Israel's Government Liaisons to East Jerusalem Are Mostly ex-Shin Bet

Twelve of 17 office staffers are former members of security service, and locals on both sides of the political spectrum find their background problematic: 'They use sticks rather than carrots'

Silwan, East Jerusalem, October 18, 2018.
Emil Salman

A government office whose job is to communicate with Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem is comprised mainly of former Shin Bet security service agents, which hampers its ability to do its job properly, critics say.

Twelve of the office’s 17 staffers are former Shin Bet personnel, a source involved in the issue said, including both its current director and his predecessor.

The Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and the government company East Jerusalem Development Ltd., which jointly run the office, insisted these numbers were incorrect, and that only a minority of staffers are former Shin Bet agents. But they declined to provide exact figures.

The office, formally called the unit for involving the East Jerusalem public, was set up six years ago by Ofer Or, a former senior official in the Shin Bet’s Jerusalem district. He recently retired and was replaced by Arik Brabbing, a former head of the Shin Bet’s Jerusalem District.

In last year’s cabinet decision on allocating more funds to East Jerusalem, the unit was assigned responsibility for maintaining relations with East Jerusalem residents on the government’s behalf. For instance, if the municipality wants to pave a road or expropriate land, the unit solicits input from local Palestinians to ease the process. It also runs independent projects, like a plan to set up for four employment zones in East Jerusalem

Last week, right-wing city councilman Arieh King assailed the unit, charging in a Facebook post that neither the municipality nor the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry was promoting the right wing’s agenda in the city because the unit was comprised mainly of former Shin Bet agents, who oppose this agenda. The post was removed a few hours later, but he reiterated his complaints to Haaretz, citing several cases in which the unit made concessions to East Jerusalem Palestinians in defiance of municipal planning officials’ views.

“They come with the Shin Bet’s working methods,” he said. “There, your goal is to prevent [things], and you do everything you can to achieve that goal, at any price. And that’s how they operate today, too, sometimes against the interests of the municipality and the government.”

But he also argued that it was difficult for Palestinians to work with former Shin Bet agents. “I asked people in East Jerusalem,” he said. “They said nobody would dare be seen with them in public. And if I put myself in their place, they’re completely right.”

Haaretz asked many Palestinian and Israeli activists, municipal employees and government employees about the unit. Almost all refused to be quoted by name, but most agreed that the prevalence of former Shin Bet agents was a problem.

“I never agree with Arieh King, but he’s right,” one East Jerusalem Palestinian said. “You have to bring people who understand engineering and master plans, not how to prevent a terror attack. They act as if they were still in the Shin Bet, using sticks rather than carrots.”

A government employee involved in East Jerusalem concurred, saying, “I admit this is problematic.”

Another Israeli active in East Jerusalem said, “I wouldn’t rule out Shin Bet agents. There were at least two Shin Bet guys in Jerusalem who did excellent work. But the idea that there’s a preference for Shin Bet people says the standpoint is security. In East Jerusalem you see what you want to see. If you want to see terror and mukhtars [clan elders], that’s what you’ll see.”

“I think it hurts Jerusalem in general and East Jerusalem in particular that retired Shin Bet and intelligence people are filling all the jobs involving contact between Arab residents and municipal and government institutions,” agreed Eran Tzidkiyahu, a research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking. “It creates a reality of occupation, which prevents the growth of a civic ethos in East Jerusalem.”

The Jerusalem Affairs Ministry said the unit was comprised of professionals who help the government implement its policies, including “narrowing the gaps in East Jerusalem.”