Does Israel's Crackdown on Journalists Suggest a "Crisis of Legitimacy"?

06/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I know something about how Israel's security forces treat journalists who they believe to be hostile.

In January I was held for over a week in a dingy detention center at Israel's Ben Gurion airport before being deported.

Before I was detained I was questioned by a security officer about news articles I had authored in my two and a half years working in the West Bank for the Palestinian news agency Ma'an.

I was interrogated in a spare, windowless office in the airport. At one point the officer, a woman with piercing blue eyes who never identified herself, paged through the contacts on my cell phones, telling me to give information about sources, colleagues, and friends who's numbers I'd stored. I refused.

She set the phones down on her desk, and without thinking I reached for them. She stopped me. "In this office, you have no rights," she said. I didn't see the phones, like the rest of my possessions, until I was released eight days later.

So it is natural that I have been following and investigating for weeks the case of Anat Kam, the Israeli journalist and former soldier who has been under secret house arrest for months for leaking military documents, and Uri Blau, the reporter who used the papers to expose an assassination program that violated Israel's own laws.

Like me, Blau, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, also finds himself unable to return to Israel.

I am not Israeli, and Blau's situation is different and in important ways more severe than my case. 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 showed that the military violated a high court order to authorize the killing of Islamic Jihad leaders, even if innocents were also killed.

Blau wrote an article in Friday's newspaper saying 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."

Israel's General Security Service (GSS, known casually as Shin Bet) suspects Blau received the documents from Anat Kam, a writer for the popular Israeli news website Walla!, who obtained the papers during recent military service.

For months, the authorities banned publication of any information on the case, or even any mention of 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 turned out to be true.

We now know, for example, that security agents raided Blau's apartment, and seized and destroyed his computer.

We also know that Blau was the original focus of Shin Bet's investigation, and that his reports are at the heart of the case.

I spoke with historian Avner Cohen, the author of Israel and the Bomb a book on the history of the Israeli nuclear program an expert on Israeli state secrecy about the matter.

He 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 Kam," 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 he 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 military-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. The article cited confidential military documents showing that the military violated a ruling by Israel's supreme court in ordering the 2007 assassination of an Islamic Jihad leader in Jenin, even when arrest was possible, even when civilians were endangered. The article cited a March 2007 document in which Gen. Nave authorized forces to shoot three Islamic 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 he used in preparing several articles.

It 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 the papers could not be used in a potential prosecution.

The newspaper also said Shin Bet broke this agreement by detaining Kam on the suspicion that she was Blau's source, and announcing in January that Blau was "wanted for questioning."

In its editorial, Haaretz underlines the central moral irony of the case: the controversy over Blau's reporting on so-called "sensitive" security matters hides the real issue: that Israel's military circumvented the high court by authorizing targeted assassinations outside of the rules of engagement.

Haaretz's editorial board wrote: "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."

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 Shin Bet to commit the blunder of imposing a gag order that embarrassingly collapsed under inevitable media pressure?

Avner Cohen told me he thinks 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 during its offensive on Gaza last year.

He said the underlying context in the Kam/Blau case is concern in 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."