To avoid future misunderstandings, and mainly to ensure myself a comfortable prison cell, I wish to announce now that if I ever receive an invitation to visit Iran, Saudi Arabia or the Gaza Strip, or to interview Hezbollah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, I would be happy to accept.
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This announcement, by the way, is intended for the authorities of those states as well. If they’re thinking of inviting me, and the only thing keeping them back is the fear of what may happen to me on my return, they needn’t worry. Jewish Israeli journalists are not arrested for such offenses, only Arab Israelis are. Over the years I have visited quite a few enemy states, and each time I was offended anew. Not only was I never arrested upon my return, but no one even bothered to ask what I saw and heard.
I’ve been to Iraq four times since the fall of Saddam Hussein. I wrote stories for Haaretz in the heart of Baghdad. From Iraqi Kurdistan I sent regards to Kurdish families in Israel. I never concealed these trips. At Yasser Arafat’s invitation, before the Oslo Accords were signed and the “terrorist” tag was removed from his lapel, I traveled with my colleague Danny Rubinstein to Tunis. I toured Lebanon, albeit under military protection, but I met with many people – and nothing. No Shin Bet security service agent ever led me to a dark, small room and fired a single question at me. Had I been an Israeli Arab I might still be barred from leaving the country.
I’m no exception. Israeli journalists like Ron Ben-Yishai, Itay Engel, Boaz Bismuth, Uri Avnery, Anat Saragusti, Amira Hass and others have visited enemy territory and reported about it, but none of them was detained and none of them was prosecuted.
True, Israeli law prohibits unauthorized entry to an enemy state. The law also bars Israelis from Area A of the West Bank, which under the Oslo Accords is under full Palestinian control. The army, not the law, has prevented journalists from entering Gaza for the past seven years or so, unless accompanying the Israel Defense Forces troops on a brilliant military operation. The law does not permit prison interviews with political prisoners. It also imposes military censorship. But the law does not forbid knowing what happens in enemy states; it’s the government that makes sure its monopoly over disseminating information about those states is not breached.
In Iraq, for example, the American army invented the trick of “embedding” reporters with the military forces, thus preventing in most cases reports of military failures or civilian casualties, whose number is not known to this day. The concern for reporters’ safety is understandable, but hundreds of journalists have been abducted or killed in Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Chechnya and other dark regions. This is a profession that cannot have borders, and these are its risks.
It is not the journalistic profession that is being tested now, but rather the attribution of guilt. Israel has two sets of standards for allowing reporting on enemy states. Arab journalists are suspected in advance of having one purpose for visiting an enemy state – espionage, giving information or “contact with a foreign agent.”
An Israeli Arab journalist is seen first, and last, as an Arab. His Israeliness will be examined meticulously in the Shin Bet’s interrogation rooms, then in jail and finally in court. An Israeli Arab journalist cannot expect his Jewish colleagues to hold demonstrations or demand his release, or to condemn the gag order slapped on his arrest.
The dramatic report of Majd Kayyal’s arrest after he returned from visiting Lebanon left no doubt as to his guilt. An Israeli Arab, Lebanon, a foreign agent and the Shin Bet are the ingredients of a cocktail designed to confirm all our fears. It distinguishes between decent, loyal, patriotic journalists and spies who only pretend to the profession.