I know something about how Israel’s security forces treat journalists they view as hostile. In January, I was held for over a week in a dingy detention center at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport before being deported.
Before I was detained, I was interrogated in a spare, windowless office in the airport about news articles I had authored in my two and a half years working in the occupied West Bank for the Palestinian news agency Ma’an.
At one point, the security officer, a woman with piercing blue eyes who never identified herself, paged through the contacts in my cell phones, demanding that I provide information about sources, colleagues, and friends whose numbers I had stored. I refused.
She set the phones down on her desk and I, without thinking, reached for them. She stopped me. “In this office, you have no rights,” the interrogator explained. I didn’t see the phones, like the rest of my possessions, until I was expelled to New York eight days later.
So it’s natural that I’ve been following and investigating for weeks the case of Anat Kamm, the Israeli journalist and former soldier who has been under secret house arrest for months over allegations she leaked military documents, and Uri Blau, the reporter who reportedly used those papers to expose a West Bank assassinations program that violates even Israel’s own laws.
Like me, Blau, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, also finds himself unable to return to Israel.
I’m not Israeli, and Blau’s situation is different and, in important ways, much more severe than mine. But I believe I can empathize, on some basic level, with the Kafkaesque turn his life has taken.
Blau is in hiding in London, fearing arrest if he returns to his home country. He exposed documents that proved the military was violating a High Court of Justice order by authorizing the killing of Islamic Jihad leaders, even when innocents were also killed.
Blau wrote an article in Friday’s newspaper explaining how he went on vacation in December not knowing the extent to which he was under surveillance: “When I left Israel I had no reason to believe our planned trip would suddenly turn into a spy movie whose end is not clear.”
“I certainly didn’t think I’d have to stay in London and wouldn’t be able to return to Tel Aviv as a journalist and a free man, only because I published reports that were not convenient to the establishment,” he wrote.
Israel’s General Security Service (GSS, known casually as the Shin Bet) suspects Blau received the documents from Kamm, a writer for the popular Israeli news and entertainment site Walla!, who obtained the papers during her mandatory military service years earlier.
For months, Israeli authorities banned publication of any information on the case, or even mentioning the gag order.
After weeks of news of the case leaking out in blogs and Palestinian and international media (including a Ma’an investigation that I assisted), the government caved in and lifted the gag order on Thursday. The floodgates were opened.
Now that Blau and his editors at Haaretz can freely report their side of the story, much of what I learned from sources close to the case in recent weeks has been confirmed.
We now know, for example, that security agents raided Blau’s apartment, and that they seized and destroyed his computer.
We also know that Blau was the original focus of the Shin Bet’s investigation, and that his reports were at the heart of the case.
I spoke with Israeli historian Avner Cohen, an expert on Israeli state secrecy and the author of Israel and the Bomb, a book on the history of the Israeli nuclear program, about the matter.
Cohen said the Israeli state’s motivation in investigating Blau was varied, above all a “breach of field security,” but also a sense of political embarrassment over Blau’s reports. Blau, he said, “was able to put his hands on lots of stuff that was offensive and biting to many people.”
“It is evident that the GSS were performing all sorts of close surveillance on Uri Blau and it appears it led them to find Anat Kamm,” he added.
Over the years, Blau has made a career of exposing wrongdoing by his country’s armed forces. His associates say that, at the age of 19, he began spending his days getting military sources to confirm reports of abuses gathered by senior Haaretz reporters.
I was told that Blau would drive around the West Bank, near the scene of military action, offering rides to soldiers who would then corroborate reports of wrongdoing. Today, he is known to have a deep network of military sources.
Last year, Blau wrote a disturbing exposé about army-endorsed T-shirts, worn by Israeli soldiers, depicting pregnant Palestinian women in a sniper’s crosshairs, among other grotesque images.
He also revealed a secret military database that exposed the true nature and extent of Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements. Seventy-five percent of the settlements were illegal under Israel’s own domestic law, the data showed.
The report that triggered the current controversy was published in November 2008. It cited confidential army documents showing that the military violated a High Court ruling by ordering the 2007 assassination of an Islamic Jihad leader in Jenin, even when arrest was possible, and even when civilians were endangered. The article cited a March 2007 document in which Major-General Yair Naveh authorized forces to shoot three Jihad officials on sight.
In an editorial in Friday’s paper, Haaretz confirmed that Blau was summoned by Shin Bet in September 2009 and told to return documents that he used in preparing several articles.
Haaretz said it signed an agreement with the security agency under which Blau would hand over some documents but would not face further questioning, that his sources would be protected, and that the papers would not be used in any potential prosecution.
The newspaper also noted that the Shin Bet broke this agreement by detaining Kamm on the suspicion that she was Blau’s source, and by announcing in January 2009 that Blau was “wanted for questioning.”
In its editorial, Haaretz underlined the central moral irony of the case: the controversy over Blau’s reporting on so-called “sensitive” security matters hides the real issue: Israel’s military circumvented the High Court by authorizing targeted assassinations outside of the rules of engagement.
“In reality, however, the crime in question is far more severe – the one committed by the security apparatus (GOC Central Command in particular) in ignoring a High Court order and approving the targeted assassination of wanted men who could otherwise have been detained, in strikes that claimed the lives of innocent civilians,” Haaretz’s editorial board wrote.
Regardless, many unanswered questions remain. What information was contained in the other documents that Blau was forced to hand over? What other, even more unsettling secrets might still be submerged in the recesses of Israeli bureaucracy?
Beyond this, what motivated the Shin Bet to commit the blunder of seeking a court-ordered gag order that embarrassingly collapsed under inevitable media pressure?
Avner Cohen told me he thought one aspect of the motivation was related to “Israeli sensitivity about the Goldstone report,” referring to the UN fact-finding mission that accused Israel of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during its offensive on Gaza last year.
Cohen said the underlying context in the Kamm-Blau case is concern within the Israeli government about a “crisis of legitimacy” sparked by the allegations in the Goldstone report.
“There is a nervousness in Israel,” he said. “There is a sense that what has been tolerated by the world for decades, the occupation, the checkpoints and so on, that there is less and less tolerance for Israel as occupier.”