Letter from Prison: My Interview with Israel’s Shin Bet Intelligence Agency

Patrick O’Connor with some Palestinian children in Gaza.

Recently the Israeli authorities have begun searching for and arresting experienced International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and international activists. My arrest and attempted deportation is another example of this. Evidently the Israeli authorities find nonviolent resistance and active support of Palestinian rights to be threatening. Despite claims to the contrary, they have adopted an unstated goal of breaking down and eliminating the ISM and other groups using nonviolence to support Palestinian rights.

During the past three years over 100 ISMers have been denied entry and 62 deported. At the same time Israeli authorities have launched a propaganda campaign against ISM and other activists, with attempts to falsely link them with terrorism. My recent interrogation by the Shin Bet shed some light on the tactics.

On the morning of January 25th I was taken from a Ben Gurion airport detention center to Maasiyahu prison in Ramle. I was put in a 20 foot by 10 foot cell with six other men served with deportation orders. After a few hours I was called from my cell without explanation. My legs were cuffed together and I was led out of my section to another building. I was taken into a room with two men in plainclothes. They closed the door, searched me thoroughly, and then set me down with the leg cuffs still on.

The two men were fit, had short hair and sport shirts - typical Shin Bet agents, working for Israel’s domestic General Security Service (GSS). Only one spoke, the other observed. He began by saying he was from Shin Bet and asked me if I knew why the Shin Bet was interested in the ISM. I replied, saying that their interest was misplaced, because the ISM supports nonviolent Palestinian resistance, and there should be no reason for Israel to oppose that.

He laughed and said that the Palestinians might be nonviolent by day and violent by night. Then he started on the internationals, mentioning two incidents from 2003 that have been badly distorted and are often used by Israeli authorities to slander the ISM. He brought up the arrest of a “wanted” man in the ISM apartment in Jenin and the two British suicide bombers, people who had absolutely no connection with the ISM. He didn’t seem interested in listening to my response (for details on these two incidents see www.palsolidarity.org at the frequently-asked questions sections).

Instead, he had read my affidavit to the court in 2003 from my appeal of my denial of entry, and he claimed it said that I had participated in violent demonstrations. I responded that he had misread my affidavit, because it said clearly that I have participated in peaceful demonstrations that had been met with violence by the Israeli military. I also told him that if the “secret evidence” against me were revealed, it would not stand up to scrutiny.

He asked me if I had ever carried correspondence for “wanted men”, helped wanted men to move about, or given my passport for someone else to use. He asked if I had ever hit a soldier or thrown stones. He asked if I had ever received weapons or arms training. I answered with indignant ‘No’s, reiterating that I was a nonviolent activist.

“Maybe you are a real peace activist,” he said, “but can you guarantee that others are?” I told him that ISM requires all activists to commit to the use of strictly nonviolent means.

He asked me for names of Palestinians working with the ISM. I told him that I was sure he had other sources of information and that I would not give him any information. He also asked me if I was familiar with Israeli peace activist Tali Fahima (jailed and accused of being in contact with “wanted” men from Jenin) and whether I had met Zakaria Zbedi (The head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Jenin).

“While I have heard of both,” I said, “I have met neither.”

The interview ended and I was returned shackled to my cell.

There are issues I was afraid to discuss frankly during my interrogation - issues relating to Israeli violence, Israeli double standards, international law and the arrest of Tali Fahima. The Shin Bet agents are in a position of power over me as I sit in an Israeli prison. I know they may distort and manipulate things I say to punish me and achieve their goal of damaging the ISM.

However, the inequality of power and threat of punishment is far less for me than it is for a Palestinian who goes through interrogation. I have governments, which will support me and prevent the worst abuses. I can afford a good lawyer, who I will be given access to. I have a strong support group and access to the media. I will also leave here and will not continue to live under Israeli control.

Over and over again we have seen that the international community will not protect Palestinians from Israeli abuses. They can be imprisoned arbitrarily and tortured. They are often denied access to lawyers, their homes, lands and their jobs. Freedom of movement can be taken away, and their families are threatened with the same punishments. The media will not cover their story. Nor do Palestinians have an option to escape Israeli domination. Power and threats mean that Shin Bet interrogations of Palestinians produces incomplete and twisted information.

What disturbed me most about my interrogation by the Shin Bet agent, was his seeming certainty about his information. Not only do the Israeli authorities produce propaganda about the Occupation and about the ISM, but some of them appear to believe it themselves. The Shin Bet also seems to aim to intimidate by giving the appearance of being all knowing, but their “intelligence” is obviously flawed. Israeli intelligence is generated from collaborators, surveillance, and interrogation. It serves the corrupt and corrupting goals of continued military occupation, land seizure, domination and manipulation.

Israeli intelligence treats all forms of opposition as a threat to be eliminated. It labels all Palestinians as ‘terrorists’ and all Israelis and internationals who work with them as ‘collaborators with terrorism’. This produces a distorted characterization of Palestinian society, lacking direct experience with normal Palestinians and failing to recognise Palestinians are people with rights and aspirations.

The Shin Bet agent called me ‘naive’, but I think he is naive for believing that he can understand Palestinian society from a position of domination and inequality, and somehow use that understanding to control and manipulate Palestinians to eliminate all opposition to the Occupation.

Pat O’Connor has managed humanitarian aid programs in the Middle East and Africa, and volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank supporting non-violent Palestinian protest against the Wall. He is currently in detention at Maasiyahu prison in Ramle awaiting deportation.

Related Links

  • International Solidarity Movement
  • The US Media and the Wall: Thomas Friedman and 60 Minutes, David Bloom, Patrick Connors, and Tom Wallace (4 February 2004)
  • Blocking Aid Workers From Israel Is A Mistake, Patrick Conners, Hartford Courant (9 November 2003)
  • Expanding Settlements Invade Palestinian Lands, Patrick Connors, Common Dreams (6 August 2003)
  • Israeli settlements remain major roadblock to peace, Patrick Connors, The Philadelphia Enquirer (31 July 2003)