The two security cadets at Ben-Gurion International Airport stood by the plane’s door. That Friday, December 17, they were waiting not for some Mohammad, but rather for a Cohen. Matan Cohen.
He disembarked, and they followed him through passport control. From there he was taken to a small interrogation room. The duty policeman told Cohen, 22, a student at Hampshire College, that he was being detained on suspicion of “hostile activity.”
Cohen: “Was it you who decided to detain me?”
Policeman: “No, security elements did.”
Cohen: “Meaning the Shin Bet security service?”
Policeman: “Yes, the Shin Bet’s Jewish department.”
Four more people in civilian clothes examined Cohen’s possessions. It took them two and a half hours. They asked some questions that showed Cohen they did not know a thing about him. (He is an anarchist activist and one of the coordinators of BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel – in the United States. ) They told him they did not have the security clearance to gain access to his file.
“We merely were warned that you are suspected of terrorist activity,” which means they have to go through his bags, they said. After the examination, he was taken back to the policeman, who said, “If it were up to me, I would let you go already. I’m waiting for a telephone call from the head of the Jewish department.”
Cohen: “[Am I] a suspect in something?”
Policeman: “You’re not a suspect. You’re suspected.”
Cohen: “Your grammar is amazing.”
Policeman: “It means that they think you’re connected to something but you are not suspected of anything concrete.”
Cohen: “In other words, you can detain me whenever you wish.”
Policeman: “These are the instructions I got from the Shin Bet and the decision is theirs.”
Eventually the policeman filed a detention report, writing: “Suspected of hostile terror activity by Shin Bet.” Cohen, who was home for a vacation from his studies in political economy, philosophy and psychoanalysis, left the airport for his parents’ house.
He was not the only anarchist the Jewish department dealt with that week. Five days earlier, Kobi Snitz was attending a conference when he received a call from an unidentified number. The caller told him, “Shalom, this is Rona from the Shin Bet. I’m sure you’ve heard about me.”
“She said she wanted to invite me for a friendly conversation and for us to exchange thoughts,” said Snitz, 39, an anarchist activist and a mathematician. He asked whether he was being called in for an interrogation and when she said no, he said, no thanks. In 2009, Snitz served a 20-day sentence over an attempt a few years earlier to prevent the demolition of a house in Kharbatha, a village west of Ramallah. Two months ago, he was given another five-day sentence over a protest against the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
“The Jewish department believes that every Arab is dangerous and that they can take us, the naive activists, for a ride,” says Snitz. “They call us in in order to create a psychological profile, to know which of us they can exploit, and who can be exploited by others. They are not looking for information.”
Assaf Kintzer received a call on December 9: “Shalom, this is Rona from the Shin Bet. How are you?” After he said “okay,” she said she wanted to see him and asked him to come to the Dizengoff Street police station in Tel Aviv. It’s urgent, she added. Kintzer, 33, said he could not come immediately. She said: “I’ll call you again soon, and it’s worth your while to come.” She then continued, as Kintzer recalled, “Listen, if you aren’t coming now, I’ll tell you a bit by phone. I want you to know that we know what you are doing and that it will have repercussions. At the moment, what you are doing is on the borderline of the law and it is quite possible that information on you will show your actions are illegal. We know about all your files.”
That same day, Kintzer was called to the police station to be interrogated after being detained at two demonstrations against the separation fence at Ma’asara.
Then Rona added: “In addition to your activity in the West Bank, we know that you are involved in [a plan to demonstrate against] the business conference. If you do anything violent, there will be consequences. Why aren’t you talking?”
I have no reason to answer, he said. So Rona, he recalls, said in parting: “You should know that I’m not against you at all. I am on your side and take part in demonstrations.”
One person who did go to meet Rona two weeks ago, mainly out of curiosity, was N., 30, another member of Anarchists against the Wall.
The entire meeting, including the security check with a magnometer and the screening of his bag, took less than 20 minutes. Rona could not get N. to respond to her questions, but N. said she had the following message: “We know what you are doing. At the moment you are not violating the law and we don’t have any problem with you. The moment you violate the law, we’ll be there.”
Haaretz asked the Shin Bet whether it was warning activists about violating laws that the Knesset may pass in the future, thus making their actions illegal. The newspaper also asked who was considered “suspected,” and whether members of the service could participate in demonstrations against the government.
The Shin Bet responded, “The security service acts in keeping with the authority granted it by law to fulfill its objective of protecting state security, institutions and public order in a democratic regime from threats of terror, damage, subversion, spying and revealing state secrets, as stipulated in paragraph 7 (a ) of the Shin Bet security service law from 2002. As for the extent to which Shin Bet employees may take part in demonstrations, they are subject to the restrictions imposed on all civil servants.”