Shin Bet Gets Backing From AG's Office: Left-wing Activists Detained to 'Prevent Illegal Activity'

In letter issued to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, deputy attorney general writes that according to Shin Bet intel, the interrogations were not meant to stifle legitimate protest

Passport control at Ben Gurion Airport
Eyal Toueg

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber backed Shin Bet detentions and interrogations of left-wing activists entering Israel. In a letter issued Friday to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Zilber wrote that intelligence obtained by Shin Bet was examined and that the interrogations were meant to "prevent illegal activity," rather than stifle legitimate protest.

Zilber said the Shin Bet's intelligence substantiated this claim, and that none of the detentions in recent months was due to political affiliation. 

Zilber added that the Shin Bet's response to her inquiry convinced her there is no reason to intervene, but said it was agreed to "refresh protocols with the relevant parties to ensure a proper balance between potential infringement of rights and preventing a 'chilling effect' in aspects of personal rights and between security interests."

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Both Zilber's response and the Shin Bet's reference noted that intelligence gathered on the left-wing activists who were detained regarded illegal activity, whether based on political motivations or affinity to terrorist acts, which is in the authority of the Shin Bet to investigate.

Shin Bet denied those detained were suspected of "subversion," a reason which the High Court of Justice ruled insufficient for arrest. "In recent years, activists identified with the far left in Israel have been involved, among other things, with activities touching on the Shin Bet's purpose of thwarting terrorism and illegal, violent activity," the Shin Bet reference said.

The reference also mentioned flotillas bound for the Gaza Strip and information Shin Bet obtained regarding Israelis and foreigners involved in soliciting Palestinians and Israelis "to come to hotspots with high potential for friction and act violently against Jews and security forces."

These interrogations, Shin Bet claims, are a tool to restrain and prevent such activities. A statement from the organization said "these inquiries do not seek to prevent demonstrations and legitimate acts of protest, but to prevent violent and illegal activity … which often occurs along with protests."

Israel's detained for questioning a slew of left-wing activists and journalists, including those pictured here: Simone Zimmerman and Abby Kirschbaum, Yehudit Ilani, Peter Beinart and Moriel Rothman.

According to Shin Bet, 260 foreigners were denied entry to Israel in 2018 under suspicion of terrorist activity and espionage,  as opposed to 17 foreigners "identified with the far left," as they define them. It was stressed that when it comes to questioning Israeli citizens at border crossing, Shin Bet does not violate the High Court's guidelines and informs those questioned that this is a voluntary inquiry and they are not obligated to cooperate.

Zilber's letter clarified that Shin Bet has no authority to deal with delegitimization activities, to which Shin Bet concurred.

Regarding the questioning of left-wing Ta'ayush activist Daniel Kronberg, Zilber noted the way the Shin Bet coordinator "introduced himself to the interrogated was inappropriate. Shin Bet clarified in a meeting this message would be explicated to relevant factors" within the organization.

Kronberg, an activist in Ta’ayush and executive editor of the Hebrew University’s Israel Journal of Mathematics, told Haaretz that in early July he received a call from a man who said he worked for the Defense Ministry. The man asked Kronberg to meet with him at the Moriah police station in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood.

The man did not initially clarify to Kronberg he was not obligated to come, as the High Court ruling stipulates, when he summoned him. Kronberg came to the meeting, upon which he found out the man, who identified himself as Geva, was responsible for the radical left and "dalag." Only later did Kronberg figure out that "dalag" was an abbreviation for “delegitimization.”

It was also noted that the detention of Tanya Rubinstein and Yehudit Ilani last May was carried out in light of intelligence regarding their involvement in flotillas bound for Gaza during that month.

"The activity was done with a clear affinity for the Hamas organization," and involved its members, according to the intel. Shin Bet claimed it was eventually decided not to question them, and denied their account of being subjected to a severe security check in the airport.

Daniel Kronberg.
Guy Hirschfeld

Peter Beinart and Moriel Rothman-Zecher were questioned in light of "background intelligence pointing to suspicion of their involvement in violent and illegal activity in sensitive sectors of the West Bank, which could substantially risk the safety and wellbeing of Jewish and Palestinians residents, as well as security forces," Shin Bet said.

Regarding Beinart's case, Zilber wrote it was agreed that protocols would be refreshed so that interrogations of Israeli citizens and permanent residents would only be carried out at border crossings if necessary and when no reasonable alternatives exist to summon the person for questioning.

Zilber clarified that the neccesity to "avoid including questions regarding political opinions and political figures in the questioning process, or any legal and legitimate activity of human rights organizations in Israel," will be stressed.

She also noted that the obligation for proper, respectful conduct with those interrogated would be highlighted. Minimizing waiting time between detainment and questioning is also on the agenda, Zilber said.

Lawyer Dan Yakir, legal adviser for the Association for Human Rights in Israel, called the Shin Bet's response to Zilber's inquiry "one of the most shameful and dangerous documents to come out of a government authority."

The Shin Bet, Yakir said, in order to bypass High Court limitations on "warning talks," decided to define these activists as no less than suspects of violent, terrorist acts.

"It seems that Shin Bet thinks participating in a protest of a tour of the West Bank are an existential threat to the state of Israel," Yakir said. "Instead of the Attorney General crying foul over these things, he embraces them."

Yakir noted that the only case Shin Bet admitted to be mistaken is Beinart's. "I suppose only when it comes to the political prosecution of an American journalist, capable of damaging Israel's image, someone is willing to say 'we were wrong.'"