Shin Bet to Palestinian: Collaborate or Go to Jail

Hamed Keshta, a media interpreter and Canadian citizen, says interrogation got serious after he refused.

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

On July 27, Gaza resident Hamed Keshta arrived at the Erez border crossing, carrying an entry permit into Israel. He was headed to Ashkelon's Ganei Dan Hotel to meet with representatives from his employer, EUBAM. The European Union Border Assistance Mission in Rafah supervises and assists the Palestinian Authority in operating the border crossing with Egypt.

This was the first time since 1994 that Keshta, 33, of Rafah, married with two children, had crossed the border into Israel. It was to apply for a visa at the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv. Keshta remained in Canada, even obtaining citizenship, until 2004 when he returned to Gaza. Since then he has worked as an interpreter and as a "fixer," a go-between for Western media outlets. He worked for the London Sunday Times, Britain's Channel 4 TV and the French production company Playprod. He has been at EUBAM since April 2006. The Ashkelon meeting was connected to a promotion from interpreter to assistant security director in the Rafah area.

"When I got to the border crossing, to my great surprise I was arrested by Israeli security officials," Keshta related in a recent telephone interview. He described the events of that day and the month's detention and interrogation at a Shin Bet security service facility that followed.

In the course of his interrogations and repeatedly extended remands, the Shin Bet announced, through the police, that Keshta was suspected of serious security violations including contact with a foreign agent, conspiring to carry out a crime against state security and providing services to an illegal organization. Most of the details of the case were under a gag ordered issued by a Be'er Sheva court. A few days ago Keshta's lawyer, Smadar Ben-Natan, requested that the gag order be lifted. No ruling has yet been issued.

What can be published, however, sheds light on the modus operandi of the Shin Bet and its interrogations. It is not a very exciting story: just one more link in the chain of the occupation. According to Ben-Natan, as soon as Keshta was arrested the investigators proposed that he cooperate with them and become one of their agents. When he refused the interrogations began in earnest. "I assume," he said, "that it is the standard interrogation that thousands of other Palestinians undergo. They did not hit me, but I was placed in restraints and forced to sit on a chair. The interrogators' questions focused on the tunnels" under the Rafah crossing.

Keshta says that because he lives in Rafah and due to family connections and his work with the foreign media he has dealt with the issue of the tunnels on a few occasions. "I live in Rafah, I have cousins and [other] relatives who are involved in building tunnels. But you must realize, there are a thousand tunnels in Rafah."

"A thousand?" I ask.

"You heard right, 1,000 tunnels. Every child in Rafah knows a lot about the tunnels. As part of my work for media outlets I researched the issue. But I have no information beyond that."

In the course of the investigation against Keshta, some of those outlets came to his aid. Marie Colvin, a foreign affairs correspondent for the Sunday Times, wrote a letter of character witness in which she said she knew Keshta and his family well, and that in her opinion he was completely innocent of any crime or attempt to act against the state of Israel.

"When I was threatened by Hamas in Gaza [the Keshtas] took me into their home," EUBAM wrote in a letter explaining that at first Israel had refused to issue an entry permit to Keshta but later softened and told the organization there was nothing preventing him from going to Ashkelon for the interview. Absent from the letter, but provided by Ben-Natan, is the fact that in May EUBAM asked the Israeli security authorities whether they objected to Keshta's appointment as assistant head of security. Israel did not object.

After ten days of interrogations, Keshta was told the investigation was completed. He was transferred to regular detention, where he remained about a week.

Ben-Natan believes her client was assigned to a cell with Shin Bet collaborators posing as loyal members of Palestinian organizations such as Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or Fatah. They accused Keshta, in a threatening manner, of disloyalty to the Palestinian cause and said he was suspected of cooperating with Israel. To refute their charges he boasted that when he lived in Canada, during the intifada, he attended anti-Israel demonstrations and even took part in torching a synagogue. The latter claim was a lie.

After his release from detention Keshta was returned to the interrogators, who confronted him with his statements to his cellmates. That strengthens the assumptions that his cellmates were actually Israeli collaborators. Keshta explained that he had made up the story about torching the synagogue because he was afraid of his accusers.

At one point Keshta complained of hemorrhoid pain. He was examined by a physician, who prescribed medication. Keshta claims his interrogators made him wait for two days and told him, "You'll suffer until those piles come out of your head." It was only after another meeting with Ben-Natan and a visit from Canadian officials that he received the medication.

After one month in jail Keshta was released without any special restrictions. "On the face of it, this is a routine case," Ben-Natan says, "and I have represented people in more difficult cases. But what makes this story special is the arbitrariness and the ease with which Shin Bet officers can detain a Palestinian, demand his collaboration with them, accuse him to judges of serious crimes, and how the judges in almost automatic fashion accept the Shin Bet position, and then release him as if nothing has happened. That is how reliable the Shin Bet is."

The Shin Bet issued the following response: "Hamad Keshta was arrested for investigation by the Shin Bet against the background of a suspicion of involvement in hostile terrorist activity. At the conclusion of the investigation, and in light of the quality of the evidence collected against him, it was decided to release him without charges. To remove any doubt it must be noted that neither Keshta's media contacts nor his Canadian citizenship had an influence on the abovementioned conduct."

With regard to the complaint about the withholding of medication, the Shin Bet said: "During the investigation Mr. Keshta was examined by a physician and received treatment in accordance with his instructions."

The spokesman's office added that, "Due to the nature of the matter, no mention can be made of the contents of the investigation or to any operative methods, if any, used either before or during the investigation."