Last week I spoke at Sydney’s Politics in the Pub about the recent Gaza conflict and implications for global attitudes towards Israel. Thanks to Cathy Vogan for filming the event:
In 2013, I released with my co-editor Ahmed Moor the edited collection, After Zionism. It featured many prominent views on the viability and necessity of a one-state solution in Israel and Palestine.
Now a new study of Palestinians, via Haaretz, reveals the growing belief amongst Palestinians in Palestine that a state treating all its citizens with equal respect under the law is desirable. Sadly, there’s no evidence that the majority of Israelis feel the same way:
By more than a 2-1 margin, Palestinians oppose the two-state solution, favoring instead the goal of a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea,” according to a recent poll by the centrist Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
At the same time, though, the poll found that a large majority of Palestinians favored the tactic of “popular resistance” – such as demonstrations and strikes – over violence to achieve their goals, Globes reported Sunday.
Interestingly, Gazans were more moderate when it came to tactics, but more hardline about the goal.
The survey also found that West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas was a much more popular leader than Gazan leader Ismail Haniyeh – both in the West Bank (28.1 percent to 6.9 percent) and in the Gaza Strip (32.4 percent to 11.7 percent).
The poll, which questioned a relatively large sample of 1,200 respondents, was taken June 15-17 – following the abductions of three Israeli teenagers, the formation of the Fatah-Hamas unity government, and the collapse of the Kerry peace talks. However, it was conducted just before West Bank protests arose against Abbas for his cooperation with Israel’s search for the kidnapped boys and crackdown on Hamas.
Asked what political goal they favored over the next five years, 60.3 percent replied “action to return historic Palestine, from the river to the sea, to our hands,” while 27.3 percent answered “end[ing] the occupation of the West Bank in order to reach a two-state solution.”
Another 10.1 percent said the goal should be a “one-state solution, for the entire region, from the river to the sea, in which Jews and Arabs enjoy equal rights.”
If a Palestinian leadership were to reach agreement with Israel on a two-state deal, 64 percent said Palestinians should still continue to press on for a Palestinian state encompassing the territories and Israel, while 31.6 percent said they would accept a two-state solution.
On the question of tactics, again, the trend was toward moderation, with 70 percent of Gazans and 56 percent of West Bankers saying Hamas should observe a cease-fire with Israel. Asked if Hamas should go along with Abbas’ demand that the unity government publicly renounce violence, 57 percent of Gazans agreed, while West Bankers were split evenly.
Popular resistance won the support of 73 percent Palestinians in Gaza and 62 percent of those in the West Bank.
Rap News have been producing sensational political videos for years. Their latest, on Israel/Palestine, is a cracker:
My weekly Guardian column is published below:
The sight of Australian citizens associated with the WikiLeaks party sitting and chatting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad during their recent “solidarity mission”, along with their comments about the regime, is a damning indictment on a party that ran a dismal election campaign in 2013 and has never bothered to explain its subsequent collapse.
For WikiLeaks supporters such as myself (I have been backing the group since 2006), this latest PR exercise is nothing more than an act of stunning political bastardry. It does nothing to push for true peace in Syria, and essentially amounts to a propaganda coup for a brutal dictatorship. It’s also a slap in the face to the WikiLeaks backers who are still expecting answers about why the party imploded without public review or reflection.
The problem isn’t meeting Assad himself. He’s the (unelected) leader of Syria and an essential part of any resolution of the conflict, still supported by many Syrians who fear Islamic fundamentalism. Saudi Arabian-backed extremism across the Middle East, implicitly supported by the Western powers now focused on Assad’s butchery, is spreading sectarian carnage by pitting Sunni against Shia, leading to the death of thousands. Syrian civilians are suffering the full brunt of this madness. Saudi funding for Syrian “rebels” – in essence backing Al-Qaida terrorism – is repeating the playbook used against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, enriching militants in a battle that will inevitably come back to bite the Saudis and their Western allies.
A third way is, for the time being, out of sight. And in this context, it’s hard to see how the WikiLeaks party can judiciously show solidarity to Syria’s besieged people.
When the WikiLeaks party delegation returned to Australia, various members expressed their views about the trip. Activist Jamal Daoud, who wrote in 2012 that he supported Assad, blogged that he had heard while in Syria that “the alternative to the regime is total chaos.” Although acknowledging that meetings were held with both regime and rebel representatives, Daoud clearly believes that the regime remaining in place is the ideal outcome.
John Shipton, chief executive of the party and the father of Julian Assange, spoke to ABC Radio in Melbourne to defend the mission. He mouthed the talking points of the regime itself – that they’re fighting terrorism in cities and towns across the country – and claimed that the WikiLeaks party is planning to set up an office in Damascus in 2014. “We’ll continue to expose the truth to the Australian people and to our international audience”, he said. Shipton added that as the delegation walked around Damascus, they found “a lot of support for the government” – which is undoubtedly true, but likely to be similar to journalists being taken around by minders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and finding nearly universal backing for the dictator.
Sydney University academic Tim Anderson – who wrote in 2007 that Cuba is a democracy and the US is not, ignoring the lack of an open press and the Castro brothers’ authoritarian ruling in the process – also defended his participation in the mission after The Australian newspaper attacked him. He went on to state: “forget the absurd myth of a single man [Assad] ‘killing his own people’. That line is designed to pull the wool over our eyes. This is a ‘regime change’ exercise that went wrong, because Syria resisted.”
It is deeply problematic that Anderson and other side players downplay or brush aside the gross abuses committed by the regime, which have occurred both during the war and during Bashar and his father Hafez’s decades-long rule.
Considering how the mainstream media will spin such a trip must be a major consideration when talking about “truth” in a modern, complex war. How support for a peaceful resolution practically occurs when facts on the ground are notoriously difficult to assess should be the heart of the matter. Instead, it appears that the WikiLeaks party was caught up in an inevitable maelstrom of their own naive making. If you visit Syria and are pictured meeting Assad, you should make damn sure you’re on the front foot to rebut the likely criticisms and provide a cogent and detailed rebuttal to what you saw, and why a few WikiLeaks party members from Australia can make any difference to the war. You should also know that any “solidarity mission” to Syria will be used by either side as a way to bolster their claims and defend their own crimes, of which there have been plenty by all sides.
Moral and political clarity is vital – which is why, for example, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was rightly condemned in my view after he voiced support for Iran and Syria in the process of opposing “US imperialism“, and refused to oppose human rights abuses in both nations. Equally, being a supporter of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination shouldn’t automatically lead to backing Fatah or Hamas, two groups with a documented record of abusing their own citizens.
The situation in Syria is dire, with dirty hands on all sides. As it stands, the solution is not with the Baath party, nor the Al-Qaida-aligned rebels – but this is a decision for the Syrian people to decide. Encouraging a peaceful settlement and negotiations must be the goal. The WikiLeaks organisation remains an essential tool in holding governments to account, but its Australian-based party’s visit to Syria exposes the dangers of believing that the “enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is not.
I was recently interviewed by Lily Jovic for Vice magazine:
Last month, Israel struck a 1.2 million dollar deal with the parents of Melbourne-born Mossad agent Ben Zygier, as compensation for his death in prison 3 years ago. The payout seemingly marks the end of the Prisoner X case, a case which despite having serious national security implications, did little to capture the attention of Australia’s government or the people it protects.
We had a chat with Antony Loewenstein, author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, to help us understand why an Australian man turned Israeli spy, jailed without trial and eventually found hanging in a cell while under 24-hour watch, didn’t become the news story of the year.
VICE: Hi Antony. What did you think of the payout?
Anthony Loewenstein: The payout is unsurprising; it’s something governments do pretty commonly as a way to bring silence to the family, who in this case are principally based in Melbourne. They’ve pretty much said nothing the whole time, and generally speaking, members of the Zionist community/lobby have remained silent the whole time too. Countless journalists have tried to speak to them and gotten nowhere. Israel investigated itself and they essentially found that they have no responsibility over what happened, but here’s a million dollars to shut up; it’s a payoff to buy silence.
That’s probably what is most peculiar about this case, the absence of any public discourse, particularly from the Jewish community in Melbourne.
What needs to be understood here is that the Zionist lobby works within the shadows. So when a story like this happens, which is rare, about something that has the potential to embarrass them and Israel, their response is either to say nothing or to deny there is a problem in the first place. It’s a “nothing to see here, move it along” situation, and a damage control approach that is very much supported by both sides of Australian politics. In terms of Zygier, the response of most people in power is: bury it, don’t respond, don’t give it oxygen and hopefully it will go away. Israel’s payment to Zygier’s parents is yet another attempt to make that happen.
What are some questions which, in your mind, the Australian government could press Israel with? If not to bring closure to the family then to at least address security concerns.
How many Australian Jews are going to Israel, taking citizenship and working for the Mossad? What are they doing with the Mossad? The enemies that Mossad sees are the enemies Australia sees, because Australia is a client state of America and Israel. That’s how it works, that’s what real politics is about. How does the Australian government feel about Israeli Australian citizens who undertake potentially illegal behaviour? That’s an important question, the Australian government had no interest in finding that out, they didn’t really care and evidently don’t care because they turn a blind eye and support it.
I think we really have to separate between public statements and private realities. The assassination of a Hamas weapons dealer in 2010 obviously got exposure because the Israelis, in a remarkably stupid manner, were caught on CCTV cameras. The Australian government was publicly pissed off with the fact that Australian passports were used, but I understand privately that this sort of thing happens all the time.
So, Australia isn’t privately concerned with what happened to Zygier or Israel’s austere censorship measures?
Well there’s been a remarkable lack of curiosity, in fact a ridiculous lack of curiosity. The report that the Australian government released after the Zygier incident, was complete bullshit, whitewash. Basically saying yes there were some issues with overall security but Israel behaved fine.
Publicly when something of that nature happens, they have to say something. The idea that Australian passports are being forged for the use of assassination and covert operations is a pretty bad look. Privately, that’s not seen as a major problem and I understand the relationship between both countries is largely unaffected by it all.
In the case of Zygier, the relationship between the two governments has certainly worked more in Israel’s favour. In your opinion, is it more mutual than it appears?
Ultimately the relationship with Israel is fundamentally based on a question of intelligence sharing over issues like Iran and Hezbollah. Bob Carr’s comments in past six months expressing that all the Israeli colonies in the West Bank were illegal, has caused apoplexy. The Jewish community was incredibly pissed off with that, and the result was that they would much rather have had an Abbott government, and here we are. Not to say that was because of them of course, but they are much happier with that kind of governance.
One that props up the image of Israel?
Precisely. The Zygier case feeds into that image paranoia the Jewish establishment has. It looks as if Israel essentially abused or assaulted Zygier in some way, and when Israel is already perceived to be under attack for its countless, daily human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, this is merely one more stake in the heart. If there’s a sense somehow that there beloved Israel could end up killing one of us, either through suicide or murder, that’s not a good look. It’s led to the shift of Israel’s image from this wonderfully social, left wing country to an occupier and brute.
There’s a real sense that the Zygier case, for a lot of people, was very clarifying and actually confirmed the belief that Israel is a rogue state that treats its own citizens badly. Zygier was an agent, yes, but with dual citizenship.
That’s all we really know about Zygier, could more information ever emerge?
Obviously a lot has emerged this year, and he was probably involved in some kind of covert action in relation to Hezbollah, and potentially monitoring in Europe what Iran was doing in relation to its nuclear program. It appears that he may well have committed suicide, and it’s far from impossible that he did so, we just don’t know. That information may come out at some point, but not for a long time.
Any information you could divulge from your own research that tells us of Zygier’s involvement in Mossad and his apparent suicide?
In terms of the actual details of what he was doing and how he died, I don’t know. That is far too difficult to discover from here. What I have investigated is the constipation of the Zionist establishment towards this kind of case. They’re embarrassed that it will be seen that an Australian citizen has essentially become a traitor to his own country and undertaken activities by a foreign country, which in Australian law could well be illegal, that is the fundamental point.
While Israel continues daily to brutalise Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Stephen Hawking’s decision to back BDS causes waves around the world, it’s comical to read Rupert Murdoch’s Australian desperately hoping that the Zionist state would just get some love. After praising Israel for singing lullabies to Palestinians recently, today’s editorial merely deepens the level of delusion. Long may it continue:
An outbreak of common sense at the University of Sydney is welcome. Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has rejected support from the student council (and one of his own academics) for the anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaign.
“I do not consider it appropriate for the university to boycott academic institutions in a country with which Australia has diplomatic relations,” said Dr Spence. As it should, one of our premier seats of learning is standing up for freedom of expression, democracy and liberal intellectual engagement. The BDS push came from Associate Professor Jake Lynch – a paradoxical show of intolerance given he heads the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.
Student activists and Greens MPs who have given succour to the often anti-Semitic BDS campaign should pause to think. Incongruously, these pro-Arab demonstrators focus on one of the few Middle Eastern countries where Arabs have a free vote and hold seats in a democratic parliament. We could take their commitment to human rights more seriously if occasionally they protested against atrocities inflicted upon Arabs by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or blood-letting between Hamas and Hezbollah, or, in the past, the cruelty of Saddam Hussein. But on Arab aggression the protesters see, hear and speak no evil.
Fair journalism is hard, isn’t it? Getting all the facts, putting them into sentences and writing them down accurately. I’m tired just thinking about it.
The following article appears in today’s Murdoch’s Australian. The selectivity of the piece is startling but unsurprising:
The NSW Greens have outraged Jewish leaders by organising a fundraiser cruise to support a plan for Palestinians to build an “ark” in Gaza and try to ruin the Israeli naval blockade of the territory.
Greens MP David Shoebridge used his office and website to promote a “sail in solidarity” voyage on Sydney Harbour last night to raise money for the “Gaza’s Ark” campaign.
“The economic situation in Gaza is desperate, with most of its land trade shut down by Israeli border guards, its airport destroyed by Israeli bombardments . . . and its fishing fleet coming under Israeli fire if it moves beyond six nautical miles from the coast,” Mr Shoebridge’s website says.
“Gaza’s Ark will challenge the blockade by rebuilding a boat in Gaza using Palestinian shipbuilders, load the vessel with Palestinian goods and products and sail to international waters with both Palestinians and internationals on board.
“The goal is to challenge the ongoing, illegal Israeli blockade and focus worldwide attention on Gaza and the complicity of the governments that support it or look the other way.”
The description of the project on Mr Shoebridge’s website is mild compared with the international Gaza’s Ark website, which focuses on alleged Israeli atrocities and what is claimed to be a policy of “apartheid” towards Palestinians, as well as promoting the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against the Jewish state.
Mr Shoebridge said the Gaza’s Ark project was not a BDS campaign, though he said BDS was “one of the legitimate ways” to fight against what he said was Israeli oppression.
Prominent NSW Greens who joined Mr Shoebridge on last night’s fundraiser included senator Lee Rhiannon, who has supported BDS, his fellow state upper house member John Kaye, and the preselected candidate for a Greens state upper house seat, Mehreen Faruqi.
About 50 other Palestinian supporters disembarked after a three-hour cruise on Sydney harbour last night. “It’s an excellent fundraiser and we support it as Parliamentarians for Palestine,” Senator Rhiannon said.
Mr Shoebridge has had the occasional run-in with the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, including claiming that a parliamentary visit by some state MPs other than Greens to Israel was a one-sided Israeli PR tour supported by the board.
The board’s chief executive, Vic Alhadeff, said: “The reality which Mr Shoebridge and his colleagues mischievously ignore is that all people of goodwill support the citizens of Gaza in their aspirations for a better life.
“The problem is that they suffer under the brutal Hamas regime which wages war on Israel.”
Some facts that may get in the way of a Murdoch hatchet job. Labor state and federal politicians had purchased tickets to support the event, including Laurie Ferguson, Shaoquett Moslemane and Amanda Fazio (they didn’t attend in the end, though). Union figures attending included Greg Shaw (PSA), Caroline Staples (PSA), Rita Malia (CFMEU), Ivan Simic (CFMEU), plus a number of representatives from the PGFTU and Young Labor.
Besides, since when are “Jewish leaders” monolithic and solely represented by the pro-settler and racist Zionist lobby?
Finally, opposing Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza, in a peaceful way, is wholly vital and legitimate in a democracy, unless of course you believe, as does the Israeli spokespeople who claim to be “journalists” at the Murdoch rag, that we must blindly support Israeli government policy.
I’ve attended many fund-raisers for Gaza Ark and wish I had been there last night.
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a journalist and writer from the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. Here she reports for Al-Monitor on the Islamist movements inside the occupied territory:
I managed to reach the house of one of the jihadist Salafist leaders in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas-led Gaza government had imposed limitations on most jihadist Salafist leaders following the Ibn Taymiya Mosque incidents in Rafah at the end of 2009, when its security forces killed 28 jihadists after their leader, Abdel Latif Moussa, declared the Islamic caliphate. Salafist jihadism in the Gaza Strip is an international movement that promotes armed jihad against the ruling Arab and foreign governments.
The only way to reach the house of the leader, who was forbidden from talking to the press, was by being disguised as a devout woman. Then I revealed my identity as a journalist, after which the Salafist leader’s family kicked me out. However, he explained why the members of the movement had moved to Syria to fight, saying, “They moved to Syria because the jihad door in the Gaza Strip was closed, and the situation was not taken into consideration, contrary to Syria, where it is open to jihad and to fighting the enemy.” He refused to define what he means by enemy, and he noted that after he was locked up more than once in the aftermath of Ibn Taymiya Mosque incident, he sought to live a simple life and to keep his jihad mission and vocation as a member of the Salafist jihad between God and himself.
When asked if he is considering going to Syria himself, should he get the chance, he replied, “I prefer to keep this to myself.” Regarding the movement’s connection with al-Qaeda, the leader said that both organizations share the same approach, which calls for unity and jihad in the name of God, adding that only their names differ. Moreover, he said what differentiates them from other Salafism movements is that they abide by the religion as a whole, following the ideology of Sheikh Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Despite his reluctance to talk or to disclose the number of militants from Gaza in Syria, he ultimately provided some information about their presence and efforts against the regime in Syria, independent of the Free Syrian Army. The militants joined Jabhat al-Nusra, which was formed in 2011 in Syria and was classified by the US as a terrorist organization.
Australian journalist Paul McGeough travels to Doha, Qatar for Fairfax Media to interview the Hamas head. What follows is a fascinating discussion about the future of Palestine. Read the whole thing. What remains deeply concerning is the apparent desire of Hamas to embrace the failed two-state equation that will never happen in reality with any justice:
The Hamas leader doesn’t like the term, but in coming to that edge, Mishal has been burning bridges. Incredibly, Hamas has quit Damascus. The Syrian capital became the movement’s headquarters in exile after Jordan’s naive new king, Abdullah II, cast out the Hamas gang in 1999. As an Islamist organisation rooted in the then sinister-sounding Muslim Brotherhood, the movement was alert to the possibility that Damascus could turn on it – the Assad regime had done so brutally in 1982, virtually flattening the city of Hama to choke a brotherhood uprising.
But Hamas had nowhere else to go. And locked in its own conflict with Israel, the ruling Assad family saw strategic good sense in giving shelter to what were called the ”rejectionist” Palestinian factions – those who refused to buy in to the Washington-backed peace process.
This Assad-Hamas relationship was a pact between a minority, Shiite-aligned dictatorship and a Sunni resistance movement. It endured despite the re-emergence of the Sunni-Shiite schism in the Muslim world, but it could not survive the Arab Spring, which has embroiled Syria in sectarian chaos, with an estimated 70,000 civilians dying.
As the Hamas leader tells it, even before the first protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, he had urged the mercurial Bashar al-Assad to opt for reforms that might head off any revolt by his own people. ”I alerted him to the likelihood of the Arab Spring coming to Syria,” Mishal says, adding by way of a rebuke to the translator: ”I did not warn him.”
Hamas hung in for another 10 months. But that encounter in which Mishal urged Assad to act pre-emptively, was their last. Over the years, they had met regularly, enjoying each other’s company. ”There were no more meetings,” says Mishal. ”It was clear that we differed in our opinions on what would happen. We wished they would meet the aspirations of their people – regrettably, the Syrian leadership took the other option.
”That made it impossible for us to maintain a presence there – with such brutality and bloodshed. And once we felt our presence was being sought after as a justification for what was happening, we had to leave. [Syrian officials] were demanding that we openly support their policy – they wanted to know why we did not [publicly] express solidarity. We were left with no choice.”
This was bigger than merely offending an embattled dictator, because other powerful parties would take deep offence at Hamas abandoning Assad. Guardedly, Mishal lifts the veil, ever so slightly: ”Our assessment of Syria was a source of disagreement with a number of people.”
Hamas’ abandonment of Syria ”soured” the movement’s relations with Tehran, he confirms. There were ”areas of agreement and disagreement” with Moscow and ”it had an impact on our relations with [the Lebanese Shiite militia] Hezbollah, because our stand on Syria was different to theirs”.
After reports that Tehran had punished Hamas by chopping a funding deal worth an estimated $25 million a month, a movement spokesman in Gaza said Hamas would not do the bidding of the Iranians in any military conflict between Iran and Israel: ”If there’s a war between two powers, Hamas will not be part of such a war.”
During more than six hours of interviews with Fairfax Media in Doha, Mishal sets out the departure from Syria only in terms of needing to be on the right side of history: ”We had to stand with the people, to support their calls for freedom and economic reform … we would never support bloodshed and brutality when the people rise peacefully to demand change.”
Mishal has announced he is quitting as supreme leader of Hamas – his replacement could be confirmed by a vote of the Hamas shura, or top council, any day now. But Fairfax Media was assured, too, that Mishal aspires to a bigger brief, as leader for all Palestinians.
By coincidence, the 74-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he will not seek re-election as head of the Palestinian Authority – although it’s not clear if he also intends to relinquish his posts as head of Fatah and of the PLO. There is speculation – read that as hope – in some Palestinian circles and in Israel and Washington that Abbas, jaded as he is, might not follow through on quitting the PA.
Unlike Mishal, Abbas is seen as a moderate, a staunch advocate of non-violent negotiation with Israel who only recently has revealed himself capable of independent or determined action – such as his bid for Palestinian membership of the UN and his faction’s in-principle agreement to join Hamas in a new unity government.
Historically, Hamas has spurned the PLO because of the latter’s renunciation of armed struggle and its recognition of the state of Israel. Hamas and Fatah fought a bloody civil war in 2007 – when a Fatah force failed dismally in a bid to dislodge Hamas from the Gaza Strip, despite arms, funding and co-operation from the US and Israel. Under Israeli occupation, in the case of Fatah in the West Bank, and locked in by Israeli forces, in the case of Hamas in Gaza, the factions have been at daggers-drawn since. But in renewed unity talks sponsored by the new Cairo regime, they have agreed in principle that Hamas will join the PLO.
PLO membership for Hamas would serve as a launch pad for Mishal to seek to head the PLO. Given the enmity between the factions, it comes as no surprise that the latest round of unity negotiations, in Cairo in mid-February, is deadlocked on the issue of election rules that would determine the degree of difficulty for Mishal to take leadership of the PLO.
There’s a question here, too: if Hamas folds itself into the PLO and Mishal makes a bid for the top seat, how does the movement stick to its refusal to abide by previous deals between the PLO and the international community? Some Arab-language media reports speculate that Qatar and others have hit on installing Mishal as leader of the PLO precisely because such an appointment would back him in behind those deals.
I was interviewed on Democracy Now! TV last night about the Prisoner X case, Mossad and Israeli/Australian relations:
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show looking at a scandal gripping Israel and Australia centered on a man once known simply as “Prisoner X,” who was found dead in a maximum security prison in Israel in 2010. Israeli officials said he committed suicide. A gag order was placed on the Israeli media, barring reporters from revealing any information about the prisoner. His identity remained unknown until last week, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran an exposé about the case on their program Foreign Correspondent. The episode began like this.
TREVOR BORMANN: It was a peephole look into a top-secret world, but just enough to grip a nation’s attention and pose disturbing questions. What was the identity of a mysterious prisoner in one of Israel’s toughest jails? And why the secrecy behind his extraordinary incarceration?
UNIDENTIFIED: We shouldn’t be talking about this on the phone.
TREVOR BORMANN: When the media began to ask questions, the state mobilized to push through one of the harshest and most punitive suppression orders conceivable. The only piece of information to emerge since is that this man, housed in a purpose-built, high-tech, suicide-proof prison within a prison, somehow managed to kill himself. There are many inside and outside Israel who remain deeply concerned about the case of Prisoner X.
BILL VAN ESVELD: The old saying, sunlight is the best disinfectant. If there’s no sunlight, we don’t know what happened, and very dirty things could have gone on.
TREVOR BORMANN: Tonight, a special Foreign Correspondent investigation to unmask Prisoner X. It’s a story that cannot be told here in Israel, because the government has threatened to jail anyone who writes about it, anyone who talks about it. The courts have effectively shut down any discussion of this case, because, they argue, this is a case of national security. For the first time, we reveal compelling evidence that Israel’s infamous Prisoner X was a man from suburban Melbourne.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation went on to identify Prisoner X as Ben Zygier, an Australian-Israeli citizen who was allegedly a member of Mossad. While Israel has now lifted the gag order, much still remains unknown about the case. There were reports that Zygier was one of three Australians who changed their names several times and took out new Australian passports for travel in the Middle East and Europe for their work with Mossad. A Kuwaiti newspaper linked Zygier to the assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was drugged and suffocated in his hotel room in Dubai months before Prisoner X was arrested.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his first public comments about Prisoner X.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] We are not like other countries. We are an exemplary democracy and regard the rights of defendants and individual rights no less than any other country. We are also more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we have to ensure the proper operation of our security branches. Therefore, I ask everyone to let the security services continue working quietly, so that we can continue to live in safety and tranquility in the state of Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Dan Yakir is chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. His organization has led the effort in Israel to uncover information about Prisoner X. The Israeli Supreme Court has just today lifted a gag order on the group’s role in the case.
And we’re joined by Antony Loewenstein, who is joining us from Sydney, Australia, via Democracy Now! videostream, an independent journalist and author, co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices.
Antony, let’s begin with you, if you could start off by just laying out what this case is all about, who this man was.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: In short, this gentleman’s identity was not known, as you said, until last week. We knew a little bit about the case a few years ago when the Israeli press reported that a gentleman had committed suicide in Israeli prison. We knew nothing else. Fast-forward to last week, and the Foreign Correspondent program on local television broke the story, and it’s gone global since.
What essentially has come out in the last week has been a litany of information which really goes to the heart, I think, of what regularly happens between Australia and Israel. On the one hand, what happened to this gentleman, Ben Zygier, is unique. Not that many Israeli Australians die in Israeli prisons, either murdered or suicide. That’s true. But on the other hand, the facilitation by the Australian Jewish establishment and the Australian intelligence services of young Jews to Israel, to live there, to obviously serve in the IDF, and sometimes work for Mossad, is not that unusual. It doesn’t get talked about, the press doesn’t really examine it very often, but it’s not that unusual. And it goes to the heart, in some ways, of what the Jewish Zionist lobby here is about in Australia and indeed in many Western countries, including in your country, the U.S., which is to facilitate and blindly support Israeli security [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: Antony, we’re going to—we’re going to cut off you for one minute, because Dan Yakir has just joined us. And this—because this Israeli Supreme Court decision has just come down, we don’t want to lose him, as he goes off to other interviews. Dan Yakir is the chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Dan, can you speak to us about what the Supreme Court has just decided and what information you are going to be releasing now?
DAN YAKIR: It’s only in regard to the proceedings we initiated two years ago. ACRI heard for the first time about Prisoner X in June 2010, six months before his death. And we addressed the attorney general, raising our concern about the prisoner being totally isolated and under complete secrecy. A few days after we heard about his death in mid-December, we filed a motion with the district court to lift the gag order, or at least limit its sweeping scope, to allow publication of some details about the charges brought against him, and especially the concern about how he was found dead in the most protected cell of the prison services. After the district court dismissed our motion, we filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court heard the appeal in February two years ago. But the judges also were—the judges—also the judges on the Supreme Court heard the security services for an hour and a half ex parte. And after that, they told us they were convinced that the whole—that the complete secrecy is justified.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan, if you could step back for a minute and go back and tell us how you learned about this case. You knew about this man, Ben Zygier, in jail before he died, before he, quote, “committed suicide.” Talk about how you knew about it, what alarms you started to raise, and then what happened after you learned he had, quote, “committed suicide.”
DAN YAKIR: In May 2010, there was a short-lived report on an Israeli news site, Ynet, regarding a Prisoner X held in Ayalon Prison in complete isolation, and even the prison guards don’t know his identity and are prohibited from talking to him. After a few hours, this report vanished, and it raised our concerns regarding the rights of the prisoner and the conditions that he is held, but also the complete secrecy around the affair. And we tried to gather some details about it but couldn’t. And that’s why we addressed the attorney general for the first time. Six months later, we got information from a—from a source connected to the media about him being found dead in his cell, and then we filed the motion with the courts.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dan Yakir, can you talk about what precedent there is, if any, for a gag order that was, we are to understand, exceptionally broad? Has there been a precedent for this before in Israel with any prisoner?
DAN YAKIR: There were a few cases in the last couple of years. In all those cases, ACRI either filed motions with the court or approached the attorney general, but they were much—for a much limited period of time, in the case of Anat Kamm, a soldier in the IDF who was charged and convicted of copying hundreds of classified documents, and other cases. In the past, there were a few exceptional cases where prisoners were held under false identity for years. And the most notable one is Dr. Marcus Klingberg, a biologist who was convicted of espionage on behalf of the U.S.S.R., and he was held during most of his years in prison under false identity, and his trial was under complete secrecy.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan, we want to come back to you. We want to play a brief clip of the ABC—that’s Australian Broadcasting Corporation—TV documentary that exposed the identity of Prisoner X. In this, a former Australian intelligence agent, Warren Reed, expresses skepticism about claims that Ben Zygier committed suicide.
WARREN REED: There are lots of ways nowadays where you can pick up the extent to which the person in the cell is sweating, their heartbeat, all sorts of things. I mean, modern technology applied in a cell like that almost totally precludes any possibility of someone like him, sanitized in that way, could hang themselves. I find it almost impossible to believe.
AMY GOODMAN: Warren Reed also indicated the nature of his imprisonment suggested that the case was very sensitive.
WARREN REED: The degree of sanitization of this gentleman, where he was put in Unit 15 in that prison, which was constructed only as one cell, and hermetically sealing him away, in all human terms, even within the prison, from his society, his family, that suggests that it has to be something very, very touchy and very immediate. Otherwise, you wouldn’t go to those lengths.
AMY GOODMAN: That is footage courtesy of ABC TV, Australia’s Foreign Correspondent program. If you could comment on this, Dan Yakir, and also on the allegations that this man, that Ben Zygier, was involved with the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas official who was killed in Dubai in a hotel room that we all came to see on closed-circuit television?
DAN YAKIR: I have no information in regard of the charges that were brought against him.
AMY GOODMAN: Repeat that.
DAN YAKIR: I have no information in regard to the charges brought against him.
AMY GOODMAN: But in terms of what Warren Reed was saying, the Australian agent, to do with suicide?
DAN YAKIR: Yesterday, the Magistrates Court allowed to publish a part of the decision of the judge that investigated the circumstances of his death. And according to the finding of the judge, it was a suicide, because according to the tapes, the radio, direct cameras, no one entered the cell. And I accept that, though a little bit—another important finding of the investigative judge was that—that prison guards are—should be charged negligently causing his death, and we’re awaiting the decision of the attorney, the state attorney, in regard of charges that will be brought against senior officials of the prison services.
AMY GOODMAN: In a moment we’re going to go back to Antony Loewenstein, who’s in Australia, but the response, Dan Yakir, in Israel? How much support are you getting for exposing what has taken place, what you’re beginning to understand and what you’re revealing?
DAN YAKIR: I hope that this whole affair will be a watershed. I think most of the public, unfortunately, rely on the security services and saying that whatever they deem to be secret is—should be a secret. But I think the tragic result of this whole affair, I hope, will serve as a watershed of raising a positive suspicion against the security services, who have had a—either a conscious or unconscious interest to cover up mishappenings during their operation.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does this compare to treatment of Palestinian prisoners?
DAN YAKIR: Usually, Palestinian prisoners are not held under secret conditions or in isolation, but there was also the case of the engineer, Abu Sisi, from Gaza, who allegedly was kidnapped by the Mossad from a train in Kiev, and charges were brought against him of being involved in the rocket firing on Israel. And at first, the mere fact that he was arrested was under a gag order. After we filed a motion, this was lifted, but his whole trial was also conducted behind closed doors.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, as we turn back to Antony Loewenstein, who is the independent journalist and author following the Prisoner X story. The response in Australia, Antony, as you listen to Dan Yakir speaking from Israel?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Look, the response by the establishment Jewish community has essentially been virtual silence. When the story broke last week, they have—virtually every Jewish lobby group has said nothing, literally nothing, until yesterday. There was a statement released by the leading Jewish organization in Australia which had a very kind of benign statement saying that we are encouraged by the fact that Israel and Australia will undergo a investigation, which I suspect will be a bit of a whitewash.
The Australian government is embarrassed, because the details of this case remain murky. One of the things that hasn’t been mentioned is that during the Dubai hit on the Hamas operative in 2010, the Australian passports were used and forged for that mission, amongst other countries, as well. And the Australian government publicly at the time was pretty upset about this, as other governments were, as well. But in private, I’ve heard from a variety of sources, that in fact the reality was that this sort of thing is known to happen. Many governments do it, including our own government, my government, the Australian government.
So, officially, the Australian and the Israelis would like this issue to disappear. And one of the things that’s become very clear in Australia in the last week—and indeed this is reflected, I think, in the fact that the Australian Jewish establishment sees its role as endorsing and enforcing what Israel does, whether it’s backing the occupation or supporting a strike on Iran—all those things fit into this narrative, which is young Jews who go to young Jewish schools in Australia—Australia is one of the most pro-Israel countries in the world, along with South Africa and, of course, obviously, the U.S.—that it’s not that surprising this sort of thing has happened. The details are unique, but the facilitation of a gentleman like Ben Zygier to undergo these kind of actions by Mossad is not that unusual. It just doesn’t usually get talked about in the press.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what has been the significance of this case, you think, for Australia, as this news has come out?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, I think one thing that it’s done—and this has been discussed in the wider press, in the wider media and indeed in many public forums in the last week—has been a lot of Australians are uncomfortable with the fact that an Australian citizen can go to Israel, become an Israeli citizen, join the IDF, undergo some kind of training and potentially work for Mossad and commit acts which, and in any definition, are breaches of international law, whether it’s the assassination of Hamas leaders in Dubai or involved in other strikes against Iranian nuclear scientists. So, many people feel uncomfortable about this.
And one of the things that we do see in Australia, and we see it in the U.S. and many countries, is when Israel, for example, starts a war, whether it’s against Lebanon or Gaza or elsewhere, you see a number of Australian Jewish dual nationals go to Israel to fight in the IDF with those—with the Israeli military. And that sort of thing, I think, makes a lot of Australians uncomfortable—rightly so, in my view. And I think there needs to be a real question here—this is one of the things that’s being talked about in circles, not so much publicly in the Australian Jewish community, but certainly privately and indeed in the wider press—that why does the Australian government feel comfortable facilitating young Jews to move to Israel, potentially commit acts of, arguably, in certain cases, terrorism, or at least breaches of international law, in Gaza or Lebanon or Dubai, wherever Ben Zygier may have been behind it.
AMY GOODMAN: But Antony, isn’t the Australian intelligence now investigating why it was that Ben Zygier came back to Australia and changed his name and his passport several different times?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Possibly, Amy, yes. But one of the things that also is involved in this story is that the Australian intelligence services knew what Ben Zygier was doing. One of the things that remains unclear is exactly why the Israelis arrested Ben Zygier and put him in high-security prison. Was it because he was leaking information to the Australian intelligence services? Was he about to break some story to the press? Was there a crisis of conscience? We don’t know. These certainly are allegations that have been talked about here by a number of reliable sources, and indeed in Israel, as well. So, yes, the Australian intelligence services publicly are talking about an investigation, but just like in the U.S., they are incredibly opaque. There is not really any kind of legislative transparency in the way ASIO, which is the intelligence services here, operates. So, as much as we like to think that there would be some kind of investigation which is released publicly, the sad reality is that both Australia and Israel would like this situation to remain as it is today—in other words, very, very close relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Antony Loewenstein, for joining us, independent journalist and author, co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, has been closely following the Prisoner X story from Sydney. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
I was interviewed by ABC AM Radio this morning (which has already generated some hate mail, so thank you Australian Jewry):
ELIZABETH JACKSON: The revelation this week by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program that Melbourne man Ben Zygier was Israel’s “prisoner X” have thrown light on some of the most secretive workings of the Jewish state.
There are many perplexing elements to this story; one of them is the deafening silence.
Silence and gag orders from Israel, silence from the Australian Jewish community, and perhaps most perplexing of all, silence from Ben Zygier’s family.
Co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, Antony Loewenstein, says he believes the Jewish community in Australia is embarrassed.
The journalist says the case involving Ben Zygier should be a wake-up call to the community in Melbourne and Sydney to re-examine the way young Jewish youths are educated at religious schools in Australia.
He says Australian Jews need to re-think the wisdom of a culture which encourages young men and women to join the Israeli military.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well I think the Jewish community in Australia has taken the position of complete lockdown, where there has basically been virtually no comment about the details of the case.
There’s been virtually no comment about the relationship between the Jewish establishment in Australia and the Israeli government, and indeed Mossad, and indeed Israeli intelligence and the Israeli embassy.
There’ve been a few very vague comments, there’s been a few denials, there’s been a few statements suggesting that we don’t know all the information and therefore we can’t comment.
So overall, on two levels: one, clearly the family is grieving for a lost son – understandable, completely. But the broader question I think is the role the Jewish community in Sydney and Melbourne particularly – the biggest communities in the country – have towards Israel. And the facilitation often that they use of encouraging from a young age Jews to not just be involved with Israel, visit Israel, incredibly often fight with the IDF (Israeli Defence Force), which is something that the Australian Government, in my view should not be tolerating but does, and indeed for that matter sometimes joining Mossad.
Now this is obviously a murky world, but that happens not that uncommonly, and I think a lot of Australians might not be aware of that.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: So what are your observations about the way that Jewish institutions, and perhaps it even happens in the synagogues, I don’t know – but how do they facilitate this kind of mentality?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: It starts at a relatively young age. Not all Jews, but quite a few. It’s something pretty common, whether you’re religious or my family was pretty liberal, quite progressive.
Israel is not the only focus of that, of course, but it’s certainly part of it – that you’re expected and grown up to support Israel in a way that in my view is unhealthy, which is uncritical. The occupation of Palestine doesn’t really exist.
And many Jews are sent to Israel, often after school, for a year or six months or whatever. Not that many Jews are moving to Israel – some do. There’s definitely an encouragement to do so – in other words, to be the best kind of Jew you can be, so the thinking goes, some people argue the only way you can do that is to go to Israel and live there.
If you’re a young Jew, you’re likely to have to do military service, it’s compulsory in Israel for three years normally. And you potentially – although this is obviously far less people – could be recruited by Mossad.
Now this sort of stuff I’m not saying is regularly discussed openly in synagogues in Sydney or Melbourne – it’s not. But the reality of what moving to Israel might involve, and I think the lack of conversation within the Jewish Zionist establishment about what actually being a so-called ‘good Jew’ means if you sign up for Mossad.
And the role of Mossad in the Middle East is pretty known, it’s quite legendary. But the reality of what Mossad does – in the last few years there have been numerous allegations which have been backed up by a great deal of evidence that, for example, Mossad has been behind the murder, the illegal murder, of Iranian scientists in Iran, nuclear scientists. There was a hit a few years ago of a Hamas operative in Dubai, which was captured on CCTV (Closed Circuit TV).
In the Jewish community itself, those acts are not seen as controversial. They are seen as something as what Israel has to do to survive, they’re justified, they’re defended. In other words, if there’s an Australian Jew who was involved in that, and if this gentleman was, it would not be seen as a problem ethically or legally, when in fact frankly it should be.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: Journalist and co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, Antony Loewenstein.