How Dozens of Israeli Arab 'Espionage' Arrests Ended in Minor Convictions

Attorney describes legal clause on contact with agents as 'a trap' that turns any interaction with an Arab from an enemy state into a criminal offense.

Dr. Omar Said, the Kafr Kana resident who was released last week after five months in jail, is one of dozens of Israeli Arabs who have been detained over allegations of security and espionage offenses. As in most of these cases, the story opened with massive media coverage and serious suspicions, but ended with a limited indictment - contact with an enemy agent - and a relatively short jail sentence.

Omar Said  Moran Maayan 5.2010
Moran Maayan

Attorney Hussein Abuhussein, who represented Said and has witnessed many such security cases, told Haaretz that the legal clause pertaining to contact with enemy agents is so broad that it turns any meeting, phone conversation or online contact with an Arab from an enemy state into a criminal offense. Abuhussein says this includes people living in the West Bank and Gaza; sometimes the security apparatus won't even say who the alleged agent is.

"It is a trap, a distortion that must be corrected," he said.

Attorney Abeer Baker of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, agrees that this clause has become a tool the prosecution uses to achieve quick convictions in security cases. In a recent position paper, she describes how the clause is used as leverage to pressure security detainees and their defense lawyers to sign plea bargains quickly. Once convicted, they can be sentenced to jail terms ranging from a few months to seven years.

The Shin Bet security service says the clause is being used increasingly due to the increased attempts by terror organizations, led by Hezbollah, to strike a foothold in the Israeli Arab community. The Shin Bet's website says Hezbollah is trying to enlist operatives from the Arab sector who can help them learn about Israel's military and security matters as well as the public mood.

Former deputy Shin Bet head MK Gideon Ezra (Kadima ) rejected Sunday  the claims of attorneys Abuhussein and Baker.

"The State of Israel does not seek to put people in jail, but to carry out proper investigations. There is always a gap between what is known at first and the final outcome," he said.

The security apparatus offers a few examples from the last decade. In 2002, 10 citizens from the Galilee were arrested for passing sensitive intelligence information to Hezbollah. The main suspect, Omar Heib, a resident of Kafr Zarzir and an Israel Defense Forces lieutenant, was convicted of aggravated espionage and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Another case is that of 24-year-old Rawi Sultani of Tira, who was recruited by Hezbollah at an international Arab summer camp in Morocco organized by the Israeli Arab political party Balad. Sultani was convicted last year of giving information to an enemy agent, for passing on intelligence about IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. He was sentenced to five and half years in jail. His family notes that initially he was accused of much more serious offenses, such as conspiring to assassinate Ashkenazi.

On the other hand, cases that began with great uproars and ended in whispers include that of Geras Geras, a former PLO activist and head of the Fassuta local council. In 2006 he was accused of serious crimes including transferring intelligence information during wartime, which carries a life sentence. The indictment was reduced to contact with a foreign agent working for the Iranians, and the sentence to 33 months in jail.

In 2005 a plea bargain was signed with two dentists, Dr. Nazmi Hassin of Nazareth and Dr. Salem Zaydan of Kafr Manda. The two were first accused of aiding to the enemy in wartime for contact with a Hamas activist while they were studying in Romania. They admitted to one of the clauses in the indictment, contact with a foreign agent, and were sentenced to three and a half years in jail.

That same year, near the end of the trial, a plea bargain was signed with the leaders of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Ra'ad Salah and former Umm al-Fahm mayor Suleiman Aghbaria. They were convicted of contact with a foreign agent and related financial offenses, but the most severe charges - membership in a terror organization and passing information to the enemy - were thrown out and they were sentenced to 30 to 46 months in jail.

Dr. Said, first accused of aggravated espionage, agreed to a plea bargain that stated he made contact with a foreign agent, and was sentenced to seven months in jail. The agent was Hassan Jaja, a Lebanese citizen who has contacts with Hezbollah, who tried to recruit him along with Amir Makhoul. Although he confessed, Said continues to claim that the affair was nothing less than political persecution: "Jaja is active in civilian organizations and is well-acquainted with the special position of Arab citizens in Israel. The attempt to accuse him of recruiting agents is completely unfounded," Said said last week.

Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.