The recent arrest of two respected public figures from Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority in night-time raids on their homes by the Shin Bet secret police – brought to light this week when a gag order was partially lifted – has sent shock waves through the community.
The arrests are not the first of their kind. The Shin Bet has been hounding and imprisoning politicians and intellectuals from the country’s Palestinian minority, a fifth of the population, since the birth of the Jewish state more than six decades ago. Currently, two MPs from Arab political parties, as well as the leader of the popular Islamic Movement, are facing trials.
But the detention of Amir Makhoul and Omar Sayid is seen differently — as the gathering storm clouds in a political climate already fiercely hostile to its Palestinian citizens.
Mohammed Zeidan, the head of the Human Rights Association in Nazareth, said: “We are used to our political leaders being persecuted but now the Shin Bet is turning its sights on the leaders of Palestinian civil society in Israel, and that’s a dangerous development.”
Mr Makhoul and Mr Sayid are not accused of the usual public order offenses, nor have they simply violated chauvinistic legislation that criminalizes Palestinian citizens’ visits to neighboring Arab states. Both are facing the much more serious charge of espionage, on behalf of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Mr Makhoul, who appears to be the chief object of the Shin Bet’s interest, is the head of Ittijah, an umbrella organization coordinating the activities of Palestinian human rights groups in Israel. More specifically, he has become the leading voice inside Israel backing the growing international campaign for boycott, sanctions, and divestment against Israel.
On Wednesday, the courts approved an extension of Mr Makhoul’s remand. He was not allowed to be present and was denied the right to a lawyer until at least next Monday, 12 days since his arrest. He is reportedly being interrogated around the clock.