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Israel’s Stasi Preaches Morality

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Shin Bet Chief Ronen Bar speaks at a counter-terrorism conference at Reichman University, in Herzliya, Israel.
Shin Bet Chief Ronen Bar speaks at a counter-terrorism conference at Reichman University, in Herzliya, Israel.Credit: Moti Milrod
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

If there is one person who has no authority, and above all no right, to preach to Israel about the laws of its democracy, it’s him. If there is one organization that undermines and destroys Israeli democracy more than any other organization or politician, it’s this organization. And if there is one official who cannot say a single word about the government, it is the head of the Shin Bet security service.

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But under the complete chaos that reigns today, in which every bastard is a king, as the saying goes, every head of a dark agency is a teacher of morality.

Ronen Bar is dissatisfied with Israeli politics. He says it encourages the “axis of evil,” a childish, propagandist term that ignores, of course, the evil of the agency that he himself heads – evil that likely has few rivals anywhere in the world – and relates only to the evil of others.

Speaking at a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, the lofty ivory tower that sometimes looks more like an IDF General Staff camp that a university, and at which every head of a defense organization is considered an intellectual oracle, Bar warned that the divisions within Israeli society encourage terror and the evildoers in the axis. It’s hard to say who was the target of the chief spook’s indictment, even harder to figure out what he wants (is he proposing that we unite, like North Korea or Iran?), but the fact that he dares to dispense advice on democracy is painfully ridiculous.

The Shin Bet is a vital organization, just as a city sanitation department is vital. These agencies do dirty, but important, work without which life is not safe.

But unlike the activities of sanitation workers, not all of the labor the men of darkness do in their jobs is as vital as we are told, and it certainly shouldn’t be worshipped, as we are taught to do; in any event, it also causes serious damage to the fabric of life here.

It is difficult to assess the real balance – how many terror attacks the Shin Bet thwarts and how many attacks it motivates with its unchecked activities. But when Bar boasts of 2,000 recent arrests, it’s clear there are more than a few innocent people among them, and people who will be radicalized by their very detention.

In a reality in which every night, soldiers accompanied by dogs terrorize people sleeping in their homes and snatch citizens from their beds at the behest of the Shin Bet, without any legal supervision of course, and in a reality where hundreds of people are detained without trial for months and years, also by order of the Shin Bet, it is clear that the damage is enormous. The most serious consequence is turning Israeli democracy into one of the most brutal military tyrannies in the world, even if only in its own backyard.

An actor demonstrating a torture technique reportedly used by the Shin Bet security service during interrogations of Palestinians, on May 19, 1998.Credit: Jacqueline Larma/AP

The Shin Bet barely operates in sovereign Israel. But what it is doing in the occupied territories, which are an inseparable part of Israel, apparently forever, makes it impossible to define Israel as a democracy anymore, certainly not when it is clear that this is not a temporary situation. There is no evil with which the Israeli Stasi – in the territories the Shin Bet is the Stasi in every way, with more advanced technology than the infamous East German organization had – is unfamiliar.

Just this week I met, at the Al-Arroub refugee camp, an 11-year-old boy who lost an eye to an IDF bullet. Now he has also been defined as a security risk, who is barred from entering Israel for treatment at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center on the order of the Shin Bet. Last week, two cancer patients in the Gaza Strip died; they were unable to receive treatments in Israel in time because the Shin Bet denied them entry for two months.

Perhaps all of this evil is necessary in order to fight terror – it’s highly doubtful – but the person who commands the agents of evil cannot preach morality. It would be better if these people were ashamed of some of the disgraceful actions for which they are responsible.

It is once again the season of the arrogance of the security hawks. The head of the Mossad threatened Iran, the head of Military Intelligence threatened Hezbollah and the head of the Shin Bet threatened Israel. The latter threat is the most serious and dangerous threat of all.

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