This April, Murad Haddad, who owns a telephone equipment shop in Shfaram, was summoned to the Misgav police station, in the Upper Galilee. When he arrived, the member of the Balad party central committee found himself at a Shin Bet security service interrogation facility.

An interrogator who identified himself as Gideon "started to question me about my connection to MK Azmi Bishara," he recalls. "I asked: Am I suspected of something? He told me I wasn't. So why am I here, I asked. He answered that they had called me to warn me that my connection to Azmi Bishara could be exploited to recruit me as a Hezbollah agent. He added that someone might ask me to research soldiers or drugs."

The Shin Bet agent demanded he sign a document stating he had been warned that Hezbollah might try to recruit him. Haddad refused.

Haddad says that he has continued to be politically active, that he is in touch with Azmi Bishara and that he even met Bishara in Jordan, and considers him a friend and a leader of the Arab national movement. Bishara, a former MK, is suspected of maintaining ties with Hezbollah and has been wanted in Israel since he fled the country.

Haddad's story is not unusual. Dozens of Balad activists have been through similar experiences in the past year. They have been summoned for conversations with the Shin Bet and told to sign that document. Most have refused.

Illegal intervention?

However, not only Haddad and the other Balad activists believe this is a Shin Bet attempt to politically hobble them - so does the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Its legal advisers, Dan Yakir and Sonia Boulos, sent a letter of protest to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz two weeks ago, and sent copies to the Shin Bet's chief, Yuval Diskin, and its legal advisor.

ACRI considers these actions, along with similar measures taken against other Israeli Arab citizens and institutions in the past, "illegal intervention by the Shin Bet in legal, political and public activity," as it stated in its letter.

It denounces the Shin Bet's habit of "summoning for investigation people whose political or public activity it does not like." According to the civil rights association, these interrogations send the questioned people the message that "they are under constant surveillance." ACRI believes that "the Shin Bet has adopted Big Brother-like conduct."

The Shin Bet sees these things quite differently. The organization says the Balad activists were not summoned due to the party's ideology or politics. The agents who met with the party activists were instructed by their superiors to read them the following statement: "We would like to draw your attention to the fact that Azmi Bishara is wanted for questioning in Israel over his connections with Hezbollah."

The Shin Bet is concerned that Bishara's connections with "elements in Israel are liable to be exploited for hostile aims, including recruitment to Hezbollah or other illegal activity."

The ACRI letter touches upon a deeper, principled dispute regarding the interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, specifically the notion of the "Jewish and democratic character of the state" and the definition of "subversion," as it appears in the Shin Bet Law. Perhaps this is surprising, but the Shin Bet is also interested in holding a public discourse on the issue, and is astonished that the ACRI is not welcoming this. In fact, this is the first time the Shin Bet has ever initiated a public discourse.

The initiative began when the Shin Bet decided to publish an official letter sent to the attorney general in April 2007. In that letter, Yuval Diskin states that the Shin Bet is authorized "to fight acts of subversion directed against the democratic regime and its institutions. By definition, the term 'subversion' is ambiguous."

This letter came after another letter the Shin Bet sent to the Balad party's newspaper, in which it states that it considers itself responsible for "thwarting subversive activity by elements interested in damaging the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, even if they are using tools provided by democracy. This is based on the principle of defensive democracy."

The ACRI responds, "The preservation of the Jewish character of the state is not one of the purposes and functions of the Shin Bet," as defined in the Shin Bet Law.

Diskin's letter is based on a doctrine the Shin Bet formulated in internal discussions. This doctrine, which won the support of Mazuz, aims to balance the values of democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and the right to political activity, with preventing subversion and terror.

In the context of this discourse, the Shin Bet outlines three kinds of activity. The first is open political activity, even if it aims to change the Jewish or democratic nature of Israel.

The Shin Bet recognizes that this activity is permitted by law, and it must not intervene, even though it may openly gather information about it. The second is the opposite extreme - blatantly illegal activity, which it is obligated by law to counteract and prevent. The problem arises over the third kind of activity - which lies between the two - and how the Shin Bet perceives it.

The Shin Bet believes that for those who espouse what it considers an extremist ideology, the distance between speech and action is not great.

Therefore, when the Shin Bet believes it has a grounded suspicion that an offense is about to be committed, it may gather information by means of surveillance and wiretapping, among other means, but it must do so sparingly, and in any case, it cannot employ preventive measures. The Shin Bet applies this doctrine to both Jews and to Arabs, regardless of their political views.

The ACRI opposes the Shin Bet's view.

Wiretapping the state

"A state that has pretensions of being democratic cannot allow itself to request systematic wiretapping against political parties and movements that represent a national minority," it states in its letter to Mazuz. "This fact in and of itself undermines the foundations of democracy."

The Shin Bet says it will respond soon to the ACRI letter.