Lately we have begun learning the English alphabet, starting with the last three letters: X, Y and Z. Or rather, this could have been the beginning of an English lesson, had each of these three letters not represented a prisoner whose name and identity cannot be publicized. All that’s left of these three people is one letter – not even the first letter of their first or last names.
The Prisoner X phenomenon is an example of Israeli democracy under siege. It took on a life of its own this year when the identity of Prisoner X (Ben Zygier), who had committed suicide in prison, was revealed. If he hadn’t committed suicide, we would probably still not know anything about him.
And now, the public has learned that Zygier is not the only one.
Even democratic governments are allowed to arrest people and put them on trial without making any public announcements when state secrets are at stake. And in Israel’s case, many times this is even compulsory.
It goes without saying that I agree that these legal proceedings should be closed to the public, since information about security prisoners are state secrets. As usual, though, after we have all agreed that democracy and security are both very important, we are now hearing about the failures and wondering whether this unique incident should have retained its special status.
The judge also ruled that serious mistakes had in fact been made in the Zygier arrest. It’s possible that if the authorities had properly followed the guidelines, Zygier might not currently be buried in an Australian cemetery.
Moreover, when the story broke in the Australian media and around the world, Israel pretended to be an ostrich and stuck its head in the sand. This foolish attempt to conceal information even after it had been made public was a big mistake that showed Israel’s lack of basic understanding of international media.
The petri dish law states: Where there is one mishap, and then another, others will soon appear.
And lo and behold now other similar cases of prisoners whom we’d never heard of have surfaced. It’s true that the defense minister and the foreign affairs and defense committee chairman realized that we were dealing with a sensitive security issue and so made an official proclamation that “everything is under control.”
However, the very fact that information about another secretly held prisoner got out only indicates that the situation is definitely not under control and that this information was published with no plan in hand.
As I stated above, Israel is a democracy that is constantly fighting terrorism. Even entities that understand the need for covert combat, such as the US or Europe, do not necessarily agree that sometimes individuals’ rights must be violated for the greater good. Israel is constantly being criticized for violating human rights, especially connected to the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Israel is often accused of putting a large number of people in administrative detention, arresting minors (take for example, the heart-rending picture of a five-year- old boy being arrested by IDF soldiers) and restrictions on movement.
International organizations raise these claims again and again, especially among groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Recently I was witness to such comments at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), at which I am the Israeli representative. This committee visited Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority and subsequently published a harsh report that criticized Israel for violating human rights. We succeeded in toning down a number of paragraphs, but the core argument remained the same. And this is just one example.
Israel rightfully boasts of its highest democratic values, but it must also heed this criticism. The Prisoner X cases only exacerbate the situation and keep us stuck in a state of perpetual defensiveness.
We should carefully choose our path of action and make sure that it is acceptable to all parties.
I suggest that the state comptroller exercise his power and proven ability to investigate these cases and determine whether they were justified. Moreover, he should identify failures and ensure that they are not repeated.
This issue is sensitive and classified and I believe that the comptroller knows how to keep such issues confidential. In this way, damage to security-related issues have been and will continue to be prevented. This is essential mainly as a tool to help us deal with growing criticism toward Israel and to put things in their proper perspective.
X, Y and Z should be the names of the cases the comptroller needs to review. Right now what we need to do is wait for him to decide how to proceed.
The writer is a Labor MK and the author of Media Wars, which was published recently and deals with the second intifada. The book is based on his PhD thesis.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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