Telling left from right

 

By Aviv Lavie, Haaretz, 29.1.04

 

 

Left-wingers were never liked, but now they are considered a liability.

 

At the beginning of last month, Yehudit Shendar and her daughter, Roni, flew to India, to attend a wedding of friends. Roni, drawing on her rich experience - despite her young age, 24 - told her mother that they should get to the airport a few hours early, because they were in for hassle. Yehudit, 57, the senior art curator at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institute, in Jerusalem, was skeptical. What problems could they make for a respectable citizen who had a ticket for an El Al flight to Bombay?

 

At the airport, Roni, who just three years earlier had completed her army service as an officer in the air force, approached the security personnel and told them that she thought she was on their lists. In the past two years, since she began to work for left-wing organizations - first Bat Shalom, a feminist women's peace and human rights group, and afterward the Alternative Information Center, both Jerusalem-based - she "has forgotten what it is to travel like a human being," as her mother puts it.

 

"They confirmed that she was on the list," Yehudit Shendar says, "and I was automatically added on, without being asked even one question. They took our passports and all our things, and we were taken to a closed room. There, in the course of hours, they removed item after item from our bags - four people were employed by the State of Israel in an effort to examine my hairbrush. Then I went through a body check. A girl did the check in a room with an open curtain, with two men standing by the curtain and looking in. When I asked her to close the curtain she said she couldn't: `Those are the orders.' At the end of the examination they told us they had found a few suspicious objects, which would be sent on separately. When we arrived in Bombay a small carton showed up next to our suitcases marked with the words `State of Israel Security.' Inside there was a package of `Mutar' [sugar-free] candies."

 

Shendar took a photograph of the carton as a souvenir and was sure that her ordeal was over. On December 17, after "two weeks of a wonderful holiday," in her words, she discovered that her optimism had been premature. The two arrived at the airport in Bombay, uptight about getting home because of a heart ailment the father of the family had developed.

 

Yehudit Shendar: "When we showed our passports it turned out that we were again on some list. We were taken for a check. Roni had a laptop computer, and an argument started about whether she could board the plane with it. She was told that she would see it in another two weeks. For her that is a terrible blow, because she can't work without the computer. We waited for two and a half hours without being offered so much as a glass of water. We didn't get our documents and things back, and no one told us what was going on."

 

After being promised by Indian officials that their things would be returned, but not receiving them, they refused to board the plane. When they returned to the interrogation room, they found their things scattered on the floor and their suitcases opened.

 

Yehudit and Roni Shendar flew back to Israel with Air France. Yehudit: "With the French we became respectable passengers, with the laptop and without humiliation, but we flew via Paris and reached Israel two days late. I still can't calm down. When they take your mobile phone, your passport, your things, you lose control over your life. When you stand stark naked in front of the security person, it doesn't matter who you are or what you have done in your life, you become a total nothing. That episode showed me the insanity of the system, the way things are going to pieces and the loss of good judgment. Of course, I accept that the system had to ensure the security of the passengers, but how exactly do I fit into that picture?"

 

Sense of closure

 

Yehudit and Roni Shendar are not alone. The fact that every flight entails protracted harassment and security checks for Israeli Arabs (and, of course, for Palestinians) and for a handful of veteran left-wing and right-wing activists, is hardly news. The news is that what was once the lot of the fringes is quickly spreading toward the center. In the more than three years of the intifada, hundreds or more people have joined what the establishment views as radical groups. This includes more than 700 members of the various groups that are against doing military service in the territories and a large number of left-wing and human rights organizations that oppose Israeli government policy and the continuation of the occupation.

 

Many members of these groups are from the very heart of the elite: senior army personnel and academics, media and business people. They consider themselves an essential part of the Israeli society, the salt of the earth, and are stunned to discover that the establishment has marked them and treats them like dangerous enemies. One fine morning they find in their mailbox a summons from the police to appear for a "clarification," which quickly turns out to be an interrogation by the Shin Bet security service. At the airport they are treated like "ticking bombs": Leaving the country for a holiday or for an international conference abroad is no longer an inalienable right. "Who says that only the Palestinians can be put under closure?" says an Israeli with a bitter smile, after recently missing his flight because he was kept for hours in the security room at the airport.

 

Dr. Zvi Schuldiner, head of the department of policy and public administration at Sapir Academic College in the Negev, allows himself to smile when he recalls a family vacation last year. "Shortly before last Pesach, my son completed three years of army service in intelligence, and I decided to give us all a treat and spend a week on a Greek island. Five of us came to the airport - my wife, myself, my daughter, her partner and my son. On the way to the airport, my daughter, Anat, who is in culture studies at Hebrew University, told me she suspects she is on the blacklist because of her political activity in Ta'ayush [which describes itself as an anti-racism, grass-roots group that seeks to build "a true Arab-Jewish partnership"] and in the Alternative Information Center. She suggested that we present ourselves to the security people at the entrance to the airport. I replied that this was out of the question. I said I refused to consider her or us as any sort of suspects and that Israel is still a democracy in which logic and justice prevail."

 

The family spent its first two hours at the airport watching the security people unpacking their bags to the last item. "To our astonishment," Schuldiner says, "it turned out that neither the checkers nor their superior had a clue as to why they were checking us. We were marked and that was that. I told them it was because of my daughter's political activity and that there was no security matter here. My son tried to explain that he just completed his army service in a classified intelligence unit. But all the person in charge had to say was: `You attribute too much power to me.' Their orders also prevent us from going to the bathroom alone, so young women had to escort my wife to the door of the stall in case, heaven forbid, she tried to hide a pistol in the toilet. It was obvious that they were deeply embarrassed by the situation."

 

At a certain point the family said they were going to miss the flight. Fortunately the flight was delayed, the check ended, "and then they rushed us through all kinds of corridors I never knew existed," Schuldiner recalls, "and put us on the plane to the furious stares of the passengers, who were certain that they had been delayed because we were enjoying ourselves in the duty-free shops."

 

Hostile terror activity

 

The function of the Shin Bet's department of Jewish affairs is to collect information on fringe groups on the right and the left, which have subversive intentions and are considered threats to the stability of the regime. Until the beginning of the 1980s, the department aimed its activity mainly against organizations of the radical left. Activists in organizations such as Matzpen (Israel Socialist Organization), Siah (New Israeli Left) and the Communist Party were placed under surveillance. Their mail was opened and their phones were tapped. In the early 1980s, following the attempted assassination of three West Bank mayors (June 1, 1980), the Shin Bet was given a green light by the prime minister, Menachem Begin, to look into events in far-right organizations. That activity led to the arrest of the members of the Jewish terrorist underground in 1984.

 

The years that followed saw increasing Shin Bet activity among activists of the fringe right, especially Kach (founded by Meir Kahane), which continues to this day. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, in November 1995, heightened suspicions against the right, and for months after the murder, everyone who made a sharply worded statement was automatically suspected of incitement. The Al-Aqsa Intifada turned things around again. Members of left-wing groups who refused to accept the Israeli consensus were marked by the establishment, and as the terrorist attacks multiplied, so did the suspiciousness and hostility toward them, with the line dividing political activity from security threat becoming increasingly blurred.

 

In the pre-Oslo years, meetings between Israelis and members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were against the law, and the few Israelis who held such meetings found themselves in a constant state of friction with the security and legal authorities. Nowadays dozens of Israeli organizations maintain ongoing relations with Palestinians, mostly in the form of joint protest activities against the occupation and humanitarian aid in the territories. The establishment, explains a former Shin Bet official, views these ramified ties as a security threat - whether due to the fear that Israelis will cross the line and assist Palestinian terrorism, or that the trust they place in the partners on the other side will be abused. As a result, the former Shin Bet person adds, good people who are on a quest for peace and who view themselves as patriots and oppose all forms of violence, find themselves being questioned and checked as though they had been picked up on the way to perpetrate a suicide bombing.

 

"Once every Arab was considered a terrorist," observes a person who until recently worked in the security check unit of the Israel Airports Authority. "Then it was everyone who knows an Arab, and now it's anyone who knows someone who knows an Arab. Altogether, that adds up to quite a few people."

 

The question of which side has gone off the rails here - reality or Israel's state security branches - remains an open one.

 

Mashiah's computer

 

The vigilance, or hyper-vigilance, that the establishment is showing toward developments in the Israeli left, is not confined to Ben-Gurion International Airport. For the past two years, Amit Mashiah, a media adviser and a former soldier in the Artillery Corps, has been the spokesman of Courage to Refuse, the movement of refuseniks - soldiers refusing to serve in the territories - that was first to become active in the current intifada. Mashiah coordinates the lists of names, the signatures and information about the refuseniks. Eight months ago he had good reason to think that someone was very interested in that information.

 

Mashiah: "One day I left the house and locked the door behind me. As it happened, a good friend of mine from New York was staying with me just then. A few hours later he called me to come home quickly, because there was a big mess in the house. Someone had broken in, emptied out all the drawers, turned out the pockets of all the coats, scanned the computer files and gone through all the file folders and papers. At first I thought they were after money, but in one of the drawers they went through, there was an envelope with $4,000 belonging to my friend, and they didn't touch it. They opened the envelope and left it on the floor. There was NIS 1,000 in cash on the desk and they didn't touch that, either. I have a licensed pistol and it was still in its place. I filed a complaint with the police. They sent investigators who told me there were no fingerprints."

 

Initially, Mashiah says, the thought that someone was looking for information about his activity seemed to be groundless paranoia. However, it soon turned out that two other leading activists in the refusenik movement had also undergone a similar experience: Yishai Menuhin, the head of Yesh Gvul, the oldest of the refusenik groups, and Haggai Matar, one of the five conscientious objectors (who refuse to serve in the army) who have just begun serving one-year prison sentences for their refusal. Matar's computer, which contained the names of the signatories on the letter of the 12th-graders declaring their refusal to serve, was stolen from his house at the peak of his activity. Of course, all this might be mere coincidence.

 

Uri Ayalon's encounter with the Shin Bet left no room for doubt. Ayalon, a 24-year-old Tel Aviv resident, did his military service on Army Radio and then held a series of press jobs, including a stint as media correspondent of Haaretz. For the past few months he has been active in Anarchists Against Walls: He took part in the demonstration at the separation fence last month in which Gil Na'amati was shot by Israeli soldiers.

 

It all started, Ayalon says, following an article he published last April in Haaretz Magazine. in which he described his impressions from a weekend of training he underwent with International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activists in the territories. A month after he published the article, Ayalon encountered the "suspects' procedure" at the airport, in the course of which he was questioned for two hours and managed to board his flight for Paris thanks only to a work-to-rule action that day by the airport personnel.

 

In Paris, Ayalon took part in demonstrations against the G-8 (the world's eight leading industrialized countries) and stayed with an Israeli friend who is also a former Army Radio staffer. By an ironic twist, a few of the buddies of this friend, with whom Ayalon spend a lot of time during his stay in Paris, work as security checkers at Orly Airport. One of them was on duty on the day Ayalon was due to fly back to Israel. He arrived at the airport with him, took his ticket and promised to wind up the technical procedures quickly.

 

Ayalon: "A few minutes later he returned looking glum. `You won't believe what just happened,' he told me. `The boss says you're on the list of dangerous people.'" The personal connections spared him nothing. He was questioned at length by the security officer and was forbidden to take his Palm Pilot on board with him. "I was promised it would be in Israel within four days. Without it I am totally lost. It showed up after five months and endless correspondence with every possible body."

 

About a month after he returned to Israel, Ayalon was summoned to a "clarification" at the police station on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. He already knew that the Shin Bet was behind such summonses. "I was curious," he says. "I even thought of writing about the experience for the paper. When I took out my notebook and pen, the interrogator raised his voice and told me to put them back in my bag."

 

At the entrance to the police station he was met by a person who called himself Shai. Ayalon: "A few minutes later we entered the room and sat down, and he said, `Actually, we haven't been properly introduced. My name is Tomer.' I couldn't hide a smile. I reminded him that 10 minutes earlier he had told me his name was Shai. He thought a minute and said, `Tomer Shai.'"

 

According to Ayalon, what he went through was far more than an interrogation or a "clarification"; it was in fact a warning with a distinctly political hue. Judging by the amount of information that Tomer/Shai knew about him, Ayalon was able to conclude with certainty that someone was reading his e-mails and listening in on his phone calls. Tomer/Shai warned him against maintaining contacts with the ISM - which as everyone knows is hardly the Israeli government's favorite organization, and asked him "to get the message across to all your friends." He then launched into lengthy lecture, Ayalon says, under the general heading of `You mustn't believe Arabs,' whose high point was a story about a Muslim who took advantage of the naivete of a British woman who became pregnant by him to place a bomb in the handbag she took with her onto a plane. "I made it clear to him that my opinions were too solid for such stories to influence me," Ayalon says.

 

More and more left-wing activists are being summoned for a chat with their local Shin Bet agent. Many of them consult with attorney Yossi Wolfson, from the East Jerusalem-based Center for the Defense of the Individual. "In several cases, statements were made along the lines of, `Look at yourself at your age, everyone around you is younger than you - isn't it about time you stopped this activity and organized your life?' When I examine who the Shin Bet is interested in talking to, the conclusion is that it's almost everyone who is engaged in joint activity with Palestinians," Wolfson says.

 

"Of course, one can argue that the motive is security, but the feeling is that there is an attempt under way here to keep populations separate, to prevent cooperation that crosses lines between people from the two nations, to suppress what the establishment perceives as a dangerous social phenomenon."

 

Ayalon says he was not frightened, but some people take the experience a lot harder. "From my point of view, it was a debacle," says H., a young peace activist who doesn't want her name published. "I came back from a visit to Nablus, where I saw appalling things. It's an experience that in any event made me feel paranoid. You feel guilty for not identifying with your nation, because you see the crimes that are being committed there. The interrogation by the Shin Bet was just an echo of my inner feeling, as though I had waited for the moment when I would be persecuted. I fell apart, and I'm not proud of that."

 

Friends of Elinor

 

Elinor Amit, 27, has a master's degree in social psychology and she teaches statistics and research methods at Tel Aviv University. As part of the curriculum, she took part in a workshop that was organized by Neve Shalom, an Arab-Jewish community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in which the participants were Israeli Jews and Arabs. Some of the students went on to participate - outside the studies framework - in additional activity organized by Neve Shalom, which took place in Cyprus due to the restrictions on movement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There Elinor became friends with Amina, a master's student in psychology from Nablus in the West Bank. The fact that both women speak good English helped to break down barriers.

 

Elinor Amit. "I have been turned into an

enemy. I have been labeled." (Adi Mazan)

 

The Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) invasion of the Palestinian cities during Operation Defensive Shield, in April 2002, placed Amina and her family, who live in the heart of ancient Nablus, in a serious situation. Amit, unable to just sit idly by, organized - with friends - two truckloads of food and water, which they managed to get through the Hawara checkpoint outside Nablus. She then began to participate regularly in activities of Ta'ayush and other left-wing organizations.

 

When things calmed down somewhat, the two women were invited by a French peace activist to go on a joint lecture tour in France. Amina was in any case in Rouen, to complete her master's degree, and Elinor joined her there. They appeared in a series of cities, from Rouen to Bordeaux, and spoke about the aspiration for peace, the occupation and the reasons, which, in their view, had brought about the failure of the Oslo process. A stack of clippings from the French press attests to the success of the tour. When the time came for Elinor to return to Israel, she was accompanied to Orly Airport by the French activist and Amina. At the El Al counter an unpleasant surprise was waiting for them: the security officer approached Elinor and demanded to question her two escorts.

 

"I was dumbfounded," she says. "I told him he could question me as much as he liked and to search my things, but that he had no authority over my escorts, who had nothing to do with the matter. They had only come to say good-bye to me. He asked them for their names and they gave them, but refused to answer any other questions. If that was the case, he said, I was not going to board the plane. Suddenly I became part of the story that I had spoken about to the French so many times."

 

Following a lengthy exchange with the security officer, Amit had no other choice but to purchase a ticket on an Air France plane that was only leaving the next day, at a cost of 600 euros. She is now suing El Al for NIS 15,000 in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court. In its defense, El Al rejects Amit's contentions outright. The company says the security officer did not want to question Amit's friends, that she refused to cooperate with the security check and that she spoke aggressively and disrespectfully.

 

In the year that has passed since the events described above, Amit and her partner, the film director Nadav Harel, have become used to the fact that every departure from the country entails protracted hazing. When they flew to France to attend the wedding of friends, they were delayed for hours at the airport and the security people escorted them to the entrance to the plane. At the airport in Paris, on the way back, they peeked at the list of the security checkers and saw asterisks next to their names.

 

"We asked the security officer what that meant, and he answered frankly, `It's because you are active in a left-wing organization,'" Amit says. "I still find it hard to believe that I have been turned into an enemy. I have been labeled. On the one hand, I'm proud of it, because apparently you have to do something meaningful to be marked, but on the other hand, I can't tell you how irritating it is. We are even deprived of the pleasure of spending a half-hour at the duty free shops in the airport. To think that a peace activist constitutes a security risk, the Shin Bet has to be cut off from reality - either that or there is a strategy of harassing peace activists because someone doesn't want peace.

 

"They have succeeded in making me apprehensive about every representative of the establishment. Today I got on a bus wearing a blouse that has a slogan on it against the [separation] fence, and I was afraid that the bus driver would see it and throw me off the bus, even though it's obvious that he has no such authority. I remember that on the flight to Cyprus with the Palestinians, there was this feeling of us and them - true, we are all peace activists, but from the two sides of the divide. Since then things have changed. I feel unwanted here. The state has made me feel totally alienated from it."

 

Shifting perceptions

 

None of those who were interviewed for this article disputes the right, indeed the duty, of the authorities to examine thoroughly everyone who is boarding a plane. However, the events described here, and dozens of similar occurrences, details of which have reached Haaretz in the past few days, raise a number of questions.

 

"If they really want to ensure people's security and not abuse people because of their political opinions," says Liora Lopian, 24, a proofreader for the Tel Aviv edition of Time Out and an activist in several left-wing groups, "then I have some suggestions to make things more efficient. For example, instead of the checkers whispering to some of the passengers that they should come a few hours before the flight and make themselves known at the entrance to the airport, they could institutionalize things and send an orderly letter to me with an explanation of the procedures. That would spare everyone a lot of grief."

 

That's the case mainly for people who travel for business or work purposes and carry a laptop with them. It sometimes takes a few days to check a laptop for possible explosives. In the current state of affairs, a left-wing activist who requires the use of a computer on his trip is liable to find himself facing a calamitous situation, as happened to Dvorah Braus, founder of Bustan l'Shalom, which describes itself as a "grass-roots partnership addressing the plight of indigenous and marginalized people in Israel/Palestine."

 

Last October 8, she flew to the United States to deliver a series of lectures, following which she was to lecture to the British House of Commons. Her laptop, which contained all the lectures as well as presentations she had prepared, was confiscated at the airport and reached the U.S. five days late, with damage done to the hard disk that cost $350 to repair. She filed suit via the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, but it will be difficult to repair her feelings toward Israel, to which she immigrated from New Jersey eight years ago.

 

"I didn't come because I was persecuted in America, but because I was a Zionist and wanted to make changes," she says. "But I have the feeling that the state prefers that Israelis who believe in change should surrender or move to Australia."

 

A conversation with G., who worked until recently in the security unit of an airport in Europe, reinforces the impression that such contentions are not entirely unfounded. "The stories you heard represent a certain reality that exists in the country and is affecting the way things get done in the establishment," he explains. "What was once considered radical has now become the impossible left in the eyes of the establishment, and what was regular left has become radical left. It's a matter of atmosphere. Just as every right-winger was suspect after the Rabin assassination, now it has turned around."

 

The question, though, is whether all the security procedures are justified, isn't it?

 

G.: "Most things fall into the gray area. The same actions and checks can be done in all kinds of ways. The public has to understand that there's a big gap between two groups that make up the security establishment - those who do the actual checking, who are mostly young people, students, maybe even left-wingers, many of whom are studying abroad and chose this job because it's a good way to make a living and also because they themselves are fed up with life in Israel for exactly the same reasons that the people you interviewed say. Very often these young people are embarrassed by the work they have to do. The other group consists of their superiors, the security officers, who are sent by the state. In some cases the atmosphere that prevails among them is racist, coarse, macho and so forth. The laundered language works overtime in this process; there is clear racism toward Arabs and today toward left-wingers as well."

 

What do you mean when you say that things fall into the gray area?

 

"I mean that the exact same instructions can be carried out by doing X or by doing Y, and there is a huge difference."

 

The question is whether the character of the security check stems from genuine security concern or from political hostility toward the left.

 

"I will answer that in a roundabout way. For years it was very difficult for homosexuals to get a security clearance in the IDF. The official version claimed that was because they were susceptible to extortion. That is obviously nonsense, because a gay person who has come out of the closet has a lot less to hide than a straight guy who is cheating on his wife. But a lot of people in the system still believe it wholeheartedly. There are some who would say it has to do with security, while others would call it homophobia."

 

G. no longer works as a security checker. He resigned because he felt bad about his work after a case that he had followed closely. "On the day that happened I understood that it was enough, that I don't want to represent the system even indirectly."

 

From the Israel Airports Authority, the following response was received: "The cases that appear in the article are not under the jurisdiction of the authority, as they concern persons who were detained by Border Control or the police or the Interior Ministry upon their return to Israel. With respect to the delays during security inspection, passengers who are departing the country are checked according to confidential state procedures, under the guidance of professional agencies. The current period demands the taking of particularly careful measures and we are doing all we can to minimize the creation of situations that are likely to damage the public's well-being."

 

No response was received by the Prime Minister's Bureau by press time.n