Nasser Laham with his daughter
Nasser Laham with his daughter. “I support a peace agreement with Israel.” Photo by Alex Levac
Text size

The latest gimmick of the Israeli occupation under the guise of "security considerations" has emerged. The test subject: Nasser Laham, a Palestinian journalist from Bethlehem who is close with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and who advocates peace with Israel.

Some two weeks ago, Laham sought to join Abbas on his visit to Europe and the United States, where he met with President Barack Obama. He contacted the PA's coordination and liaison office to obtain a permit to enter Jerusalem for two to three hours, so he could get to the American consulate and obtain a visa to visit the United States. His request was denied. Abbas' office tried to intervene and a few days later Laham was told that he could enter Jerusalem provided he hire security escorts to accompany him the entire way to and from the consulate and that he pay for them. But when he asked who he should hire to accompany him, he was not given any answers. In the end, the red tape did him in and he did not accompany his president.

Laham, 44, is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Ma'an news agency, which has influence and stature not only in the PA but also in the Arab world as a whole. Israeli journalists read its reports with great interest as well. So why is he actually refused entry into Israel? This is not very clear. The Shin Bet security service refuses to explain, due to "security considerations."

True, Laham served time in an Israeli jail from 1985 to 1991 because of his membership in a terrorist organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and his involvement in demonstrations and stone-throwing at IDF soldiers during the first intifada. Furthermore, he and a group of friends planned to strike a Palestinian policeman who had been provoking them.

"At the time I was the head of the student council at Bethlehem University," Laham relates. "We took part in demonstrations, clashed with soldiers, threw stones. It was the norm then and we intended to hit the soldiers." He describes these activities as "sowing wild oats."

He learned Hebrew in jail and after being released completed his university studies. He recently earned a doctorate in philosophy from a Dutch university as well.

"Israeli journalists can visit us, but we aren't allowed to visit Israel? Is that your freedom of the press? I have visited Israeli many times; I've interviewed Israeli leaders, including president Ezer Weizman at his residence in Jerusalem. So why now do I pose a security risk? I support the Palestine Liberation Organization, support the authority and President Abbas. I support a peace agreement with Israel, so why specifically do you harm people like me?" says Laham.

The Civil Administration said in response, "In an unusual step, and despite the request issued just one day in advance, Mr. Laham's request was dealt with in an accelerated manner. His exit was authorized on condition that officials from a security company escort him. There are 400 such companies authorized by the Interior Ministry."

The Defense Ministry's anthrax zigzag

The Ministry of Defense, the Nes Tziona Biological Institute and the IDF's medical corps don't like when external auditors examine their activities. They want us to believe their internal audits are professional and free from any conflicts of interest. Lucky are the believers. Against this backdrop, the Physicians for Human Rights this month submitted a new petition to the High Court of Justice, asking the court to instruct the government to set up an official commission of inquiry into the "Omer 2" experiments. The trial, conducted in 1997 on hundreds of soldiers, ran contrary to all regulations, the Helsinki Convention and the rules of medical ethics.

Omer 2 was a confidential trial of the medical corps and the Biological Institute, one of the most secretive agencies in the State of Israel, for the development of drugs, vaccines and other protective means against biological and chemical warfare (although according to foreign news reports, they also develop chemical and biological weapons ).

The purpose of the trial was to test the endurance of a vaccine against anthrax. It was only about a decade later that the soldiers discovered they had been used to conduct trials. Several dozen who claim they have come down with various ailments approached the Defense Ministry seeking to be recognized as disable IDF veterans. As always, the ministry refused without offering any explanation. The soldiers appealed to the courts and Physicians for Human Rights joined the petition, calling for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry.

With the intervention of the High Court of Justice, all the relevant parties, including the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry, agreed in 2007 to establish a commission manned by members of the Israel Medical Association. The commission's conclusions, released in 2009, were very critical of the Biological Institute and the Defense Ministry.

Among other things uncovered through the inquiry: "The commission tried to investigate whether researchers or a research entity with interests related to the study of anthrax exerted pressure on the decision makers in the political-defense echelons, in a way that led to the production of the vaccine without any connection to a strategic threat... The commission was not convinced that the need for the vaccine itself was discussed or sufficiently reviewed by the decision makers, whose identity was not made clear, with regard to the need for the vaccine... Therefore, the reason for conducting the trial and whether there was scientific cause for conducting it are unclear."

In other words, the commission implied that perhaps there was no need for the experiment to be conducted because Israel did not face a genuine strategic threat of an anthrax attack and that it's possible the trial was conducted solely because the heads of the Biological Institute, under the guidance of its director, Dr. Avigdor Shafferman, were able to exert pressure on prime ministers and defense ministers.

In this context, a French newsletter asserted that one reason for the vaccine's development was to provide the U.S. government with its results - and in return America allocated tens of millions of dollars enabling the institute to build a production line for the vaccine. In other words, it's possible IDF soldiers served as guinea pigs for the U.S. army.

Following the publication of the commission's findings, the Ministry of Defense was included to agree to appoint an external auditor for further investigation. However, later on, the ministry retracted from its position and rejected the idea of an external investigation.

In response, Physicians for Human Rights again petitioned the High Court through attorneys Michael Sfard and Nat Patrick. At the same time, the soldiers filing the petition continue their legal and public battle against the ministry.

The Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed that "the possibility of appointing an external auditor to review the decision to conduct the trial is being considered," but "after further review of the matter by the defense minister's aide for protective measures, doubts arose as to the justification for appointing an auditor... The decision to conduct the trial was carefully considered by the most senior decision makers in the IDF and in the Ministry of Defense, including the chief of staff and the defense minister, and was made based on professional considerations. The deputy defense minister determined that there is no cause to establish a commission of inquiry because the matter was thoroughly considered by the decision makers prior to the implementation of the trial and there were no outside considerations underlying the decision to conduct the trial."