Israeli BDS activist’s account of “a friendly talk” with the Shin Beit

Posted: July 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Former Israeli air force pilot and conscientious objector Yonatan Shapira was summoned today to “a friendly talk” with the Shabak (formally known as “Shin Beit”, Israel’s internal security agency). This is Yonatan’s account of the event, as posted on Facebook:

Yesterday Rona from the Shabak called me and asked me to come talk to meet her in the police station on Dizengof st. (Tel Aviv). She refused to tell me what was it about, but made it clear I wasn’t going to be arrested, and that this is just an acquaintance or “a friendly talk”…

At five o’clock I got to the Dizengof police station and was sent to the second floor of the rear building, where a guy who presented himself as Rona’s security guard waited for me. I was taken to a room and subjected to a pretty intimate search to make sure I didn’t install any recording device on my testicles. After I was found clean I was let into Rona’s room. She was a nice looking girl, apparently from a Yemeni origin, in her early thirties.

Rona told me that I she knew I was active in the BDS (movement) and (calling for) an economical boycott of Israel, and she wanted to know what else do I do as part of these activities. I told her that everything (that I do) is well known and published in the internet and the media, and that I have nothing to add, and that I wasn’t going to talk to her.

Rona emphasized that there is a Knesset bill that might soon make my activities illegal. She went on and tried to get me into a political debate, asking if I know that the BDS is in fact a Palestinian organization.

Rona raised the issue of the graffiti in Warsaw and asked it was my own idea or another part of the BDS. She asked if I understood that I crossed a line and hurt many people’s feeling. Obviously the Shabak feeling’s (were hurt) as well… I offered her again to listen to interviews and read article on the issue. She said she did listen and read, but she wanted to know more. I told her I would be happy to give a public lecture to anyone who wants to hear, but not (talk about it) in a Shabak interrogation.

Apart from the BDS issue she asked me if I knew that the demonstrations in Bil’in and Ni’ilin are illegal, and that the entire area is closed for Israelis and internationals each Friday from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm. She went into length explaining how the soldiers feel in these demonstrations and that it irritates them when I talk to them and when I answer them.

Rona said she was there herself and that stones were thrown at her, and that it war really unpleasant. She said that the fact that Israelis are present there makes the Palestinians more violent, and that I have to think how the poor soldiers feel, and that all she is trying to do is for the good of the country and out of her will to defend the people living here.

I answered that all I do is out of a will to defend the people living here as well, and I asked where did she get all the information on my activities and whether they are listening to my phone. She said that she can’t answer this, but that generally speaking the Shabak has more important things to do, so I asked her whet I was doing here and why was I invited to a kind political interrogation if they have more important things to do.

I asked again if they are listening to my phone calls and Rona said she can’t answer that.

She asked me not to publish the content of our conversation because she wasn’t the type who wants publicity… I answered that as a person committed to a non-violent struggle against the occupation I would talk and publish anything I can, including the content of this conversation and future ones, if these will be such.

I documented the entire conversation on a piece of paper until Rona started discussing this paper and what I was writing down. Eventually she confiscated the dangerous piece of paper, claiming that I was not allowed to have any recording device in, and that what I was doing was illegal.

Luckily I remembered most of the conversation and Rona hasn’t confiscated my memory yet. Maybe (it will happen) in our next meeting.

That’s it. There might have been more details but from what I get these were the main issues. I understood that what they were after was our involvement in the BDS, and that they might even be preparing files for the moment the new law is passed.


I find this account of the conversation very reliable, and similar to other accounts of political interrogations of Jewish activists I heard of. We should remember that political interrogations of Palestinians are not that friendly or polite.

I also think that Yonatan could be right in assuming the police or the Shabak is putting together files on Israelis involved in the BDS. One of the many anti-democratic aspects of the new Knesset bill [Hebrew document] is that it will be possible to enforce it on past actions as well.

Personally I found Yonatan’s graffiti in Warsaw to be of poor taste, but this is none of the Shabak’s business.

6 Comments on “Israeli BDS activist’s account of “a friendly talk” with the Shin Beit”

  1. 1 Steve said at 5:55 am on July 20th, 2010:

    What does he expect when he acts like a traitor!

  2. 2 rick said at 12:20 pm on July 20th, 2010:

    he did something of poor taste but in which way is he a traitor, steve?

  3. 3 Sophie said at 1:21 pm on July 20th, 2010:

    There is a book by Rian Malan, a descendant of one of the architects of apartheid in South Africa, called My Traitor’s Heart. Sometimes being a ‘traitor’ to an ethnocentric and militaristic ideology and to a state built on nationalistic mythologies, that is a danger to itself and its own citizens, not to mention those it continues to brutally occupy and dispossess, is a very brave act.

    If speaking truth to power makes Shapira a traitor, so be it.

  4. 4 Aaron Levitt said at 1:18 pm on July 23rd, 2010:

    I thought that folks interested in Yonatan’s recent encounter might also like to read a post I made about a similar experience I had upon my most recent arrival in Israel:

    Ben Gurion Airport, or “Who’s Your Grand-daddy?”

    So, I fly into Tel Aviv from Prague at 4:30am, having slept about three hours out of the previous 48, stagger off the plane and over to passport control, and wait for an agent. I haven’t had any problems getting into Israel for the past two or three years, even though I’ve been very open about the purposes for my visit: “volunteering as a human rights observer in the West Bank”, and things to that effect. This is counter to the standard activist primer advice, but it’s served me in good stead, and I greatly prefer it for reasons I’ll get into shortly. Anyway, the agent refers me to a security guy (or gal), the security guy asks me if I’m Jewish, how often I attend synagogue, or whatever, and either just lets me through or actually wishes me luck. I’m particularly unconcerned about getting in this year, because most of the stuff I’m doing is (or should be) well within the permissible area, even by Israeli security standards. My first few days I’m planning to take measurements and photographs of Lifta, a Palestinian village just west of Jerusalem that was ethnically cleansed in 1948, but of which many of the buildings were atypically left standing. After that, I’m traveling with Menachem Daum, an observant Jewish documentary filmmaker (who made an Emmy-nominated film related to the Holocaust, for crying out loud), to the West Bank, where I’ll introduce him to some Palestinians, international volunteers working on the olive harvest campaign, and the like. I’ll be helping out with olive harvest, myself, for a few days, but that’s probably the activist work that’s least frowned upon by the Israeli government, and basically involves accompanying Palestinian farmers to their lands so they hopefully won’t be attacked by settlers (or attacked as frequently, or as fiercely, anyway) while they gather in their olive crops. No problem.
    I lay this out briefly for the agent, who asks me a few of the usual questions. From here on, however, I will just try to give you the dialogue as best I remember it. Nothing is intentionally misrepresented or exaggerated, and there should be no substantive inaccuracies; if I really didn’t remember much of something, I left it out.
    Agent: What’s your father’s name?
    Me: Joel, as in Yoel.
    Agent: And his father?
    Me: Huh? Err…grandpa [My paternal grandfather died 37 years ago, when I was 2.5 years old]. Oh, right, Herbert…sorry, it’s been a long flight.
    Agent: [Some more questions, then] OK, go sit over there and someone will talk to you.
    Intel1: [Very young woman shows up maybe half an hour later, and asks all the same questions as the agent, except for my grandfather's name, and then] OK, sit here.
    Intel2: [Half an hour later, a marginally less young woman shows up and leads me into her tiny office, where she asks many of the same questions, and then] Are you Jewish?
    Me: Sure am; Jewish name, see?
    Intel2: Aaron can be many kinds of name.
    Me: Err, Aaron Jacob Levitt, as in Aharon Yakov ha’Levi? OK, whatever.
    Intel2: Where have you been in the West Bank?
    Me: [Long list]
    Intel2: What groups have you worked with in the West Bank?
    Me: [Give list of Israeli and international groups I've worked with.]
    Intel2: Write down your address, your email address, your phone number.
    Me: [Done] This is my US phone number; my Israeli cell is in my checked baggage and I’d need to get the number from it.
    Intel2: Suuure it is.
    Me: Yes, it is. If you let me at my baggage, I’ll be happy to give you the number.
    Intel2: Oh, suuure you’ll give me the number.
    Me: It doesn’t matter to me. You seem nice enough; you can call me any time. [A hint of sarcasm, perhaps, but only a hint]
    Intel2: Have you engaged in illegal activities in Israel or the occupied territories?
    Me: No.
    Intel2: Are you sure?
    Me: Yes.
    Intel2: Reeaaallly.
    Me: Yes, really.
    Intel2: Do you have friends in Israel?
    Me: Not many [mention a personal friend], Arik Ascherman with Rabbis for Human Rights, Jeff Halper, a couple of other political folks like that.
    Intel2: Don’t tell me about *rabbis* [voice practically dripping with scorn]; who are your friends?
    Me: Well, some are rabbis. Like I said, I don’t have a lot of personal friends in the country.
    Intel2: What about in the West Bank? You’ve been there six times, you must have lots of friends there, right?
    Me: I know very few people there well enough to really call them “friends”. They’re extraordinary folks; I’m just not there that long.
    Intel2: So they’re not friends, huh? So what do you call them?
    Me: I don’t know, “colleagues”, I guess.
    Intel2: Colleagues! So, they’re colleagues! What do you mean, colleagues?
    Me: Nothing much; they’re activists, I’m an activist…”colleagues”.
    Intel2: What do you mean, they’re “activists” [practically sneering]. What do they do?
    Me: Um, organize, speak, demonstrate. You know, activist stuff. They’re non-violent activists.
    Intel2: So, who are these colleagues of yours? What are their names?
    Me: Sorry, I’m afraid I can’t give you the names of any Palestinians.
    Intel2: [Menacing, I think was the idea] You’re not going to tell me who they are?
    Me: No.
    Intel2: Why wouldn’t you do that?
    Me: Because I know that Israel often targets non-violent Palestinian activists, and I’m not going to help you to do that.
    Intel2: So, you’re an “activist”!
    Me: Yes, like I said…mostly observing, trying to dissuade settlers, and sometimes soldiers, from attacking Palestinians.
    Intel2: Have you ever been to Bil’in [or maybe Ni'lin] on Friday?
    Me: What?
    Intel2: Have you been to Bil’in on Friday?
    Me: [Tired and getting a bit irritated] What? I’m not much on dates. What?
    Intel2: I’m asking if you’ve been to Bil’in on Friday.
    Me: [The lightbulb comes on: Bil'in has scheduled, weekly protest demonstrations; I think they're on Fridays, though I really didn't remember.] I’ve been to a demonstration in Bil’in, if that’s what you’re asking. As an observer, like I said.
    Intel2: I didn’t ask that, I just asked if you were there on Friday. So, you were at a demonstration!
    Me: I certainly was.
    Intel2: And you were “observing”, were you?
    Me: Yup, that’s about it.
    Intel2: [Probably a few other questions, and then] You know, I know what you’ve really been doing.
    Me: I’ve told you what I’ve really been doing.
    Intel2: We know everything, you know. We have all the information about you. And I’m sorry, but everything we know, we pass to your government and *they* know it too. [In a tone clearly meant to bring home my great peril]
    Me: [Trying not to laugh] Well, I’m fine with my government knowing about anything I do, but thanks for the warning, anyway.
    Intel2: I know you’re lying.
    Me: [A bit heated] I’m not much for lying, and if I were inclined to lie, believe me, I would have started much earlier, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. On top of which, if you really know everything I’ve been doing, then you know I’m telling the truth, don’t you?
    Intel2: Well, I’m not sure about that.
    Me: Then you don’t know what you’re talking about.
    After this charming interlude, I was returned to sit in the same waiting area for another hour or two. After that, I was brought to a different waiting area, all of 75 feet away, and waited *there* for around an hour. At this point, I was finally informed by a representative of the Ministry of the Interior that I had been determined to be a security risk, and would only be allowed into Israel under three conditions: first, I would have to sign a pledge not to enter the occupied territories; second, I would have to give a $1350 cash deposit that would be forfeit if I violated that pledge; third, I would only be given a ten-day visa. I had ridiculous phone troubles, and the Ministry of the Interior people were very sympathetic, both to my purpose and my immediate difficulties. They offered me water, took time to chat occasionally, and let me use their phone to make a number of in-country calls. I’m pretty sure they would have let me call the U.S., as well, but the phone was incapable.
    After an hour or so of trying to reach and then consulting with other activists, and trying to contact an Israeli attorney, the security people pressed the Interior people, and the Interior people pressed me, saying that if I didn’t make a decision, it would be made for me, and I would be put back on a plan to the U.S. I told them they’d have to carry me to the plane, that I knew perfectly well no captain would let me on board if I told him I would disrupt the flight, which I would most certainly do, and that they could either wait until I was sure of my decision, or they could transfer me to the deportation jail and eat the horrible PR that would result, which I had half a mind to do anyway. As expected, that ended the pressure, and I sat tight until I heard back from a friendly Israeli attorney who advised me to agree to the entry conditions and fight them, if desired, once I was in the country. It was 8.5 hours, in all, before I was allowed to leave the airport; nearing the end of a *very* long day.
    So, I am now (still) writing to you from Jerusalem, as I no doubt deserve, representing as I do the curious type of security threat who poses a terrible risk if he is allowed *near* Israel for seventeen days, but is harmless as a teddy bear if he is actually *inside* Israel for 10 days. You’ll understand, I hope, if I’m a tad skeptical.
    You may wonder whether, as several of my fellow activists have pointed out, it would really be that hard to get to the West Bank and back without being detected or forfeiting my deposit. The answer is no: I’m not a security threat, and neither are any of the other activists working in Palestine, and the Israelis know that perfectly well, and pay little attention to any of us unless we happen to get arrested at a (perfectly legal!) demonstration. The odds of getting “caught” are extremely low away from the demonstrations. I have, however, what seem to me compelling reasons not to do this. First, I haven’t signed my name to anything in bad faith since before I was seventeen (and I’m not sure about before then); it’s not a practice I intend to start now. Second, the great majority of the Jewish community would be delighted (if I, or any of this, ever came to their attention) to have even a slim reason to believe that I am lying about what happens over here, which would make it that much easier for them to get back to vigorously lying to themselves, instead. I just saw a terrific penmanship exercise from the (Jewish-taught) children’s school at Terezin concentration camp with a practice phrase something like: “Whoever once lies is not believed”. When you’re working in support of Palestinian human rights, that goes double, and four times on Shabbat! The other, equally important, issue is that some of this appears to be deliberate manipulation by Israeli security. By making people sign non-entry statements on arrival, they can deport any internationals they pick up at a perfectly legal demonstration simply *because they lied on the statement*. At one time, at least, this appeared to be standard operating procedure, and I am entirely uninterested in giving Israel an (additional) way to cloak the State’s illegal activities. Finally, I just turned 40, and I fully expect to be engaged in this work for the next 40 years. If this trip was compromised, I can live with that, but deportation includes a ten-year ban on entry into Israel, and that would be a serious obstacle to discharging my responsibilities here.

  5. 5 noam said at 1:38 am on July 26th, 2010:

    Sophia: thanks for the comment. I am becoming more and more interested in South Africa, and I’ll look for the book you mentioned.

  6. 6 noam said at 1:43 am on July 26th, 2010:

    Aaron: thanks for sharing this story. the fact that Israel is preventing people from entering the WB for political reasons, which has nothing to do with national security is further evidence that there is no real Palestinian Autonomy, and that not just Gaza, but the entire West Bank as well, is under Israeli blockade.