Thursday, April 08, 2010

Gila Swirsky on the Anat Kam story

Gila Swirsky, whom I first met in Israel in 1987 as we were both protesting against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the weekly "Women in Black" demonstrations at Paris Square in Jerusalem, has sent a letter to her mailing list about the latest big scandal to hit Israel, which you can read about in all of the Israeli newspapers today.

This story is a testament to the Internet. And to Anat Kam, the whistleblower, who is widely regarded in Israeli security circles as a traitor and will probably soon be charged with treason.

Anat (I’ll use her first name, though I don’t know her) is a 23-year old journalist who wrote for the popular Israeli portal Walla. Some months ago, Anat did the unthinkable: she passed on information that was decidedly newsworthy, but that the Shin Bet – Israel’s security services – did not want outsiders to have. It was a”hit list” – the names of Palestinians living in the West Bank who were on the Shin Bet’s “wanted” list. And it was a copy of the Shin Bet protocol stating that if these “wanted” figures are identified during the course of a military action, permission is granted to carry out “an interception”. Nice language for execution without trial. Reports are that Anat photocopied this classified information while serving in the IDF.

Anat allegedly passed on this classified information to Uri Blau, a journalist, who published it months ago as a major scoop in Ha’aretz. Now Ha’aretz has whisked Uri away to London to protect him from the Israeli authorities, who would love to interrogate him about his informant. Meanwhile, Anat has been under house arrest and held incommunicado for at least three months.

This is a big story, but until today no Israeli newspapers could publish it because a judge issued a gag order at the Shin Bet’s request. But go ask Henry Miller about banned books. Thanks to the ban and Israel’s inability to control cyberspace, the story has taken on vastly greater proportions. Every news outlet in Israel – newspapers, radio, TV, news portals – has front-paged the story now that the gag order was lifted. It would never have received such widespread attention had the Israeli authorities not tried to hide it in the first place. And had the Internet not cloned the story through every webpage eager to expose state secrets.

This is not the first time the Israeli authorities have arrested suspects and held them incommunicado for extended periods. It happens to Palestinians all the time. The best known case of an Israeli is Mordechai Vanunu, who blew the whistle on Israel’s nuclear warfare capabilities 24 years ago and was tried behind closed doors. More recently, Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Yaakov, an Israeli citizen now living in the U.S., was arrested on a visit to Israel in 2002, and a gag order placed on news of his month-long detention and interrogation. Yaakov, a key scientist in the development of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, was suspected of divulging some of Israel’s secrets, but eventually released without charge.

So Israel has managed to draw widespread international attention to a story it wanted to hush up. But why conceal the fact that the Shin Bet has a “hit list” and gives license to its commando units to carry out field executions? After all, doesn’t the U.S. do the same thing in its own so-called war against terror?

Israel, in my view, wanted to hide this information to avoid the legal and diplomatic ramifications of disclosures that its soldiers were once again breaking international law. Israel has been playing defense ever since the Gaza Campaign, trying to keep its senior politicians and officers out of European courts on charges of war crimes. Most recently (December 2009), opposition leader Zipi Livni cancelled a trip to London out of fear she would be arrested, thanks to universal jurisdiction of human rights violations. Similar arrest orders were deflected by other senior Israelis (Barak, Mofaz, and Almog). Publicity about a hit list and hit squads could only add fuel to the growing criticism of Israel and the fear among its leaders of being arrested on a visit to Europe. Not to mention the fact that Israel’s own Supreme Court outlawed such unprovoked assassinations just months ago.

But really, isn’t Israel still the “only democracy in the Middle East”? Concealing someone’s arrest and the charges against her are clearly pages from the annals of dark regimes. And the broader context is the growing McCarthyite culture inside Israel – the silencing of its critics, the squirreling away of its whistleblowers. We see this in the hate campaign against Israeli human rights organizations, which has now reached a new peak – a bill before the Knesset that would severely hamper these organizations from receiving funds from foreign states, one of their only sources of support as the Israeli government is not about to fund human rights activity.

What’s not to love about secrecy, lies, and human rights violations? Praise the whistleblowers and all those who turned on the Internet lights, making it impossible for the authorities to turn them off again.

Gila Svirsky
Jerusalem / Nahariya

Gila Svirsky


  1. Clearly, Gila Svirsky does not seem to understand that her country is in an existential war and that her judging the country as if it were at peace is, frankly, foolish.

    In WWII, the US and its allies covered up all sorts of things - most of them a lot worse than hit lists of actual enemies. The war against Israel, while so far costing fewer lives than many other wars, is still a deadly war that is being played for keeps.

    I do not understand, Rebecca, why you publish what is, in fact, trash.

  2. NF, I would suggest you take a look at an article by Haim Watzman of South Jerusalem on this topic. He suggests that Kam's actions in fact support the rule of law (and therefore Israel's ultimate security), rather than undermining it. See:

  3. Rebecca,

    Criticism is fine. It makes a country stronger. Thanks for the link.

    On the other hand, allowing criticism to become Internationalized is quite a different matter. That is where I have problems.

    Regarding Israel, whatever issue is raised, whether a major or a minor scandal, whether real or fantasy, becomes a weapon used by Israel's enemies. That is why I am wary of people who write righteous criticism in manners that seemed designed not for Israelis but for Israel's enemies.

    I know that is a fine line but that does not mean the line ought not be drawn.