Al-Ahram Weekly – 13 June 2002
Hidden amid the narrow back streets of the town of Arrabe in Galilee is the modest cinderblock home of the Jarbouni family. Until a few weeks ago the building was as anonymous as most others in Arrabe, itself just another deprived Arab town in Israel far from Tel Aviv and its sprawling suburbs.
But today the Jarbouni sisters, Lena and Lamis, are well-known– at least by reputation– to Israelis. They and Arrabe have been making headlines since the women’s arrests for allegedly helping Palestinians plot terror attacks.
The Jarbouni family have shied away from publicity but it has not stopped a spate of news reports painting the sisters as monstrous traitors, a new kind of enemy in Israel’s “war on terror”.
The trail that led to the Jarbouni home on 18 April started in Jenin where an Islamic Jihad leader under interrogation implicated the sisters. The eldest, Lena, 29, is still in prison; Lamis, 28, is under house arrest.
This story of treachery by two young women has been lapped up by a public apparently only too willing to believe that the country’s one million Arab citizens are really a fifth column.
In April, the Israeli government produced a letter, supposedly written by Yasser Arafat and seized by the army from his Ramallah compound during the recent West Bank invasion, in which it is claimed the Palestinian president incites the Arab population against Israel.
The paragraph cited in the letter, dated 30 September 2001, reads: “We look and follow with nationalistic eyes, dreaming about our families and great nation in villages and cities that stand strong since the year 1948. For they are partners of the goal and the fate, partners of the one national dream.”
Last week Shin Bet presented its own evidence suggesting that such incitement was having an effect. Its statistics show that Israeli Arab involvement in terrorism has more than tripled since the start of the Intifada: there were eight such incidents in 2000, 25 in 2001 and 19 in the first five months of 2002.
Other press reports claim that 110 Israeli Arabs have been arrested as terror suspects so far this year.
Rightwing cabinet ministers who have been advocating various forms of transfer out of Israel for the Arab minority have notched up these cases as further proof of the nationalist-inspired crimes against the state in which the Israeli Arabs are conspiring.
But not everyone is convinced by the case being made against the Arab minority.
Dr Asad Ghanem, a senior politics lecturer at Haifa University, agrees that the country’s Arabs are more militant than ever. This, he says, is at least in part a response to the violent policies being pursued by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and by the aggressive threats of expulsion being directed at Israel’s own Arab population.
It also springs from an impatience among the younger Arab generation with a system of government that has consistently failed to honour promises to end decades of discrimination.
However, the militancy, he says, rarely manifests itself as involvement in Palestinian terror. Most Arab citizens, including their MKs, are only too aware of the minority’s precarious status as citizens of the Jewish state.
Ghanem describes the Shin Bet statistics as misleading for two reasons. “There is no doubt the Shin Bet has increased its activity among the Arab population. They are looking harder. But many of the people included in those figures are released without charge. The police pick up Arab citizens in sweeps often based on unsubstantiated rumour, just as they do in the West Bank.”
And he says: “The Jewish majority has been redefining what acts it considers illegal. Now, for example, you can be arrested for waving a Palestinian flag. All sorts of forms of protest or dissent, whether legal or not, can be lumped together and called Israeli Arab terrorism.”
The greater willingness by Arab youngsters to confront the state, either peacefully or aggressively, and make demands is antagonising Israeli Jews, Ghanem says, and being used by officials to soften up public opinion for harsher treatment of the minority.
Recent activities that provoked angry newspaper headlines included aid collections for destroyed Palestinian communities, nationalistic flag- waving and chanting at demonstrations and stone-throwing at road junctions.
Although no breakdown of the Shin Bet figures is available, they almost certainly include the case of nine residents of Majd Al-Kurum in the Galilee who were recently charged with possessing Hamas flags and leaflets bearing anti-Israel slogans.
And five Nazareth men charged last month with bombmaking are also doubtless on the list.
It was widely assumed that they were working on behalf of the Palestinians. Later reports buried the fact that the home-made devices were being prepared in case of attacks by the Israeli police similar to those that occurred in October 2000 when the security forces shot dead 13 Arab citizens in Galilee. The men, it became clear, were more inspired by Jean- Claude Van Damme movies than Palestinian nationalism.
The case of the Jarbouni sisters too is not as straightforward as it appears. In fact, Lamis and her brother Said, who was arrested along with Lena on 18 April, have been released and are unlikely to be charged with any offence.
Even Lena, still being interrogated, appears more of a love-sick dupe than an arch-terrorist. Her main offence, according to her confession which was leaked to Israeli newspapers, was agreeing to photocopy five Israeli ID cards for her Palestinian boyfriend, Samr Silawi.
The prosecutors also claim she was planning to carry out a suicide bomb attack, though the basis for this allegation is unclear.
The evidence from her confession points in the opposite direction: when asked by Silawi’s friend Abul-Abd, a Jihad leader, to drive a car ahead of them to check for roadblocks outside Jenin she refused. Realising that she was being used to help them infiltrate Israel, she says she broke off all contact.
The Jarbouni case suggests a worrying new trend though not the one being peddled by the media and the Shin Bet, according to Hannah Friedman of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.
It highlights a renewed confidence among Israel’s security services in treating Palestinians, whether in the occupied territories or in Israel itself, as “ticking timebombs”.
In September 1999 the Supreme Court outlawed all forms of torture in Israel but created one exceptional circumstance. In cases where a suspect was considered a ticking timebomb — he had information that could foil an imminent terror attack on Israel — “moderate physical pressure” could justifiably be applied.
Since the start of the Intifida, Shin Bet security officials have exploited the loophole. Now just about anyone they suspect of being involved with Palestinian militant groups is subject to forms of physical or psychological pressure banned by the courts, says Friedman.
Such treatment can be inflicted on detainees for days, weeks and even months on end, in itself an indication that the timebomb justification is not applicable.
In the most high-profile case of this type, Friedman wrote to the Attorney- General Elyakim Rubinstein on 27 May protesting at the interrogation methods being used on Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, now held by the Shin Bet inside Israel.
He has told his lawyers that he is being regularly shackled to a slanting chair– the outlawed shabeh position– for hours at a time. He is deprived of sleep, he has been told his son, a minor, has been arrested, and he has been threatened with death.
Friedman also received a letter from the attorney-general confirming that two Palestinian detainees, including a British citizen, Jihad Shuman, had been interrogated using “special means”, a euphemism for torture. She is awaiting confirmation in many other cases.
Both Lamis Jarbouni and her brother Said say they were subjected to forms of intimidation and pressure outlawed by the Israeli courts and were prevented from seeing a lawyer.
Said, who was arrested with Lena in the surprise raid on their home in mid- April, says he was tied to a small plastic chair for hours at a time. The reclining angle of the seat meant he was constantly straining to keep himself from toppling backwards.
And Lamis says she faced a barrage of “curses and dirty words” from her interrogators, though she is reluctant to expand on what was said. Friends say she faced threats of sexual violence. She also says the Shin Bet told her that they had “embarrassing pictures” of her that they would publish.
But more disturbing is the suspicion in the family that both Said and Lamis were arrested and tortured only in an attempt to make Lena speak.
Meeting Lamis it is hard to believe she takes any interest in politics. She even jokes that, when her interrogators asked her to name all the Palestinian organisations she knew, she could only think of two: the PLO and Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shi’ite resistance movement.
“The Shin Bet were furious and shouted at me,” she said, “‘They’re in Lebanon! Don’t you know anything? You’re lying.’ ”
Said was eventually allowed to speak with Lena in jail and says she told him that on the pair’s first night of detention she was made to watch him tied to the chair for many hours. Interrogators told her, “Look how you’re destroying his life. He will be left with nothing.”
Said was held for a fortnight and then released. Two days later the police arrested Lamis. “Their attempts to get what they wanted from Lena using me failed so they picked on Lamis instead,” he says.
Meanwhile, last week the Knesset considered a new law to allow the Shin Bet to use “special means” during interrogations. It was rejected by most MKs, who expressed concern that passing the measure would damage Israel’s image abroad.
Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit concurred: “I don’t think the state of Israel needs a law that says it is allowed to torture people. The international implications of this law could be very bad for us. I think the law is unnecessary and will damage the state.”