By Saleh Al-Naami
His calm demeanour belies the personal tragedy he is living. Journalist Bassam Al-Wahidi, 30, is on the verge of giving in to perpetual darkness. This will happen if he doesn’t have an operation to reposition his retina, an operation that he was supposed to have had last month in a Palestinian hospital in Jerusalem. Although Al-Wahidi, a news presenter on the Voice of the Workers radio station in Gaza, had completed all the necessary administrative procedures required of him to travel to Jerusalem, officers in the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, at the Erez Crossing on the northern border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, won’t allow him to cross until he agrees to become an Israeli agent and provide information on the activities, leaders and members of Palestinian resistance movements active in Gaza.
When Al-Wahidi was stopped at Erez, Shin Bet officers insulted him and stripped him completely before taking him to one of the agency’s interrogators. The interrogator, who introduced himself as "Captain", flooded him with questions about Palestinian resistance movements for five and a half hours, demanding he divulge information before being allowed to reach Jerusalem and undergo his operation. The interrogator used all the sticks and carrots that such agencies keep on hand. Al-Wahidi, who belongs to a well-established Gazan family that is closely connected to resistance against the occupation, refused to consider the Shin Bet interrogator’s offers, and belittled his attempts to enlist him as a spy.
The operation’s schedule came and went while Al-Wahidi was still in the interrogation room. At six in the evening, after the officer lost hope in Al-Wahidi offering up whatever he imagined he knew, he threw him out of the office and threatened that he would lose his vision forever and not be allowed to go to Jerusalem until he agreed to use his position as a journalist to cooperate with Shin Bet. Al-Wahidi, who told his story to Al-Ahram Weekly, says with confidence that after what happened to him at the hands of Shin Bet he is convinced more than ever that he must resist the occupation.
The sadistic coercion that Palestinians with chronic illnesses have been subjected to by Shin Bet has become the talk of the street in Gaza. The story typically begins when a Palestinian patient requests a permit from the Israeli- Palestinian Civil Liaisons Department to be allowed to travel from Gaza to the West Bank or Israel for an operation. After exhausting efforts, patients receive permits and go to Erez only to face the same procedures Al-Wahidi confronted. According to files passed to the Weekly by prominent human rights centres on the practices of Shin Bet, the agency’s officers, in their attempt to coerce and entrap patients, do not distinguish between youth and the elderly. Neither are women, and even children, set apart.
Professor Kamel Al-Mughni, 65, is the former dean of the College of Fine Arts at An-Najah National University in Nablus. He lives in the Al-Shajaiyeh neighbourhood of Gaza City and two years ago was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent surgery in an Israeli hospital, and this improved his health condition. Those supervising his treatment requested that he visit regularly to receive radiological treatment so as to not suffer a setback. One month ago, Al-Mughni set out for Israel, but at the Erez Crossing he was taken by surprise when a number of Shin Bet members led him to a room where he was heavily interrogated by a Shin Bet officer who told him in clear terms that he would not be allowed to continue his journey to the Israeli hospital unless he was prepared to cooperate with Shin Bet and provide it with information about resistance activists.
Al-Mughni was shocked that Shin Bet would propose such a thing, especially in light of his academic status and advanced age. He rejected the offer and returned to Gaza, fearing that his health would suffer a setback. Similarly, a 34-year-old woman who declined to reveal her name has been diagnosed with cancer. She was scheduled for an operation in an Israeli hospital, but when she reached Erez, a Shin Bet interrogator was waiting for her and attempted to coerce her. She returned home without undergoing the operation, and since that time her health has declined.
Raji Al-Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, told the Weekly that his centre has monitored cases in which Shin Bet officers have attempted to entrap sick children through bartering health services for the provision of intelligence information. Al-Sourani points out that the "criminal practices" of Shin Bet have also led it to attempt to exploit the poor health conditions of some Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons by conditioning treatment on their spying on fellow inmates. Al-Sourani stresses that what Shin Bet is doing is a grave breach of international laws that affirms the right of the sick to receive appropriate treatment. Denial of this right is a "war crime" and "crime against humanity".
Al-Sourani’s centre succeeded in bringing arrest warrants against a number of Israeli army generals and heads of intelligence in Britain and America, accusing them of committing war crimes against Palestinians. Yet he acknowledges the difficulty of raising lawsuits against leaders in Shin Bet — and Israel in general — for the pressure they exert on sick Palestinians. Lawsuits require witnesses to offer testimony under oath in court. Victims of coercion usually refuse to identify themselves and offer testimony because they continue to hope that Israel will allow them to receive treatment. They fear that if they raise lawsuits against Israel, their likelihood of obtaining permits that would allow them to reach hospitals would diminish.
Yet a Palestinian security source told the Weekly that while most Palestinians subjected to coercion by Shin Bet reject its attempts to exploit their critical situation in order to enlist them as informants, a small number of patients agree to Shin Bet demands in an attempt to save their lives. This source stated that some of those who were obliged to deal with Shin Bet later went to Palestinian security agencies and told them what had happened and the nature of the information they had provided to Shin Bet. They were allowed to return home once it was confirmed that they had severed their relations with Israeli intelligence.
Some Israeli human rights organisations constantly monitor Shin Bet’s efforts to coerce sick Palestinians. "Recently we have noted an obvious rise in Palestinian patients, and particularly those who are residents of Gaza, for whom permits to receive treatment outside of the Strip depend on cooperation with Shin Bet," says Ron Yaroun, spokesperson of the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights organisation. "I’m dealing with a group of people who feel weak and frightened. These people are in a trap. On the one hand, they are worried about their health, but at the same time, they are not prepared to cooperate with Israel and offer it intelligence information in order to save their lives."
As for Danny Valak, head of Physicians for Human Rights, he considers what Shin Bet is doing to Palestinian patients with authorisation from the Israeli government a "situation that is rejected from the perspective of medical ethics and all other ethical perspectives one can think of. From the perspective of ethics, not everything is permissible in the name of security. Just as torture is prohibited, so too pressure on patients or exploitation of the ill to make them agents is also rejected. Strong ethical standards are what, in my opinion, provide security to a state in the long run. States that decline ethically do not remain strong societies."
Retired Shin Bet officers have admitted that they had strict instructions to practise the harshest degrees of coercion and exploitation in order to force Palestinian patients to become Israeli informants. Avner, a former top Shin Bet officer, admitted in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv published last Friday that officers in charge of enlisting agents are ordered not to hesitate in exploiting any human condition, no matter how severe, in order to enlist the largest number possible of Palestinian informants. Shin Bet, like Mossad, is directly answerable to the Israeli prime minister. The prime minister approves all of the operations it carries out personally.
Only those who meet those suffering from chronic illness and for whom minutes pass like hours as they await death, denied the most basic human right of the opportunity to receive treatment because they refuse to become informants and cooperate with the enemy against their people, can understand the depth and reason of the contempt Palestinians bear in their hearts against Israel. What adds to the bitterness these patients and their families feel, and all those who witness their situation feel, is the world’s silence over the organised state crime they are subjected to.
-Al-Ahram Weekly (weekly.ahram.org.eg) – Oct 11 – 17, 2007; Issue No. 866