The persecution of Palestinian citizens inside Israel is not a new phenomenon. Yet, for me, this time it hit home. The Israeli intelligence agency Shabak, also known as the Shin Bet, accuses my son Rawi Sultani of “contact with a foreign agent” and “delivering information to the enemy.” Both are grave security offenses in Israeli law. These and similar offenses were used against many Palestinian leaders and activists such as Azmi Bishara of the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), Raed Salah of the Islamic Movement and Muhammad Kanaaneh of Sons of the Land. At times, even Jewish political activists sympathetic to Palestinians like Tali Fahima are similarly accused.
Rawi, a 23-year-old law student and a political activist of the NDA, is being charged in the district court of Petach Tikva with having contact with Hizballah members in order to deliver information on the whereabouts of the Israeli army’s chief of staff.
The Israeli media rushed to spin the story and it became even juicier with claims that the purpose of these activities is a plot to hurt the chief of staff. Yet, the inflated indictment itself does not go that far. The indictment does not accuse Rawi of being a Hizballah agent or operative but merely being in contact with one. Although the indictment does not show criminal intent (mens rea) on Rawi’s part, the Israeli media assumed its existence. Rawi’s national and political affiliation seems to be behind this assumption.
Even worse, Israeli media are not only uncritical of the government line when it comes to security-related affairs, but have also proven to be highly unprofessional. To take one prominent example, leading journalist Roni Daniel — the military and security correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2 — admitted in an interview in which we both participated on Israeli radio on 1 September that he had not even read the indictment. However, that did not prevent him from appearing on TV the night before to confidently report on and discuss the case in an authoritative voice.
Nevertheless, the fantastic story-line is baseless and is an out-of-proportion interpretation of one careless sentence said by my son during a National Arab Youth annual summer camp in Morocco attended by young activists from all over the Arab world. Rawi was part of an NDA delegation attending the conference. Sending these delegations to such conferences helps break the isolation of the Palestinian minority inside Israel from the Arab world, an isolation we have been suffering from since the establishment of Israel. The purpose of such allegations and indictments, then, is to prevent Palestinian activists from breaking this isolation, causing a chilling effect to silence political activities disliked by the Israeli security apparatus.
Rawi was among the conference attendees who watched a movie on the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. During the film several characters showed up on the screen such as the chief of staff and a lawyer of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Rawi bragged that he knew the latter and trained in the same gym with the former. It turned out later, according to the Israeli intelligence allegations, that one attendee — a student from Lebanon — was a Hizballah member. Hizballah is a legitimate political party in Lebanon and an integral part of the Lebanese government and society, notwithstanding its label by Israel and the US as a “terrorist organization.”
This sentence is largely the basis for the indictment against Rawi. From here the indictment goes on to build a story of hostile activity in which Rawi was asked to deliver information on the chief of staff’s visits to the gym. The facts however are that Rawi has not entered the gym for more than a year, the same year mentioned in the indictment, and I canceled his membership a long time ago because he did not use it. Thus, it is weird to argue that he had in that year any information to give on the chief of staff’s visits to the gym and the security around him. The information he knew — the mere membership of the chief — was known and not secret, at least to all those who attended the gym. It thus becomes odd to maintain that Rawi monitored the chief of staff’s movements given the fact that no such monitoring is mentioned in the indictment itself. In addition, the forum in which Rawi’s statement was made was not secret or illegal according to Israeli law and took place in a country that has friendly (albeit not full diplomatic) relations with Israel.
Yet, one should understand the context of the indictment:
First, a month ago it was revealed that an Israeli Jewish soldier penetrated the chief of staff’s office and stole his credit card and pistol and sold them to criminals. The Israeli intelligence was embarrassed by this discovery and therefore had to demonstrate that it is doing its work and needed to show an achievement, and as quickly as possible. My son’s case, which in other circumstances might have gone without an indictment, was available. It turns out that Rawi and the other Palestinian Israeli attendees of the conference, all of them NDA activists, were under constant surveillance at least since the conference and for about a year. Yet, the timing of my son’s arrest, after the credit card affair, shows that it only comes to cover up the intelligence’s failure in the latter case. Had my son’s alleged spying been real and dangerous the security around the chief of staff would have been tightened or changed and the credit card affair would not have occurred. Had my son’s alleged spying been real and dangerous he would have been arrested a long time ago and would not be allowed to leave the country. After all, there were no new developments in the investigation of the case at least since December 2008.
Second, the need for an achievement was even more crucial with the backdrop of the success of Lebanese intelligence in unveiling Israeli spying networks in the country. Again, they needed an achievement to boost the Israeli national morale which sagged after the 2006 war.
Third, this indictment is part and parcel of the attack on Arab political activists who oppose the Zionist policies of oppression. Accordingly, the purpose of such high-profile arrests and indictments is to criminalize Arab political activity and thus transfer the political and ideological struggle from the public arena to courtrooms. It also aims at delegitimizing Arab political activists, restricting their movement, and intimidating their constituency from following in their footsteps or identifying with them.
This intimidation is revealed not only by the orchestrated media coverage but also by the dramatization of the case: a comprehensive and tight gag order, incommunicado detention and orders preventing lawyers from meeting Rawi, closed-to-the-public courtroom proceedings, and most importantly, show-arrests in daylight of Rawi and his friends using a large number of policemen and Shabak agents so that all the town will know and hear. These tactics make it difficult for Rawi to have a fair trial before unbiased judges. Studies and experience show well-entrenched bias against Palestinian citizens in courtrooms in general and in security-related issues in particular. Now with the hysteria in the media it is even harder for Rawi to have his day in court with the presumption of innocence on his side.
The charges chosen by the authorities further reveal the political nature of the indictment. “Contact with a foreign agent” and “delivering information to the enemy” are vaguely and widely construed in Israeli law. That is why it is a convenient tool for the Shabak to prosecute political activists. Behind the veil of “national security” the Shabak enjoys freedom of action unhindered by meaningful judicial review or public scrutiny. The Shabak decides who is a “foreign agent” even retroactively (and a journalist can be considered a “foreign agent,” as in the Bishara case). It also has the sole discretion to decide who is the “enemy,” but the Arab world is not our enemy and we cannot be expected to ask Arabs we meet abroad to have a security clearance before they talk to us. Moreover, even well-known public facts can be the reason for a legal conviction under this law. In a real democracy, such draconian legislation would be narrowly construed to minimize restrictions on freedom of speech and legitimate political activism.
In recent years, the NDA — to which both myself and my son are proud to belong — was a main target of such attacks on political activists in Israel’s media and the courtrooms. The party’s relationship with the Arab world and the relentless opposition to occupation and oppression are among the reasons for this attack. The accusation of “contact with a foreign agent” against NDA member of Knesset (Israel’s parliament) Said Naffa is only one of the last episodes of this attack. Indeed, the indictment itself highlights that Rawi was an NDA activist and the media has emphasized that I, as a lawyer, represented Azmi Bishara and the NDA in legal proceedings when his case became public.
Following Rawi’s case, some right-wing lawmakers in the Knesset have already begun inciting against the NDA and Arab citizens in general. One of them asked the Attorney General to look for ways to discontinue state funding for the NDA. It is unsurprising then that with the current right-wing government in Israel, which demands “loyalty” to Zionist narratives and promotes legislation to encroach upon the rights of the Arab citizens, Rawi’s case became a jumping board for Zionist extremists to inflame racial hatred.
Rawi’s case reveals the predicament of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Rawi’s trial is the trial of the NDA and the Arab minority as a whole.
We need all possible help from our friends in our struggle towards freedom and equality.
Attorney Fouad Sultani is the father of Rawi Sultani and a leading figure in the National Democratic Assembly and a board member of Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.