Saturday, February 16, 2013

From prisoner X to Lord Montagu

No court issued a gag order on the detention of Samer Al Issawi. The information was freely available, and anyone who wanted to could have published all the facts: Samer al-Issawi, a resident of Isawiya in East Jerusalem, was placed last July in Administrative Detention without trial and imprisoned at the Ramla Prison (yes, the same Ramla Prison which this week got to the headlines for other reasons). He began a hunger strike which already passed the 200 days’ mark, lost thirty five kilograms and  suffered severe damage to his kidneys. A few days ago he stopped drinking the vitamins and few nutritional supplements which kept him alive until now.  All this information was completely open to publication - everything except the charges against Issawi, which were contained only in “secret evidence” presented to the judge who extended his detention and of which Issawi himself was not told.

There was no problem in publishing it - but reporters and editors in Israel’s newspapers and electronic media just did not think it was of interest to their readers and listeners. Only when this weekend the deteriorating condition of Samer al Issawi precipitated a series of demonstrations across the West Bank and clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers, a few references cropped up in the media - and even then, in a very minimal way.

Had Ben Zygier been a Palestinian, still now nobody would have heard of him.


So what did really happen, in this affair of which only a select few knew four days ago and which now captured the headlines in Israel and Australia and around the world?

How it started is well known: a young Jew raised in a distinguished Melbourne family, taking his Zionism seriously makes Aliya and goes to live in Israel and getting married here; entering the country’s spy service, Mossad, and taking on a series of mysterious tasks, and certainly not giving up his Australian citizenship. Much of his value to the Mossad consisted of his ability to carry (or lend to others) a genuine Australian passport, which would pass the closest scrutiny, and enter freely countries barred to carriers of an Israeli passport. And indeed, he did not cut his ties with Australia, where his family lived, and where he has gone to visit and study at university.

The middle of the story is still mostly hidden. In early 2010 unknown agents assassinated a senior Palestinian at the Emirate of Dubai. The assassins failed to disappear without a trace. Indeed, they left behind a spectacular trail – abundant photos taken by security cameras,  names in forged Australian passports, and a series of clues pointing to the State of Israel and the Mossad. But what exactly was the connection to Ben Zygier, the Australian Jew who went to Israel and made his Australian passport available for Israel’s daring espionage operations?

And the end - most of it is by now clear. A secret trial and a secret detention at a well-guarded isolation cell in the Ramla Prison and gag orders to hide every scrap of information from the public. Serious charges that could have kept him in that secret cell for very many years, and a plea bargain offered which was a bit more lenient but which also involved quite a few years in prison, a difficult choice between two harsh options. And then suicide in custody, in a cell with four surveillance cameras. If it was a suicide.

But what exactly did happen in the middle? What did he do or plan to do? Shalom Yerushalmi in Ma'ariv published what seems to be a message sent directly from within the Mossad: "Zygier, it is said, was holding a smoking gun. Had he not been stopped, he would have caused great damage. No one  in the Mossad wanted him to kill himself in prison, but after he hanged himself none of them went into mourning" . And on TV the veteran Ron Ben-Yishai pointed an accusing finger at the Australian security service: "They are the ones who got  Zygier into trouble". How, exactly?

A hypothesis, not based on any first hand information: At some time in late January or early February 2010, the security services of Australia turned to Zygier, an Australian citizen who traveled a lot with an Australian passport, and demanded that he tell them what he knew about the use which the State of Israel made of Australian passports, in ways which were liable to damage the national interests of Australia.  Australian tourists and business people arriving in various countries were increasingly suspected of being Israeli spies.

If this is what happened, Ben Zygier could not have gotten out of it well, do what he would do. Had he provided the information, he could have come to be considered under the laws of the State of Israel a traitor failing in his loyalty to Israel. Had he refused to provide it, he might have been considered under the laws of Australia a traitor failing in his loyalty to Australia. In short - the nightmare of Jews in Australia, as in the U.S. and many other countries – the charge of "double loyalty."

Did Israel have the moral right to place an Australian Jew is such an impossible situation? Did Israel, thirty years ago, have the moral right to appeal to an American Jew named Jonathan Pollard and convince him that as a Jew he owed to Israel a loyalty surpassing that he owed to the United States?

How many Jews in how many countries have paid a direct or indirect price for the acts and policies of Israel?

In July 1994 an explosive charge exploded in the Jewish community building at Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina, and eighty-five people got killed. Although not definitely solved, this is considered to have been an act of revenge for Israel's assassination of Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi. The Argentinian Jews, certainly not sharing in Israel’s wars in South Lebanon, were selected as the available targets for revenge against the "Jewish State".

This affair continues to resound in Argentine's politics and comes up again and again. A few weeks ago the Argentine government chose to initiate an international investigation of the bombing involving also the Iranian government – against which the Israeli government lodged a strong protest with the Argentinians. The Argentinian Foreign Minister Hector Timerman – who, perhaps not coincidentally, is himself Jewish – summoned the Ambassador of Israel to lodge a protest at the Israeli protest and the Israeli government’s interference in the way that the government of Argentine chose to deal with the murder of Argentinian citizens at the heart of the capital of Argentine.

As reported at the time, "The Argentinian Foreign Minister was so upset that he almost hardly gave the Israeli Ambassador a chance to utter a word, cut her off  again and again: ‘Israel has no right to ask for explanations, we are a sovereign state’ said Timerman to Ambassador Shavit. 'Israel doesn’t represent or speak for all Jews. Those Jews who wanted Israel to represent them went to Israel and became Israeli citizens. Jews who live in Argentine are Argentinian  citizens. The bombing was against Argentine and Israel's desire to be involved in the matter only gives ammunition to anti-Semites who accuse Jews of double loyalty’”.


In 1917 the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, promising  to view with favour “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. In the prolonged deliberations held by the British cabinet before this declaration was issued, Edwin Montagu  - the only Jewish minister in the British government at the time – expressed his reservations and strong opposition to the planned declaration. "...I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine”. He expressed his concerned that a "dual loyalty" would be created among the Jews of the world - loyalty to the governments in their countries of residence vs. loyalty to their national home in Israel - and it would finally give anti-Semites a pretext to undermine the position  of the Jews in Britain and other countries and expel them, also against their will,  to their "National Home".

To appease Lord Montagu and other opponents, there were added to the text of the Balfour Declaration as finally issued a clear reservation. Establishment of the "National Home" was on condition of "it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”

Ninety-six years later, the National Home has become a fact, and established the most powerful army in the Middle East as well as an intelligence service spreading a worldwide net. In light of this experience, it would be very difficult to argue that what was "clearly understood" in 1917 had been indeed complied with, or that there was no bases to the apprehensions of Lord Edwin Montagu.