What does it mean when the Shin Bet calls you up for a 'chat'?
The Shin Bet's tendency to call in citizens to discuss their political activity has ACRI concerned. The Attorney General's office says the service wants to keep innocent people from being exploited.
Following last week's report that conscientious objector Yonatan Shapira had been summoned by the Shin Bet - for what the security service described as a "chat," but his lawyers termed a "political interrogation" - the Association for Civil Rights in Israel called our attention to its own correspondence with the authorities regarding similar summonses in the past. The legal nonprofit is concerned that the very summons to the Shin Bet classifies the political activist as someone "harming state security." The last letter from ACRI to the attorney general's office on this matter was sent in December 2009, but a response arrived only this June.
At that time, attorney Lila Margalit wrote: "As we have already warned in the past, we have been witness in the last few years to the most worrisome phenomenon whereby citizens are called in for a 'warning' interrogation at the Shin Bet which appears to be directed at dissuading them from participating in protests or other political activity, and to obtain information from them concerning the political activities of others. This phenomenon deeply harms the legal rights of the individual and threatens, no less, to smash the delicate principles on which Israeli democracy is based.
"In a democratic country, every person is allowed to participate in protests and political activities as he sees fit," the letter continued. "He does not owe anyone an explanation on his political positions or beliefs, and it is not possible to 'call him to attention' or take any kind of steps to give him the feeling that his political activity could be to his detriment. In extraordinary and exceptional cases, when a person has contravened the law in the framework of protest activity, he can be summoned for a criminal interrogation and taking steps against him can be considered. But the attempt to use investigative authority to 'deter' political activists, or to cause them to think twice before going out to [protest in] the streets, is completely wrong."
Margalit's letter came as a direct result of an incident involving Wajih Siddawi who is active in Tarabut-Hithabrut, the Arab-Jewish movement for social and political change. Though summoned to an official police investigation at the Hadera police station, he was interrogated there by a man in civilian garb who introduced himself as "Yuval from the Shin Bet." Siddawi was not interrogated as a suspect.
Shapira, on the other hand, was summoned from the start by "Ronah from the Shin Bet." But in terms of content - the attempt to discuss the invitee's political activity - there was similarity. Similarities can also be seen with other interrogations/investigations/inquiries/chats the Shin Bet has held with other left-wing activists, Arabs and Jews over the past few years.
In her letter to Menachem Mazuz, then attorney general, Margalit wrote: "Only in questionable regimes are citizens called in for 'warning' talks with the security forces to explain their political activities and positions. Especially in the sensitive arena of freedom of expression and protest, one must be doubly careful to make sure interrogations do not lead to a cooling of the public discourse.
"Criminal procedures should be instigated only in extraordinary and extreme cases and 'warning' talks of the kind described should be avoided at all costs. In addition to what is written above, it is not clear to us what authority the Shin Bet actually has in this regard. (After all, the Shin Bet is not the authority responsible for granting demonstration permits in Israel. )"
On behalf of ACRI, Margalit requested that a thorough examination be conducted to ensure citizens would not be summoned to the Shin Bet for interrogation in this way in the future.
The AG's office responds
Attorney Raz Nizri, a senior assistant to the attorney general, answered Margalit's letter on June 9 (and apologized for the delay, saying it was due to a bureaucratic hitch ). Based on conversations with the Shin Bet, Nizri denied that Siddawi's political activities had been discussed during his "inquiry." Therefore, he wrote, "there is no basis to the claim that the inquiry was aimed at showing Siddawi that we had noticed him or to deter him from social and political involvement."
As for the issue of the legal basis on which the Shin Bet was acting, Nizri wrote: "Paragraph 7 of the Shin Bet law from 2002 states that the security service is responsible, as part of its designation, for maintaining state security and [protecting] the democratic regime and its institutions from threats of terror, damage and subversion. In order to fulfill its role, the service has been made responsible for thwarting and preventing any illegal activity whose aim is to harm state security, the democratic regime or its institutions.
"At the basis of any inquiry carried out by the service vis-a-vis Israeli citizens, there generally lies some intelligence information that requires explanation or a matter that requires study or reference within the designation of the service," Nizri continued. "When intelligence information is received, its credibility is examined and an attempt is made to extend it as far as possible via additional tools of intelligence gathering at the Shin Bet's disposal and in accordance with the severity of the suspicions and their basis...
"There are also times when the Shin Bet wishes to achieve additional aims through inquiries - including the transfer of a message, in relevant cases, about the possibility the citizen in question may be involved with, or exploited by, terrorist elements taking advantage of his innocence. "Conducting an inquiry is a reasonable tool that causes minimal damage to the rights of the person investigated... The Shin Bet does not have a policy or practice of trying to deter citizens from participating in protest activity or other political activity."
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel commented that the attorney general's response is not acceptable, and says it plans to take further legal action on this issue.