Journalist Majd Kayyal Speaks Out After Shin Bet Interrogation

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Majd Kayyal.Credit: Alex Levac

At a certain stage, one of his interrogators told him that he too had been in Beirut, during the Lebanon War of 1982. A few minutes later, without batting an eyelash, the same interrogator lashed out at him, “You know it was not legal for you to go to Lebanon.” At which point only he, the person suspected of being in contact with a “foreign agent” and of “going illegally” to Lebanon – and possibly also the god of history – laughed silently to himself.

That was only one of the irony-laced moments in the hallucinatory and fraught saga of the visit last month by Israeli journalist Majd Kayyal to the Lebanese capital, to attend a conference sponsored by the newspaper there for which he writes. When he returned, he was arrested and held incognito for five days and subjected to interrogation by the Shin Bet security service without even being allowed to meet with a lawyer, until his release. This Tuesday, after Kayyal had been freed from house arrest as well, we met in the Haifa offices of Adalah: the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, where he works as editor of the NGO’s website.

The 23-year-old Haifa resident is a riveting young man. His greatest fear after he was apprehended, he explains, was that he would be incarcerated for months, during which the vibrant intensity of the experience of his Beirut visit would fade before he could share it with friends and readers. “I wanted so much to tell the story, it was such an incredible experience,” he says.

That is something which maybe only a journalist can fully understand. In any case, his concern about not being able to tell the story dissipated along with the suspicion that he had been in contact with a foreign agent.

Kayyal grew up in a politically oriented home. His mother, who works with at-risk girls, is from the Lower Galilee village of Arabeh; his father, a social activist, is descended from refugees from the uprooted village of Al-Birwa in Western Galilee. They live in Halissa, a poor neighborhood in Haifa. Kayyal studied philosophy and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For the past two years, he has worked for Adalah and as a columnist for the important Lebanese newspaper As-Safir (The Ambassador). The last article he filed before his trip was about the Black Goat Law, forgotten Israeli legislation from the 1950s that forbids expansion of grazing areas mainly in the hands of Bedouin shepherds.

Like many other Palestinian Israelis, Kayyal always dreamed of visiting Lebanon.

“Beirut is the city that interests me most. I was raised on its history, and it’s the place that influenced me most. My childhood heroes were from Beirut,” he says. “The departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut changed Palestinian politics. Those are the events that shaped my personality. And there is also Beirut’s rich cultural scene, of course. Then I get an invitation to an event marking the 40th anniversary of As-Safir.”

The invitation sparked his imagination and moved him deeply. Together with eight other journalists – from Arab countries – who work for the paper he was asked to talk about his prediction for what the world will look like 40 years from now. “The Iraqis were the only ones who saw nothing but doom,” he notes.

For his part, Kayyal drew up a futuristic scenario for a binational state in Israeli 2054. He tried to envision the conflicts that would be spawned by the return of the Palestinian refugees from 1948 – not only between them and the Jews, but also between the refugees and the Israeli Arabs living in their former homes.

He spoke of Jews and veteran Arab Israelis against the “new” Palestinian returnees, new coalitions and struggles that no one is yet contemplating.

“Something new will be created here, a new reality,” he told his audience, “which you have to take into account, because otherwise you can’t act.” Kayyal says he even talked about the need to protect the Jewish middle class, to ensure an internal balance in the emerging new society.

In order to attend the event, he obtained a one-time laissez-passer from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture; his hosts sent him the visa to Lebanon. He left for Amman on March 23 en route to Beirut, letting hardly anyone in on the secret. He told his parents that he was going to Tunisia, so they wouldn’t worry. It was the same cover story he had used in the past, when he joined a protest flotilla sailing to the Gaza Strip.

On the plane to Beirut a flight attendant offered him a copy of As-Safir, and for the first time in his life Kayyal held the paper’s print edition. His name appeared in it as one of the conference participants. It was the prelude to 20 days in the city of his dreams.

Kayyal: “Beirut is so much like Haifa, and I love Haifa so much – I couldn’t live anywhere else. You don’t stop thinking in Beirut. You can’t say, ‘Never mind about politics.’ Politics is there, everywhere, and it’s very challenging. You meet people in cafes – writers, artists, poets – people you’ve only heard about, and here they are sitting across from you. You can go into a grocery store and meet [the singer] Fairuz. You hear stories that everyone knows, but that no one writes up, about your childhood heroes.”

Equally emotional were his visits to Sabra and Chatila (the Palestinian refugee camps where the 1982 massacre of residents by local Christians occurred); other refugee camps are off-limits to visitors.

“It was very painful. I met many people from Haifa there. I met neighbors. That was probably the most bizarre event: In Chatila I met the Saloum family. And we have neighbors from the Saloum family in Haifa. The same speech inflexions, the same way of sitting,” the journalist explained.

One of them told him that his cousin had been killed in an Israeli bombing attack in 2006, and Kayyal told him about another member of the Saloum family who was killed in Haifa by a Katyusha rocket. Welcome to the crazy house. They then made a phone call from Chatila to Munira Saloum, a neighbor in Haifa.

But Kayyal adds that he was careful during the visit and avoided situations that might afterward get him in trouble in Israel. He did not visit the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut, a Hezbollah bastion, and he stayed away from the villages in the south of the country, where he might also have encountered Hezbollah people, if only by chance. His hosts also kept an eye on him, to make sure he didn’t meet some Iranian journalist, for example. For the first time in his life, though, Kayyal was roughed up by an Arab policeman.

“We were on the way to the paper’s headquarters when we saw a demonstration. Was there any way we weren’t going to stop to have a look? The demonstrators were from the Lebanese electricity company. We joined them. I had no idea where they were going. And then we were turned back by police. It turns out we had arrived at the parliament building.”

Kayyal says it was a thrill to be able to participate in a protest and not be excluded for being an Arab, as he was during the social protests in Tel Aviv in 2011, and also not to feel the discomfort of marching under an Israeli flag, as in student demonstrations against tuition hikes. “This was the first time I felt I could be poor, and not a poor Arab.”

Throughout his stay in Lebanon, he reported his jolting experiences via his Facebook page, not hiding the fact that he was in Beirut. His father was appalled, and Kayyal told him by Skype, “I’m already here, so at least say a good word.”

On his last day in Beirut, Kayyal says he broke into tears at the airport. “I cried like I never cried before in my life. You know that you will never be able to come back to that place again.”

He met his mother in Amman – she had returned from a visit to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan – and they traveled to the Israeli border crossing together. Shin Bet agents were waiting for him. He’d thought that nothing untoward would happen.

Kayyal: “I thought they were smart enough not to turn me into a hero. Only someone dumb could make trouble for a person who had fulfilled the dream of 1.3 million people. I also thought they were smart enough not to arrest me, and would instead say, ‘Look at this guy who went to Beirut and we left him alone’ – [letting the public draw the conclusion that] I must be a collaborator.

“I also thought they were clever enough to give me more of a feeling of security, so I would be more daring [in the future] and then maybe do something that would really get me into trouble. But they didn’t do anything smart. Only dumb stuff. Sometimes we think they’re so clever – but they’re not.”

He felt like Osama bin Laden, he says, in the wake of the body search and the way his effects were scoured. A yellow scarf he’d bought for a cousin was immediately suspected of being a Hezbollah item, and the security guards pounced on it, demanding to know: What’s this? 3,000 Lebanon pounds – around 9 shekels (about $2.50). What is it? Where’s it from? “Where could it be from,” he replied.

Handcuffed and blindfolded, the journalist was held in detention in Haifa. His home was searched, and his computer and other items were confiscated – including a notebook from fourth grade. He underwent five days of questioning in the Kishon detention facility, in the north of the country. He was not concerned, Kayyal says now, because he knew he had nothing to hide. The interrogators asked whether it would be more comfortable for him to be questioned in Arabic, and he replied, “I don’t want to be comfortable with you.”

He was asked whether he had thrown stones in the recent demonstrations by Bedouin in Israel or had done so in the Arab demonstrations of October 2000. He told them he’d been nine years-old then. The interrogators gave him a polygraph test related to offenses he was not suspected of – terrorism, planting bombs – and he was found to be speaking the truth, of course. They wanted to know if he had betrayed Israel, and he said, “You can only betray someone you love.”

Kayyal adds that he was even questioned about a dedication in a book that he received from an Egyptian writer and translator, with whom he spoke in Beirut about the works of Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin and poet Hezi Leskly. The dedication says, “If you don’t read this, I will reveal your deep secret.”

Finally he was released. He is barred from making contact via the Web with people living abroad for 21 days. The legislation that made it illegal for him to enter an enemy state is called the “infiltration law,” which “is meant to prevent infiltration into Israel,” Kayyal observes. “So the circle is closed. My dream of going to Beirut is exactly the same as the refugee’s dream of returning here. It all connects.”

Will you try to go again?