At first it seemed bizarre. Israel slapped a blanket gag order to prevent media coverage of the May 6 arrest of Ameer Makhoul, a prominent Palestinian citizen of Israel who heads Ittijah, a coalition of 64 major civil society organizations. Yet in no time at all the news had shot round the world, and Facebook pages were up calling for his freedom and for a demonstration in Haifa to demand his release.
So is there a point to such gag orders? It turns out there is. Unlike Makhoul’s case, the news about some arrestees remains unknown for weeks. As people mobilized for Makhoul, reports began to surface about another Palestinian citizen of Israel, Omar Said, who was arrested on April 25 on his way to Jordan.
Said holds a PhD from Israel’s Technion, and his innovative work at the Antaki Center for Herbal Medicine was featured in Haaretz in 2007. Legal sources affirmed that there was also a gag order against media coverage of his case and that, like Makhoul, he has not yet been allowed to see a lawyer.
Then of course there is the now famous case of Anat Kamm, the journalist who was held secretly under house arrest for more than three months earlier this year, accused of having leaked Israeli military documents concerning the premeditated killing of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
How many more are there? So wonders Didi Remez, an Israeli Jewish human rights advocate who blogs at Coteret. How many indeed? As Remez notes, Makhoul’s prominence may now draw attention to a much more widespread phenomenon. Writing about the Kamm case, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli police ask the courts for a gag order about 100 times a year.
Although Israel on Monday lifted the gag orders against both Makhoul and Said, the question of “how many more” is now posed with urgency, given the Israeli state’s growing crackdown on its citizens — crackdowns that are enthusiastically supported by the settler movement as it remorselessly colonizes Palestinian land.
The Israeli Palestinian community is clearly at risk. Israel has now accused Makhoul and Said of spying for Hizbullah — similar accusations drove former Knesset member and community leader Azmi Bishara into self-imposed exile to avoid ending up in prison. Still. the community is determined to stand its ground. “We won’t be silent,” Ynet quoted Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights, and others as saying, but will struggle against “the ‘legal’ persecution by the Israeli government against the Arab sector.”
But Jewish human rights advocates are at risk too. Israeli rightwing groups have targeted both Naomi Chazan, head of the New Israel Fund, along with Adalah in the same billboard campaign.
One outcome of the crackdown may be growing Israeli Palestinian and Jewish collaboration in defence of basic rights and freedoms: Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel together protested the Makhoul gag order to the Supreme Court. As Moshe Yaroni wrote in Zeek, a progressive American Jewish online magazine, “The erosion of rights is a dynamic that threatens every Israeli,” And, he predicted, “Israel is moving toward a very frightening future; a future where most Jews will no longer be able to support Israel.”
Frightening is the word that best describes the state of a person completely cut off from his world, without recourse or rights. The soft-spoken, steel-willed Makhoul has played a major role in defending Palestinian rights and identity in Israel — indeed, Ittijah’s member groups have doubled over the past few years. Makhoul’s dedication has now landed him in jail. His wife, feminist scholar Janan Abdu, writes bravely on her Facebook page, “No prison in the world can absorb a whole nation.” But the family must be frantic with worry — as must other community activists. Who will be next?
Not many countries claiming to be democracies “disappear” their own citizens and deny them due process. Ironically the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sets democracy as a condition of membership, just welcomed Israel into its midst. By so doing, the OECD sent a terrible signal that state power trumps human rights. Further, by not holding Israel accountable for its ongoing violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, its member states risk rendering themselves complicit in its crimes.
Ever since its attack on Gaza in 2008-2009, Israel has mounted a major public relations campaign to counter popular outrage and the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement calling on it to uphold international law. It accuses its critics of anti-Semitism — even the fast-growing Jewish communities working for equality and justice. Wouldn’t it be easier to admit that maybe, just maybe, Israel is doing something wrong? And that until it respects equality, justice and freedom at home and abroad, it will not secure the legitimacy it craves?
NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.