The arrest of members of a pacifist NGO is symptomatic of a country that is becoming militarised at an alarming pace
By Dimi Reider
30 Thursday April 2009
The Guardian
The first raids took place at about 7am on Sunday. Across the country, activists in a publicly registered, pacifist non-profit organisation were detained. Their computers were confiscated, and they were banned from contacting each other or trying to restore the data on their seized PCs. After a triumphalist press statement by the police, more activists were called in and interrogations are expected to widen further still.
In case you haven’t guessed, the country where these events took place is Israel. The NGO in question is New Profile, a feminist organisation working against the IDF draft.
The targeting of New Profile, cynically timed to the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day (on which most Israelis will have been remembering a loved one lost to conflict) is profoundly symbolic of the speed at which Israeli society is militarising yet further. New Profile claims that Israel is soaked in militarism; top-ranking retired generals run many private and governmental companies or serve in government, the education system and the army are joining forces to have one uniformed officer stationed in every high school in the country, and adverts and TV programmes feature much more uniformed characters than those of most ostensibly democratic nations.
And the pressure keeps piling up. For the first time, secular teenage girls objecting to the draft are being jailed. Religious teenagers, who until now had the easiest time avoiding draft through reasons of modesty and piety, are now being followed around by military police and private investigators, who photograph them kissing or wearing “immodest” clothing, and feed the racy pictures to the daily press.
The coercion, mounts up to a little-known but grisly statistic: the IDF, one of the most active armies in the industrialised world, loses more soldiers through suicide than in any other way, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. According to the IDF’s own data, 205 soldiers died in Israeli military action or Palestinian attacks between 2000 and 2006, the anomaly of the second Lebanese war excluded. During the same period of time, 236 soldiers killed themselves. Human rights organisations suspect the latter number might be even higher. The most recent suicide in the IDF took place last Wednesday, and hardly got any coverage at all.
New Profile encourages critical thinking on the part of Israeli youths by exposing them to information about human rights abuses carried out by and within the IDF. Even more crucially, it provides free counselling to those wishing to become conscientious objectors, leave the army on grounds of mental health, or even to replace the draft by volunteering for national civic service.
For these sins, eight key activists have been detained for questioning, and the organisation’s computers have been confiscated. On these are databases and correspondence containing personal information on thousands of Israeli young people, many of whom are politically active. The acquisition of this data by the police allows the state undreamt-of opportunities for political blackmail.
Such measures aren’t confined to pesky NGOs. Take Jaffa actor and filmmaker Samieh Jabbarin, who demonstrated against a radical rightwing action in his home town in February. Jabbarin was put under house arrest, in his parents’ town, away from his workplace and actual home. Yesterday his house arrest had clocked the 65th day – only to be extended by the court by five more months, until September 2009.
Neither is Jabbarin the only one to have been clearly signalled that rules for dissent are changing fast. Over 800 protesters, most of them Palestinian-Israelis, have been arrested during the war. Others, including a member of the Tel Aviv municipal council, have been summoned from their homes to several consecutive interrogations, both by police and the Shin Bet, which proceeded to threaten them with prosecution for abiding the enemy at a time of war. Arrested demonstrators found themselves facing an unprecedented threat of extended remands (traditionally, you are detained and released within 24 hours), based on suspicions of the “increased risk” they posed to public safety, on occasion supported by “secret evidence” the judges read but cannot disclose.
The more you zoom out, the bleaker the picture is. Over the past 18 months, many of the defences between civil liberties and state authorities have been methodically dismantled. A communications information amendment had been added to the Israeli criminal law in December 2007, allowing police and the general security service (Shin Bet) to acquire IP and cellphone serial numbers of just about anyone, bypassing the courts. A Biometric Database Act was launched last October, providing for an imprisonment to citizens who fail to supply their fingerprints once the data-gathering operation has begun. And perhaps the most important mechanism preserving Israel’s creaky democracy, the supreme court, had been cowed by a sustained assault from the recently retired justice minister Dr Daniel Friedmann, who had been trying to increase government influence in the appointment of its judges and to bar the court from intervening in legislative matters. The latter is a crucial point, as Israel has no effective constitution to curb the whims and ambitions of gung-ho legislators. The change of government brought little relief, as a radically authoritarian and ethno-nationalist party (Yisrael Beiteinu) is now in control of the ministry of internal security, supervising the police.
Samieh Jabbarin had lost his freedom without having even been indicted. The New Profile activists could face up to 15 years imprisonment each for “inciting and abiding desertion at war” (legally, Israel is perpetually “at war”). And all this, of course, is peanuts compared to the suppression faced by activists in the West Bank , those who assist them, and by all who have the misfortune of living in the Gaza Strip.
The trouble with authoritarianism is that it doesn’t always come at once; troops don’t have to flood the streets, a grotesque dictator does not necessarily pop out in the middle of your evening news. These developments seem menacing when gathered in one article, but to most of us Israelis, especially those uninvolved politically, they are secondary news items at best, or else vaguely remembered as temporary and insignificant allowances made for our own safety. The same people who defend every Israeli folly by harping on about it being the only democracy in the Middle East, are tirelessly working to turn it into a caricature autocracy. Most depressingly, even the briefest of glances at comment threads on any Israeli news site suggests that through disinformation and fear-mongering, these efforts enjoy unwavering popular support.