By Sean Nevins
WASHINGTON — Though it describes itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” the Israeli government and military regularly impose gag orders to stop domestic media from reporting on sensitive information, including the detention of Israeli citizens by Hamas in Gaza, meetings between the Israeli Defense Forces and al-Qaida fighters, and the arrest of Israeli whistleblowers.
“Israel calls itself a democracy, but it really isn’t,” Richard Silverstein, a Seattle-based journalist, told MintPress News.
In addition to being a frequent contributor to MintPress, Silverstein is also the author of Tikun Olam, a progressive Jewish blog that frequently breaks stories Israeli domestic media are prevented from covering due to gag orders.
And he isn’t the only one arguing that Israel, which controls the fate of 4.5 million Palestinians who cannot vote, isn’t a democracy: Last year, The Economist named Tunisia as the only democracy in the Middle East.
Silverstein says the Israeli government targets free speech and freedom of the press with censorship and gag orders, subverting the democratic drive.
Censorship is imposed by the military, which has a mandate to protect state security, Silverstein said, noting: “Security, as the government defines it, trumps everything.”
Censorship is likely to come into play when a journalist reports on sensitive topics — a new weapons technology like a drone, for example.
Gag orders are a broader form of censorship implemented in criminal and intelligence matters. For example, if a person is accused of rape, and the victim wants the story to be known, the lawyer representing the accused can go to a judge and argue that publication of the incident could harm his client. In this case, the judge might issue a gag order to stop any reporting on the case.
But gag orders are also used in intelligence matters, explained Silverstein, and anything that could cause political embarrassment or damage is broadly interpreted to be a threat to the government.
Political prisoners: Hashem al-Sayyed, Avera Mengistu, and Gilad Shalit
Earlier this month, Silverstein broke a story on MintPress about Hashem al-Sayyed, a 27-year-old Israeli who disappeared on April 20. This story is still being held under gag order in Israel.
Al-Sayyed is one of two Israelis currently being held in Gaza. The other is Avera Mengistu, an Israeli-Ethiopian, who Silverstein believes is being left to rot in a Gazan prison because he is black and because the Israeli political establishment fears a movement being formed around his release.
Writing for MintPress on June 2, Silverstein broke the story of Mengistu’s detention. The gag order preventing domestic Israeli media from discussing his case has since been lifted, possibly as a result of Silverstein’s reporting.
“You must become a guerrilla journalist,” Silverstein told MintPress, referencing his own reporting regarding the two imprisoned Israelis.
“The nation state [Israel] musters resources to restrain knowledge in what the public knows to craft a consensus message about what the state is and what citizens are, their relationship with the state, and what should happen, and what shouldn’t happen.”
Gag orders are imposed on stories of particular public interest in Israel because the political and military establishment worry they will disrupt the public consensus, Silverstein says. The political and economic elite do not want to be embarrassed or compromised. Thus, keeping a story secret rather than dealing with the fallout and social uneasiness that such a story might inspire among civil society is seen as a better alternative.
The consequences Israel’s political and military elite would like to avoid can be gleaned through an examination of the events surrounding Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier captured by Hamas and imprisoned in Gaza for over five years. He was released in October 2011 in exchange for the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
“If the Israeli public knows that there are two Israeli prisoners in Gaza, and knows the government has done nothing to release them, then people start scratching their heads and saying, ‘Look what we did for Gilad Shalit – why is it different?’” Silverstein said.
“They want to avoid at all costs a position where they’d be pressured into making a deal to get back Israelis, and they have to give up quote-unquote ‘terrorists,’” he added.
Not only did the Shalit debacle create a situation in which Israel had to give up more than it anticipated, a movement against Israel’s Likud party arose, threatening the stability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on power.
In 2010, while Shalit was in his fourth year of captivity, his family organized a 120-mile march from his hometown in Galilee to Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. Over 10,000 people joined the event.
Yet political backlash from prisoner exchanges does not come only from those who support the rescue of Israeli prisoners, according to Silverstein. It also comes from Israel’s extreme right, who organize against activities that would free Palestinian prisoners, who they see as having blood on their hands, he explained.
In the case of Shalit, hundreds of protesters against the prisoner exchange met with the thousands of supporters of Shalit’s family entering Jerusalem on the final day of the march, July 8, 2010. Arutz Sheva, a religious Zionist Israeli network, reported:
“The thousands who marched into Jerusalem Thursday on behalf of the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit were met by hundreds whose theme was ‘Gilad – not at any price’. The marchers were given red pieces of thread. Organizers said, ‘The red thread symbolizes the blood that will be spilled if the state of Israel decides to release terrorists for Shalit.’”
The current Israeli government worries that a similar situation could erupt if the public becomes more informed about Mengistu and al-Sayyed, argues Silverstein, and so only recently released the gag order on the former prisoner while one remains in place for the latter.
Paul Scham, executive director of the Institute for Israeli Studies at the University of Maryland, disagrees. He says there are a number of reasonable explanations for the gag orders imposed on stories about al-Sayyed and Mengistu.
“One reason could be that the government, not knowing anything about it, wants to cut down on the speculation about their circumstances,” Scham told MintPress. “Another reason could be that negotiations could be ongoing, and we [the government] don’t want them to be disturbed by too much publicity about it.”
Whistleblower: Anat Kamm
Silverstein arose to prominence by reporting information Israeli press is unable to. In March 2010, he broke the story about Anat Kamm, an Israeli journalist convicted of espionage and put under house arrest for leaking thousands of classified IDF documents.
One of those documents made it into the hands of a Haaretz reporter, who wrote a 2008 report exposing the IDF’s cover-up of the deaths of three Palestinian militants. The IDF had said the militants were killed in a firefight, whereas the document showed they were assassinated by a senior IDF commander in violation of a 2006 Israeli Supreme Court ruling.
This is an example of the kind of story military leaders want to keep suppressed in order to protect their reputation and careers, Silverstein says.
Had Silverstein not teamed up with Judith Miller, who reported on Kamm’s status for The Daily Beast, the gag order may not have been lifted, he says.
The IDF and al-Qaida
Another issue Silverstein is known for reporting is the identity of Sedki al-Maket, an Israeli Druze man, who had been detained by Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security intelligence, in February.
Al-Maket, a 48-year-old resident of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, who supports the Bashar Assad government in Syria, made video reports documenting activity between IDF soldiers and the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.
In one video report al-Maket said:
“Throughout all of last week we saw with our own eyes the depth of this involvement and cooperation how the terrorists [al-Nusra] entered the [Quneitra] Crossing then moved from the areas that were liberated and under Syrian control to the occupied areas where the UN and the Israeli Occupation forces are present. The terrorists would move with complete freedom between these two points, and when they would be under shelling and attacks by the Syrian Arab Army, they would not only take cover in the eastern part of the crossing but also in the western part where UN and Israeli forces are.”
The video in which he makes these claims, however, does not show evidence of such activity.
Watch Syrian Fighters Rescued by the IDF:When some of al-Maket’s material ended up on Syrian media, Silverstein says the IDF “had enough.” Al-Maket was arrested and his case was put under gag order.
Silverstein deduced that Israel’s “free press” is “only free if you don’t say something that offends the government.”
Paul Scham, of the University of Maryland, countered that Israel has “a very free press.” And while they may be “draconian,” gag orders cannot be enforced because stories are eventually released by people like Silverstein and others, he added.
Yet Scham also noted: “I think the government is cracking down in various ways on civil liberties, this new government especially, but it’s hard for them to do it. This isn’t like China or Russia, and I don’t think it’ll get there. Though the pressure on civil liberties is worrisome.”