Reporter's Notebook: Reporters Aren't Infiltrators

A few intrepid Israeli journalists travel to ‘enemy states’ to see what is happening on the other side of the border.

iraq babylon 311 (photo credit: AP)
iraq babylon 311
(photo credit: AP)
This article was published in the May 24 edition of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to the Jerusalem Report, click here.
On April 14 the Israeli High Court of Justice lifted a ban preventing Ala Hlehel, an Israeli-Arab author, from traveling to Beirut to receive a literary prize at a festival held in the Lebanese capital. Hlehel was among 39 Arab authors to be honored at the Beirut39 Festival, a four-day cultural event highlighting fiction and poetry writers under the age of 40, which is organized annually by the Britain-based Hay Festival and the Beirut UNESCO World Capital of the Book.
Hlehel’s petition was submitted by the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, who argued that the government’s refusal to allow Hlehel to travel violates his constitutional right to leave the country and his rights of freedom of employment and freedom of expression, as well as his due process rights for a fair hearing.
Hlehel challenged the decades-long ban barring Israeli residents fromvisiting countries defined as “enemy states,” including Lebanon.Israeli law gives the interior minister and the prime ministerauthority to permit such travels at their discretion, under certainconditions and subject to security recommendations. The policy – thoughnot established by law – is to grant permission only in “extremehumanitarian” cases, a gray area not legally defined by specificcriteria.
In accepting Hlehel’s petition, the court rejected arguments submittedby state attorneys on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu andInterior Minister Eli Yishai that denied Hlehel the right to travel toBeirut.
In their ruling, the High Court judges said that “the general policy[of banning Israeli citizens from enemy states] is reasonable in and ofitself, yet the state’s refusal to permit [Hlehel’s trip to Lebanon]was reached without examining all of the relevant considerationsrelated to this extraordinary and unusual instance.”
The High Court also instructed the state to provide an explanation asto why it has not established clearly defined criteria to enable visitsby Israeli citizens to countries deemed “enemy states.”
In the end, Hlehel did not travel to Beirut. Obtaining a Lebanese entryvisa usually takes weeks, and, deliberately or not, the Lebanesebureaucracy did not move quickly enough to provide him with one beforethe end of the festival. In addition, even if the authorities had comethrough, Hlehel had been staying in London pending his request and sowould have been unable to fly because ash from the volcanic eruption inIceland had closed the airspace.
Yet, as an Israeli, I am hopeful that the High Court’s decision willnow ease, at least to a certain extent, the pressure applied on thevery few Israeli journalists who do travel to “enemy states” in orderto provide Israelis with the opportunity to see what is happening onthe other side of the border, in “forbidden countries,” where Israeliscannot travel.
I have often traveled to Arab and Muslim countries, most of which donot maintain any form of relations with Israel, in order to report onvarious historic events or simply to report on what was going on inthose countries.
Any Israeli journalist who travels to an “enemy state” exposes himselfto danger: imprisonment, kidnapping, and, as the case of the latejournalist Daniel Perl – whose parents are former Israelis – proves,also to murder. Or, to be more precise, slaughter.
From the outset, every Israeli journalist is suspected – even bycolleagues who are not from the Arab states – of being an agent of theMossad, Israel’s secret intelligence agency. The possibility that weare simply doing our jobs as journalists and are not putting ourselvesat the disposal of any government agency almost never occurs to anyone.These circumstances make working the field very difficult – almostimpossible.
Until recently in all my visits to all of these countries, I was neveronce stopped for questioning at any airport and I was never called infor any inquiry. Nor had I ever encountered any problem connected withmy trips abroad when I entered Israel, either. Not until I was calledin for an interrogation at the National Unit for InternationalInterrogations in the summer of 2008.
A decision had apparently been taken at some level to put a stop tothe trips to “enemy states” by Israeli journalists with dualcitizenships. If up to that point I had to be concerned about beingarrested in one of the Arab states, from then on I had to take intoaccount that I might be arrested in Israel each time I came back. Theborders were closing in.
Thus, to the long list of risks that casts a pall over any Israelijournalist visiting an “enemy state,” the few of us who travel to Arabcountries had to add the decision by the Israeli authorities tostrictly enforce the law from the 1950s known as the “Law forPrevention of Infiltration.” This change, which resulted in thesummonses of Israeli journalists who had visited “enemy states” tointerrogation under advisement, was based on what is in my opinion amost problematic interpretation of the law on the part of theauthorities.
In the 1950s, when Israel’s borders were fairly porous, “infiltrators”used to cross those borders without much difficulty. Most of theseinfiltrators were Arabs who were returning to their homes or theirfamilies and were engaged in smuggling and, of course, acts of terror.There were also a few Israelis who infiltrated into Arab countries,such as those who went out to the “Red Rock” (Petra) in Jordan.
Paragraph 2a of the “Law for Prevention of Infiltration” forbidsindividuals to leave the State of Israel – without permission from theproper authorities – in order to visit any of a long list of “enemystates.” In the original version of the law, which was enacted in 1954,that list included Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and also Egyptand “Transjordan” – which are still on that list, even though thelatter two states signed peace agreements with Israel long ago.
In retrospect, any Israeli who ever went to Egypt or Jordan broke thelaw, even after the peace agreements. It is only as I am writing theselines that the Knesset is making an effort to remove Egypt and Jordanfrom the “blacklist.” At the same time, Iran and Yemen were added tothe list in the summer of 2007. Anyone who breaks this law is subject,according to the language of the law, “to a fine of 5,000 Israeli liras[a currency that was canceled in 1980] or to a prison term of up tofour years.”
It was on the basis of this law that I was summoned in 2008 – as otherjournalists had been before me – to the National Unit for InternationalInterrogations. The excuse was the trip I had made to Iran severalmonths earlier. In my reporting on this trip, which appeared in thePassover edition of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest circulationdaily, and received tremendous public attention, I described an Iranvery different from the country we are used to seeing in ourimaginations and based on other peoples’ reports. The fact that I havebeen living in Europe for several years and did not travel to Irandirectly from Israel – which is what is forbidden according to the law– didn’t seem to bother the Israeli police when they summoned me forinterrogation.
In my travels across the border, I had been one of the first foreignersto visit the city of Baalbek – the Hizballah stronghold in Lebanon’sBekaa Valley – when it first reopened to the outside world. I was amongthe first Israelis to officially visit Syria, thanks to an invitationfrom the then-president of France, Jacques Chirac. I returned toDamascus several years later when Hafiz al-Asad died, in order to coverthe funeral of the “Lion of Damascus.” I was at Hizballah’s victorycelebration in Southern Lebanon when the Israel Defense Forces pulledout of the Security Strip at the beginning of the summer of 2000. Ireturned to Beirut after the death of the former prime minister, Rafiqal-Hariri, in the midst of the “Cedar Revolution.”
I visited Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein and after his demise.I reported from Pakistan and Afghanistan during the dramatic weeksfollowing the 9/11 terrorist attacks and before the assassination ofthe leader of the Pakistani civilian camp, Benazir Bhutto. I met thelast Jews of Yemen. I visited several of the Gulf Emirates. I traveledaround Iran at the height of the confrontation between theinternational community and the regime of the Tehran mullahs overIran’s plans for nuclear development, as Israel’s threats to attackechoed in the background.
These travels opened up a window of seeing and understanding for me andfor others. During my army service, in the mid 1980s, I had been anArab affairs reporter for the army radio station. Like all mycolleagues who were covering the Arab world, I usually had to make dowith analyses of materials from secondary sources in order to report onwhat was happening surrounding Israel. For any journalist, this sort ofa disconnection from his field of work is very frustrating, because itforces him to depend on other people’s views and not on his ownpersonal assessments.
The closure of the Arab world – and, to a great extent, the Muslimworld – to Israeli journalists perpetuates the conflict in the MiddleEast because it prevents Israelis from forming any direct contact withtheir neighbors. Such contact would increase mutual understanding andsensitivity to each other’s needs.
Although there was a certain change following the Peace Conferenceconvened in Madrid in the fall of 1991, most of the world beyond ourown borders has been sealed off and unknown to us.
Thanks to peace with Egypt and Jordan and Israel’s ongoing presence inthe West Bank and the Gaza Strip (until the disengagement), these areashave been the exceptions – although the Israeli media doesn’t alwaystake full advantage of this opportunity. And while most of the mediaoutlets in the “enemy states” began to ease up on their total boycottof Israel and to employ staff reporters or correspondents who wereposted in or visited Israel, the Israeli media still had to findindirect ways to report from the neighboring states, often putting thejournalists sent to those countries at risk.
Did it bother any Israeli authority that I published a story thatpresented Iran in a way that doesn’t square with the internationaldiplomatic campaign that Israel is conducting against Iran because of,among other reasons, its nuclear ambitions? It’s quite likely that someofficials were quite uncomfortable when they read my story.
Yet I tend to believe that I was summoned for interrogation fordifferent reasons: First of all, in recent years, several Arab-Israelielected officials have traveled to hostile states, including, mostrecently, a group of Israeli parliamentarians who traveled to Libya.Some – but certainly not all – of these parliamentarians have engagedin activities that were detrimental to Israel’s national – and incertain cases, to Israel’s security – interests. When they werecriticized for these trips, several of these Arab officials respondeddisingenuously and somewhat arrogantly, “Why are Israeli journalistspermitted to travel when we are not?”
This might be the place to explain the obvious: Israeli journalists whotravel to “forbidden” Arab countries are not engaged in any subversiveactivities against their country. Therefore, any contention that thecircumstances are similar is simply not relevant.
Secondly, unlike in earlier times, more and more Israelis hold dualpassports and curiosity or the call of adventure are likely to convincethem to make private trips to places where there is a real threat totheir lives. In some cases, Israel has paid a very high price forfreeing people, some alive and some dead, who had been kidnapped. Thecase of Israeli drug dealer Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was kidnapped byHizballah, and exchanged, together with the bodies of three IDFsoldiers, for over 400 Arab prisoners, has been traumatically burnedinto the Israeli authorities’ consciousness. Israel doesn’t want tobecome a hostage to its citizens’ capriciousness or to pay the pricefor it.
Yet even if the reasons that the decision to enforce the “InfiltratorsLaw” on journalists stemmed from concern that an Israeli journalistmight be captured by hostile elements, or, worse – might be hurt orused as a means to harm the security of the state – by adopting thisattitude, the State of Israel becomes a party to the disconnect betweenits citizens and the world that surrounds them.
Democratic Israel and its media cannot tolerate this disconnect norshould they contribute to it. They have to fight for the right ofIsraeli journalists to report from the Arab states as part ofconfidence-building measures for the peace process. Any other countrythat is interested in helping to advance the peace process in theMiddle East must also contribute towards this goal. The media are apeerless vehicle for making contact and creating understanding amongthe sides.
Did my travels beyond the borders convince me that peace is possible?Since on most of these trips I identified myself according to my other,non-Israeli identity, I found myself in situations in which I wasexposed, without any niceties, to the depths of hatred that many groupsin the Arab and Muslim world feel towards Israelis, or, to be moreprecise, towards Jews as Jews. Often, I encountered bald, direct,blatant and total anti-Semitism, which they weren’t even trying to hidebehind the justifications, excuses, cleverness, or hypocrisy that youfrequently find in the West.
This deeply-rooted resentment, which is rooted in political andreligious incitement, as well as incitement by the media – even inthose countries that do have formal relations with Israel – has beenexacerbated by the lack of familiarity with and distance from the other(in this case, the Jews and the Israelis). Borders, fences, walls,prohibitions and boycotts only make the problem worse, on both sides ofthe border.
Distance, isolation, lack of attention and lack of information are thetrue enemies of peace. And they are intensifying as we watch. The HighCourt decision is therefore one step in the right direction.
As much as Arab-Israelis fight for their right to visit Arab “enemy”countries, they should also fight for opening those countries fornon-Arab Israeli journalists. This could be a very importantcontribution to building bridges of understanding in the region.     
Eldad Beck, The Jerusalem Report’s correspondent in Berlin, is authorof the book ‘Beyond the Borderline: Journeys and Encounters inForbidden Countries,’ published recently by Yedioth Ahronoth (inHebrew).