Last Wednesday the undercover Border Police commandos who disguise themselves as Palestinians, known as mistarvim, entered Birzeit University near Ramallah and arrested student council president Omar al-Kiswani. Al-Kiswani is active in the Hamas students' cell at the university, which controls the student council.
The very fact that military forces entered a Palestinian university in the middle of a school day and arrested the head of the student council in itself merits criticism. Disguising themselves as journalists is naturally another reason for the great deal of attention the story received, both in the Israeli and Palestinian media, for good reason.
But as a journalist who works in the West Bank, it was clear to me that the reports of this arrest are likely to have significant consequences for me too.
As Israeli journalists covering the West Bank, we often encounter entrenched suspicion on the part of Palestinians. Some aren't interested in being interviewed because they have been burned by the Israeli media and how they were presented, and others boycott Israeli media outlets on principle, and see them as a part of the occupation and intelligence establishments.
As the years pass, the degree and depth of the severance between Israeli and Palestinian societies is growing, as is the mutual hostility of both sides. This distancing makes the work of Israeli journalists on the West Bank even more important, if more difficult.
Telling stories from behind the wall and exposing truths is our way to make sure people stay informed. To do it, we have to speak to people, to be in the field, to win a certain amount of trust.
There's another reason for Palestinians' wariness of Israeli journalists, and it's got nothing to do with abstract feelings of mistrust or hatred. It's very concrete: Israel's use of undercover commandos disguised as Palestinians to perform arrests, Israel's continual attempts to recruit collaborators, and the permits regime, which requires Palestinians to report to a Shin Bet security service investigation in order to receive entry visas to Israel, creates a society in which almost nobody can be trusted.
Someone who looks like you could turn out to be an Israeli soldier in disguise; your neighbor may be an informant.
That suspicion becomes even greater when it comes to foreigners: Every journalist who has traveled around the West Bank is familiar with the looks and the questions, the need to build trust, in the face of decades during which the Israeli system has broken up Palestinian society into ever smaller and more controllable units. Any individual can pose a danger, any stranger is seen as a potential undercover commando.
The mistarvims' activity is the most performative act of sowing this fear: sneaking, literally, into the heart of Palestinian villages, towns and cities. Unsurprisingly, those acts trigger the ultimate mistrust.
Disguising themselves as journalists in order to carry out an arrest "confirms" the link that's already there between the Israeli media and Israeli intelligence. That is a clear and present danger for the Israeli journalists who really do legitimate reporting work in the West Bank.
This point caused the Union of Journalists in Israel to issue a quick and unusual condemnation after the arrest. According to the declaration it "regards with concern the fact that the mistarvim were disguised as a film crew of journalists. This behavior is liable to endanger real journalists who come to do their job, and undermines freedom of the press."
The organization's announcement was laudable and necessary, though it stands isolated in the face of Israeli universities and students' unions' silence; they didn't see fit to condemn an arrest taking place in the middle of a university.
But actually the anger at exploiting journalists as cover emphasizes how Israeli journalists express outrage only when it affects us directly. There is an ongoing lack of solidarity of with Palestinian journalists per se.
There's no shortage of examples of issues requiring solidarity: Israel's use of administrative detention against Palestinian journalists is a clear example, closing media outlets and confiscating equipment is another, not to mention the physical harm Palestinian journalists suffer during the course of their work.
Palestinian journalists do not enjoy the same protection as Israeli (or foreign) journalists. The most basic example is that while Israeli journalists can travel freely in the West Bank, without any need for a permit except for a press card from the Israeli Government Press Office, Palestinian journalists must receive an entry visa to Israel, which often involves questioning by the Shin Bet.
Even when they manage to receive an entry permit and to enter Israel, their coverage is limited compared to that of Israelis, since – in contrast to Israeli or foreign journalists – Palestinian journalists are rarely granted a GPO press card. The absence of the card means a restriction on entry to official events as well as on freedom of movement within and beyond the Green Line.
During the Temple Mount crisis (in which Palestinians protested against Israel's installation of metal detectors at the site's entrance), some Palestinian journalists with entry visas to Israel were prevented from reporting in Jerusalem's Old City because they had no press card.
The huge differences between the Israeli and Palestinians' ability to report, and the decided silence of Israeli journalists on behalf of their Palestinian peers, exposes the lack of any real collegiality, and constitutes an implicit collusion with limiting the freedom of the press.
And finally, there is the question of how the Israeli media covers the IDF's incursions into Palestinian territory itself. Here, too, the arrest of Al-Kiswani can serve as an enlightening example. Most of the popular press jumped on analogies to "Fauda", the Israeli TV series about Israeli undercover counter-terrorism agents infiltrating suspected Palestinian terror groups which has gained acclaim as a Netflix series in the U.S.
"Fauda in Birzeit" was the headline on the Ynet news website, and Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster, called the arrest video "Fauda in reality." The latter heading is especially absurd, because it suggests that "reality" is now conforming to the primary verisimilitude of the small screen.
While in the past most Israelis were rarely exposed to the activity of the Mistarvim and the Shin Bet in the West Bank, the airing of "Fauda" has paradoxically created additional distance rather than closer ties. The series allows Israelis to view events in the West Bank like scenes from an action movie: distant, alienated, imaginary.
Why was Al-Kiswani arrested? Was arresting him in his university office even legitimate? Those critical questions won't even arise. Rather, we Israelis are mesmerized instead by the mistarvims' guntoting stunts - just like in "Fauda."
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