The Israel Police and Shin Bet security service arrested Israeli Arab journalist and political activist Majd Kayyal on Saturday, on his way back to Israel from a three-week visit to Beirut. He was released to house arrest late Thursday afternoon, and his next court hearing is scheduled for April 22.
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Kayyal, a resident of Haifa, was stopped at the Jordan River crossing. He was arrested on suspicion of visiting a hostile country and contacting foreign agents. His detention was extended to Tuesday and he was prohibited from meeting with a lawyer.
His arrest was kept under wraps by a gag order that was lifted on Thursday afternoon after Haaretz petitioned the court against it. Meanwhile, the news had made the rounds on social media and certain Arab news sites. Some sites set up petitions calling for his release on the grounds of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Kayyal, 23, flew to Amman and then to Beirut on March 22 to attend a special conference by As-Safir marking its 40th anniversary, his mother Suhir told Haaretz. The paper invited journalists and writers from around the world to its bash, she said – including Kayyal, for whom the paper issued a special permit to attend.
Kayyal told Haaretz that he did nothing to harm Israel's security and as far as he's concerned, committed no crime.
"In my view there is a natural connection between Haifa and Lebanon. I don't see Lebanon as an enemy country," he said. "I went there as a journalist visiting the news organization for which he writes, and the whole visit focused on professional matters and journalistic issues and on the social and political developments in the region.
"I made it clear that I didn't violate any law and that the suspicions of my meeting with a foreign agent have no basis whatsoever," he maintained.
Kayyal said he had expected to be questioned on his return, but didn't anticipate being arrested under a gag order and being prevented for days from meeting with a lawyer. He said Shin Bet interrogators asked him about his political activities in recent years.
The visit was a dream come true for him, Kayyal wrote on his Facebook page – an opportunity to come to Lebanon and meet with reporters from the whole Arab world.
Members of Kayyal's family reject the grounds on which he was arrested, arguing that his role had been purely journalistic, and he was participating in a conference in a country that, unlike Israel, the Arab and Palestinian communities do not view as hostile. "We support Majd, as do many others, and call for his immediate release," the family stated.
Kayyal has become well-known among Israeli Arab society in recent years, chiefly among the young, for his political activity with the Balad party. He also gained renown for drumming up opposition to the "Prawer plan," which sought to relocate the Bedouin in the Negev.
In recent years he wrote for the weekend edition of A-Safir, a Lebanese newspaper with a markedly nationalistic bent. Kayyal published articles and features about Palestinian issues, including with the Green Line.
His essays, written in literary Arabic, focus on the challenges facing Palestinian society both in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza. Kayyal depicted the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in personal tales of life under siege in Gaza or in the shadow of the separation fence in the West Bank. He wrote about the discrimination and neglect of the Arabs living in Israel.
He also edited the website of Adalah – Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
In November 2011, Kayyal joined one of the two ships sailing from Istanbul to Gaza. He was arrested by Israeli forces that took control of the boats, but was released after some hours.
Kayyal acted openly, says lawyer
Adalah Attorney Aram Mahameed, who met with Kayyal on Wednesday night, said Kayyal admits visiting Beirut and being at the conference. It was a journalistic conference attended by hundreds of people, of whom dozens were reporters, and everything that happened there was above-board, Mahameed said.
Kayyal rejects allegations that he met with "suspicious persons" outside the conference. During the conference, Kayyal told Mahameed, a participant he didn't know asked him if he supports armed struggle against Israel. Kayyal answered that he isn't a politician and doesn't create policy, and that armed struggle proved to be a failure in recent years, Mahameed says.
Nor was his participation in the conference a secret, Kayyal says – he posted about it on Facebook and published an article on it in A-Safir, Mahameed says.
The facts that the prohibition on Kayyal meeting with his lawyer was lifted on Wednesday, and that the gag order was lifted on Thursday, attest that the investigation is over, Mahameed said. The main offense of which Kayyal is suspected – contact with an enemy agent – is unsubstantiated: Kayyal should have been released at the end of his first detention term, Mahameed said.
A protest vigil calling for Kayyal's release is scheduled to take place Thursday night at the German Colony neighborhood in Haifa.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Journalists Union has condemned Kayyal's arrest and called for his release. In its statement, the PJU accuses Israel of silencing Palestinian journalists and preventing their freedom of occupation, no matter where they work. "Israel is continuing its policy of discrimination – granting freedom of occupation to Israeli journalists everywhere in the world, while preventing Palestinian journalists from covering [events] and doing their work faithfully," the PJU said in a statement.
The police have raided Kayyal's home in Haifa twice, once during his first term of arrest and the second time, on Wednesday night. They seized computers found in the house.
Shin Bet: He knew what he was doing
The Shin Bet commented that Kayyal went to Jordan on March 23, from whence he continued to Lebanon, which is a hostile country. "Suspicion arose that the subject was recruited by a hostile organization on Lebanese soil, and was therefore marked for questioning upon his return," the security service stated.
When Kayyal did return, through the Jordan River crossing, he was arrested by the police and taken for questioning by the Shin Bet. He claimed that he'd gone to Lebanon to attend the a-Safir conference, and admitted knowing that as a hostile country, visiting Lebanon is forbidden, says the Shin Bet.
Despite being an Israeli citizen, Kayyal arranged his documentation to visit Lebanon through the Palestinian Authority, which issued him the paperwork, says the service.
It will decide whether to continue questioning Kayyal and whether to pursue charges over the coming days; but if he is charged, it will be for visiting a hostile country, no more.