umm al Fahm and a student union leader at Haifa University, have been asked about their links to Mr Bishara.

“During the investigation they wanted to make clear that they knew everything about me, including personal stuff, and that there was nothing I could do without them finding out. They suggested I could end up in prison, forgotten about, if they desired it.”

Like other party members, Mr Aghbaria was asked to sign a paper stating that Mr Bishara was suspected of being a foreign agent and that “elements in Israel are liable to be exploited for hostile aims, including recruitment to Hizbollah or other illegal activity”. He refused to sign.

The Shin Bet tried a different approach with Ms Abu Rahmoun, who works to recruit young people to the party. She was warned by an official known as “Karmi” to stop her youth meetings. “Karmi told me he had a list of people who had once been ‘quiet’ but who were now politically active because of me,” she said. “Then he said he was concerned for my welfare and that I might lose my reputation if I carried on working with the party.”

Awad Abdel Fattah, the general secretary of the NDA, said: “These investigations are about intimidating our members and destroying our party, not because we are any kind of a security threat but because the Shin Bet fears the success of our political programme.

“They want the country’s Palestinian voters to think of us as extremists and militants so they will be afraid to be associated with us, and they want Israeli Jews to believe we are threatening democracy so that they will agree to harsher treatment against us.”

Mr Fattah, backed by ACRI and other human rights groups, said the party has incurred the wrath of Israel’s secret police because of its platform, which has become increasingly influential among the Palestinian minority, a fifth of Israel’s population. The NDA has been calling for Israel’s political system to be overhauled, ending the privileged status of Jews inside the state and turning it into what the party calls “a state of all its citizens”, one that would treat all citizens equally.

“We are demanding that Israel truly becomes the democracy it claims to be and which much of the world mistakenly assumes it is,” Mr Fattah said.

The party’s allegations against the secret police are apparently confirmed by a strange correspondence between Yuval Diskin, the head of the Shin Bet, and human rights groups over the past 18 months. In a series of letters, Mr Diskin has warned that the secret police regard it as their job to “thwart the subversive activity of entities seeking to harm the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, even if their activity is conducted through democratic means”.

Asked what he meant by “subversion”, Mr Diskin said it includes any acts “working toward changing the basic values of the state by obviating its democratic or Jewish character”.

But, ACRI said, “The preservation of the Jewish character of the state is not one of the purposes and functions of the Shin Bet”.

Mr Diskin’s comments came in the wake of the publication of four documents produced by leading Palestinian civil groups inside Israel calling for the country’s reform into either a consensual democracy or a “state of all its citizens”. At a meeting with Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, in March 2007 to discuss the documents, Mr Diskin warned of “a dangerous radicalisation” of the country’s Palestinian minority.

After one legal rights group, Adalah, requested clarification of Mr Diskin’s comments, it emerged that his letter had been approved by Menachem Mazuz, the attorney general, who said he agreed with the Shin Bet’s position.

Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, accused Mr Mazuz of “giving the green light” to the secret police to intimidate and harass the country’s Palestinian citizens “even if what they are doing is completely unrelated to the ‘security of the state’”.

The Shin Bet has refused to answer questions from Israel’s Palestinian legislators about whether they are being wiretapped.

There is a long history to the Shin Bet’s pursuit of Mr Bishara, who began popularising the idea of a “state of all its citizens” more than a decade ago. He has twice been put on trial by state prosecutors, though both cases ended in his favour; he has been warned by a state commission of inquiry; and he was banned from running in the 2006 general election, though the decision was narrowly overturned on appeal to the courts.

In the earlier 2003 election, when the Shin Bet also sought his disqualification, though unsuccessfully, its agents testified that his campaign for a state of all its citizens had moved “to centre stage” among the Palestinian minority and was having “a discernible effect on the content of the political discourse and public agenda of the Arab sector”.

Mr Fattah said: “The Shin Bet have been gunning for Azmi for years, with little success because they have no evidence against him. They could not discredit his political ideas, so they decided to threaten him with a ‘security case’ in which they do not need to present their evidence in public.”

Mr Fattah also argued that the threats to his party’s members are evidence of a wider campaign being organised by the Shin Bet and sections of the Knesset to silence all dissent from the country’s Palestinian citizens and their elected representatives.

Last month, the Knesset passed a law giving the courts sweeping powers to revoke the citizenship of anyone suspected of a “breach of trust” with the state, including by living in any of several Arab states. Mr Bishara is expected to be an early victim of the legislation.

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