Washington Report on Middle East Affairs – 1 October 2003
August is known to journalists as the “silly season”—when editors struggling to fill space ask their staff to spice up run-of-the-mill stories with drama or humor. By every journalistic yardstick, the Israeli media’s recent report of a “children’s summer camp of terror” was a silly season story.
None of the journalists, however, were smirking as they delivered the punchline. They were all deadly serious.
The report originally surfaced July 30 on the Channel 10 news. The station “revealed” that 300 Israeli Arab children—from the community of one million Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship—were being trained to become terrorists at a summer camp in the village of Kabul in the western Galilee.
Eight of the Camp Return organizers were arrested the following day, after police saw the report and its claims that staff were extolling the heroic deeds of suicide bombers and teaching the youngsters to sing anti-Israel songs.
One excitable commentator, Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post, gave voice to the general view: “The children’s cultural milieu that teaches them hatred and violence is first and foremost the Palestinian Authority. Since it was established in [the West Bank] and Gaza in 1994, the PA, under [Yasser] Arafat’s lead, has worked to radicalize the Israeli-Arab minority. Before the arrival of Arafat and his minions, most Israeli-Arabs defined themselves as such. Today, the vast majority of Israeli-Arabs define themselves as Palestinians ‘from the 1948 territories.'”
In fact, far from Arafat being responsible for the camp and its message, it has been run annually for some 16 years in the Galilee. And the claim that the youngsters were being taught to become suicide bombers was as farfetched as it was plain wrong. What parent—even from the battle-ravaged occupied territories, let alone the more comfortable environment of the Galilee—would send his or her child to a martyrs’ training camp?
The organizers are from the radical but entirely legal political party Ibn al-Balad, known in English as the Sons of the Village, which demands a one-state solution that includes the return of the refugees.
This explains why the children’s tents were named after famous refugee camps like Sabra and Shatila, why a Palestinian flag was found at the site, and why the organizers wanted to educate the children about their people’s history—information they are not allowed to learn in Israeli schools.
Interest in the “summer camp of terror” story subsided as soon as the arrested organizers turned up in court in Akka a few days later. Ruling nothing illegal had taken place and no action could be taken against the suspects, the judge threw out the case.
The story’s conclusion received no coverage, however, leaving a familiar impression to Israeli Jews. Since the outbreak of the intifada nearly three years ago, they have been fed a diet of reports and opinion pieces about the treachery of the Palestinian minority in their midst. Its fleeting participation in the intifada (four days of protests) has left a permanent stain on Jewish Israeli perceptions.
Latterly, however, the trend has grown more pronounced and more dangerous. There have been seemingly endless reports about the growing terror threat the Palestinian citizens pose simply by virtue of their continuing presence in Israel.
There is a solid base of fact in this impression. Assistance by the Israeli minority in Palestinian attacks has grown, although not as much—or as significantly—as Israeli analysts would have one believe.
Although the Shin Bet’s statistics show that eight incidents of “involvement in terrorism” in 2000 rose to 30 in 2001 and 77 in 2002, even the most recent figures represent a tiny minority in a population of more than one million.
Also, the statistics do not discriminate between active and passive participation: more Israeli Arab taxi drivers have been arrested for bringing in Palestinian suicide bombers because more suicide bombers have been trying to enter Israel, not because taxi drivers have become more radicalized. As cabbies and their riders in this country can appreciate, most of the Israeli drivers were unaware of their passengers’ true intentions.
Several other cases have involved lovesick teenage girls persuaded to help a Palestinian boyfriend get a fake ID card or enter Israel. They, too, have not realized the real reasons behind such requests. But the Israeli government and media have fueled the impression that there is a direct and causal connection between Palestinian and Israeli Arab terror.
The killing of Oleg Shaichat, for example, a kidnapped soldier from the Galiee whose body was found near the Arab town of Kfar Kana, has been universally blamed on the Arab minority, even though weeks later police had no clue to the identity of the murderers.
Indeed, incitement has become a daily occurrence: government minister Effi Eitam, who once called the minority a “cancer,” in August accused Israel’s much oppressed Bedouin community in the Negev of waging a “construction jihad” against the Jewish state. The Bedouin have been erecting homes without building permits, but only because the authorities refuse to issue such permits to Arabs.
Eitam was joined days later by Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who was quoted in the daily Ma’ariv newspaper as telling Jews in the Negev, “Rise up in your thousands, take up sticks and get rid of the Bedouin Arabs.”
These kinds of smear campaigns carry the imprimatur of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself. In late March, for example, Sharon warned that completion of the security wall around the West Bank would not deter suicide attacks, but merely encourage Israeli Arabs to commit such attacks on the Palestinians’ behalf.
The political parties of the Palestinian minority have been in the firing line, too. First Knesset member Azmi Bishara was put on double trial in late 2001 for voicing support for legitimate resistance activities against Israeli occupation.
Then a judicial inquiry into the slaying of 13 Palestinian citizens by police in the Galilee chose to warn, along with 11 senior Israeli police and government ministers, three Arab politicians—Bishara, and two Islamic movement leaders, Abdulmalik Dehamshe and Sheikh Raed Salah.
Whereas the Jewish officials and representatives all were directly responsible and in control of the events that led to the deaths, the Arab politicians were not. Their offense—or so Justice Or suspects (he is due to report shortly)—was that they contributed to the general climate of violence in the months before the intifada.
Next, the Knesset passed a raft of election laws, effectively raising the bar to make it all but impossible for Arab parties to participate in Israeli elections. Candidates would have to swear fealty to the state, accepting that it was both Jewish and democratic, and reject the Palestinian right to resist Israel’s illegal occupation of the territories.
All the Arab parties currently campaign on a platform that Israel must become a state of all its citizens, and support the Palestinian struggle. The new laws effectively outlawed these platforms, and thus the community’s core political postions.
When Sharon called a general election for January 2003, the central election committee—dominated by members of the main Zionist parties—had to rule whether candidates passed the threshold set by the new legislation. It decided to ban Bishara and his party, as well as former Arafat adviser Ahmed Tibi. Both decisions were later overturned by the courts—apparently more worried by the damage being done to Israel’s democratic credentials than by whether the bans were illegal.
But the vilification of a whole community reached a new peak this past summer.
In May Sheikh Raed Salah was roused from his sleep at the bedside of his dying father to find the hospital surrounded by hundreds of armed police. He was dragged outside in his underclothes—in the full glare of the Israeli media—for questioning. At the same time more than a dozen other members of his political party, the Islamic Movement, were being arrested.
Salah was a prize catch for Sharon. Although Salah has refused to participate in national elections—because he refuses to submit to the Knesset requirement that he recognise Israel as a Jewish state—he has a high profile among the community and is universally respected. He is the nearest thing the one million citizens have to a spiritual leader.
Sharon had been hounding Salah for some time. Earlier he closed the Movement’s newspaper, shut down some of its charity offices and imposed a travel ban on Salah, who has been unable to leave the country since early 2002. Until the May arrests the justifications for these actions remained murky.
On the night of the arrests the government claimed that Salah and his party had been actively funding Hamas terror activities, by channelling funds to families of suicide bombers. According to Public Security Minister Hanegbi, Salah had been under police investigation for two years (beginning immediately after Sharon came to power).
Surprisingly, considering the length of the investigation, police needed to hold Salah for a further six weeks in custody before charging him. And when the charge sheet was finally produced in court, it failed by a long shot to live up to the expectations set by Hanegbi.
Far from supporting Hamas terror, Salah and four other members of his party were accused of money-laundering allegations. The head of the police investigation team, Miri Golan, told a press conference: “I would be very happy to make a connection between the money and terror activities. However, I confirm that the charges are economic.”
In fact, the 12 charges appear to depend largely on creative accounting by the Israeli police. Half the charges refer to donations made to the Islamic Movement by Muslim charities operating in European countries. Although some of these charities were banned in Israel, they are legally registered in the countries in which they operate, such as the UK, Holland and Belgium.
According to the Movement’s lawyers, all but 3 percent of these funds were spent on the Arab minority inside Israel, with the rest going to Muslim charities in the West Bank and Gaza either as food aid or as money to orphans.
A charge that has been highlighted by the Israeli press, Salah’s alleged “contact with a foreign agent” and “giving information to the enemy,” apparently refers to one of many thousands of phone calls taped by the Israeli security services. In 2001 Salah answered a call from a man identifying himself as “Abu Mohammed” who wanted to donate money. Salah passed him on to the director of his charity, the Institute for Humanitarian Relief.
The call later was traced to Nabil Makhzumi, from Nazareth, who was jailed on terror charges and expelled to Lebanon in 1985. He now is believed to be a Hezbollah spy. However, no evidence has been produced showing that Salah knew who the caller was.
Again, the impression left from the arrests and media coverage of the later indictments is that Salah and his party were actively involved in terror and funded Hamas. The judge in the case has even refused bail for the five suspects on the grounds that these were security crimes.
In reality, the police have produced no evidence to support such a claim. Nonetheless, neither the investigators nor the government have made any effort to try to correct such misconceptions.
All of this serves Sharon and the right’s long-term interests—even if, in further alienating the Arab minority and in encouraging hostility toward it from Jews, he sows seeds of ethnic conflict inside the society.
According to Asad Ghanem, an academic from Haifa University: “By delegitimizing the Arab parties and their leaders, Sharon’s Likud Party believes it can instill fear in Jewish voters and keep itself in power for decades.”