Gideon Levy

How a Meeting With a Shin Bet Agent Destroyed This Palestinian's Life

The Israeli agent asked Taher Yaakub to become a collaborator, an offer he refused. 'That’s how the tragedy began,' he now says

For the Palestinians, it’s a routine story, one of many like it. Israelis, however, hardly ever hear about this disgusting method. Taher Yaakub is a Prisoner of Zion. For almost a year, Israel has prevented him from returning to his home in Jordan. Reason: He declined the extortionist proposal of the Shin Bet security service that he collaborate with the organization – in return for being given an exit permit. In the wake of his fateful meeting with agent “Hemi,” Yaakub’s life has been turned upside down: Instead of being a production technician and a family man, he is working as a day laborer, cut off from his wife and three small children. His single offense: declining the offer made by “Hemi,” which is something you do at your own risk in the occupied territories.

We picked him up this week at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Bituniya, near Ramallah, where for the past three months he’s had a job as a production worker. We sat in the backyard of an apartment building still under construction in Ramallah, that belongs to an acquaintance. Yaakub lives in a small apartment in which 12 workers share three rooms, where it’s not possible to have guests. He told his story in a detailed, businesslike fashion, his eyes only briefly clouding over with emotion.

Yaakub was born in Beit Rima, in the central West Bank. He is 34, married and the father of three: Bilsan, six, Wassan, five, and Mahmoud, three. In the 1970s, his father moved to Jordan, and the family has lived there since, paying summer visits to relatives in Beit Rima. In 2010, Yaakub married his fellow villager and cousin, Kafa, now 24, and the couple settled in Russeifa, near Zarqa in Jordan. Yaakub has a Jordanian ID card and also an ID card from the occupied territories (because he was born here). The couple visited the Beit Rima family twice, without any problems. Yaakub was a production worker at a Pepsi-Cola plant in Jordan, made a good living and raised his children, which, he says, was all that interested him.

They came for another visit last summer, on July 16, 2016. At the Allenby Bridge, Israeli security personnel took their passports and told them to wait in a separate room. Then the money they were carrying was confiscated – 1,040 Jordanian dinars (about $1465) and $2,000. The money, he says, was earmarked for registration fees regarding land his grandfather had left the family in Beit Rima. Three hours after the family was detained, Yaakub was interrogated about the source of the money and its purpose. Not even the children were permitted to go to the bathroom.

Toward evening, his wife and children were allowed to continue on their way, but had no money to pay for the trip to Beit Rima. “Figure it out,” they were told. The cell phone of another traveler, who took a picture of the crying children, was impounded. No photographing allowed at the bridge. Yaakub was accused of bringing in the money for a terrorist organization. After all, his uncles are Hamas activists. He tried to explain that he has nothing to do with terrorism and that he doesn’t like his uncles and is barely in touch with them. But to no avail. “If you want to arrest me, arrest me. You have the power. I am weak,” he told the Israeli authorities, utterly exhausted after the ordeals of the long day, a day that had begun at dawn in their home in Jordan.

Yaakub’s hands and feet were shackled and he was taken to the police station in the West Bank city of Ma’aleh Adumim. There he was questioned for a few more hours about the money and about his uncles. A policeman offered him a glass of water – the first sustenance of any kind he’d had since the morning. Finally he was asked to sign a document written in Hebrew, a language he doesn’t know. He refused. The police officer explained to him that the document stated only that no force or pressure was exerted on him in the interrogation. But Yaakub said that seeing his children crying for hours at the bridge and then being sent off with their mother was for him the application of pressure and force, “like being stabbed in the back.”

In the end he gave in and signed. He was given a receipt for his confiscated money – almost all his savings. He was then told to leave, without having any idea where he was and without a cent in his pocket. “Figure it out,” was the message again. He reached Beit Rima at night, his uncle having come to pick him up. That, he thought, was the end of his ordeals with the Israeli occupation. He didn’t know that they were just beginning.

Two weeks later, the holiday over, the family returned to Allenby Bridge in good spirits. Earlier, a lawyer Yaakub had hired (in order to get his money back) had ascertained that he would not be prevented from reentering Jordan. But at the bridge he was again told to wait by the side. Shortly afterward, his wife and children were allowed to proceed, but not Yaakub. “You’re playing with me,” he said to the security personnel, not yet knowing how perspicacious that remark would turn out to be.

He was sent to the Shin Bet offices in the Ofer detention facility, near Ramallah. “Would you like something to drink?” an agent who introduced himself as “Hemi,” commander of the Ramallah and El Bireh region, asked him after a wait. “How was it working in the vegetables with your uncles?” Hemi asked him. “You see, we know everything about you. In fact, we live behind your family’s house in Beit Rima.”

The conversation continued in this friendly manner. And then “Hemi” said, “You have lost your family, you have lost your job, you have lost your life. How do you feel about that? Let’s talk a little. Tell me a little about your uncles.” To which Yaakub replied, “I don’t have a lot to tell about them. I come here every two years. You know a lot more about them than I do. If you have something against me, tell me. If you want something from me, tell me. Arrest me if you need to. And if not, let me go back to my family.”

“Hemi” replied at once that he had no intention of arresting his interlocutor. Heaven forbid, certainly not. “I want to let you go back,” the agent said, sweet-talking him. “There’s only one thing I want from you: for you to cooperate with us. Just take my phone number, and call me when you have something to tell me.”

Yaakub refused to take the number. “I told you everything,” he said to his new master. “I am a blank paper. I have never been involved with politics. Don’t entangle me. I don’t want your phone number.” Now, Hemi lost his cool, Yaakub recalls: “Are you going to take my number or not? If not, go home and you will never be able to go to Jordan. Never.”

“That’s how the tragedy began,” Yaakub says quietly, almost in a whisper. “There is no money for my children’s schooling, and my brother has left his college studies in order to provide for the family. I am the eldest brother. Our father died in 2006, and since then I have had to provide not only for my wife and children, but for my mother, my sisters and my brothers. Now our lives have been turned inside out. Everyone is suffering tremendously. I am ready to do any work, including in garbage, in order to support my family. In Jordan I had a good job, but here I have nothing.”

At first he worked in construction, for 70 shekels (about $20) a day, then as a worker in an electrical goods factory for 1,300 shekels (about $360) a month. At the Coca-Cola plant he earns 2,000 shekels a month, most of which he sends to his wife. He budgets himself 5-10 shekels a day for his own expenses.

Yaakub couldn’t stay in Beit Rima for long, because his uncle has 24 children from two wives and there’s no room for him. So he’s living in the shabby workers’ apartment in Ramallah. His wife and children came for a short visit in January, during the school vacation. He can’t afford to bring them here, he says, because their home is in Jordan and here they have nothing.

Four times he’s tried his luck at the bridge in the past few months, and four times he’s been turned back humiliatingly. Exit denied. The authorities decided to return the money that was confiscated last December – proof that there are no charges against him. “We wish to inform you that it was decided to return to your client the money that was seized in his possession,” Corporal Michael, legal assistant in the security and criminal department of the Civil Administration, wrote to Yaakub’s lawyer, in the name of the legal adviser. The letter contains a phone number to call, but Yaakub wasn’t successful in getting a reply there.

A check with the spokesperson of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories revealed that the money confiscated from Yaakub had been transferred into the account of his lawyer, Walid Khatib, of Kafr Kana. The latter, however, neither informed his client of this, nor did he transfer the money to him. Only after B’Tselem staffers Kareem Issa Jubran and Iyad Hadad became involved was the money returned to Yaakub.

All Taher Yaakub wanted to ask this week was, “Don’t people in Israel have children? Don’t they have families? Don’t they understand what it is to tear a family apart? Don’t they understand what hatred they are sowing in the hearts of my children, who are growing up without a father?” Yaakub also sent us dozens of photographs of his children this week, pictures they send him every day, to stay in touch. Maybe he thought that every photo he sent would improve the chances of Israel allowing him to be reunited with the children they depict.

The following statement was received from the Shin Bet media unit:

The decision to prevent Taher Yaakub from leaving the country was based on security considerations connected to his involvement in the smuggling of terror funds to the field, and the concern that his departures from Israel would be used to serve continued activity that endangers regional security.

Under the circumstances, on the basis of humanitarian considerations, and despite the security risk that his activity entails, it was decided not to prevent at this time his departure from the country in order to meet with his family.

A happy ending? We will continue to follow up.