Opinion

Seven years a terror suspect

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“So tell me,” I asked the LHV 433 (*) interrogator after some two and a half hours, “who did I piss off? Who ordered this investigation? A police colonel?”

“No, no, habibi,” he laughed, “much higher than that. You pissed off the Government’s Counsel.” He turned over the heavy binder with the investigation material to me, pointing to the signature on one of the warrants. He exaggerated a bit: the signature was Shai Nitzan’s, now the Israeli Government Prosecutor and at the time Deputy Government Prosecutor for Special Affairs (**).

That conversation took place in December of 2011. A few days later I was informed I was summoned to the Yiftach Police Station, near Jaffa. I asked what was suspected of, but the man on the other end of the line refused to answer. I had, however, an educated guess.

Shai Nitzan

On July 2011, I wrote about the IDF’s policy of kidnapping and abusing Palestinian teens (Hebrew). That was before I was acquainted with the system directly, through the case files; otherwise my writing would have been harsher. In response to one of the comments – I no longer remember which – I wrote an incautious sentence: “If you’re asking whether I consider settlers to be a legitimate target for Palestinian military attacks, the answer is positive.” Professor and blogger Na’ama Carmi rearranged my features with a sledgehammer over that comment (Hebrew), and she was right. The correct phrasing should have been “armed settlers are a legitimate target for Palestinian military action.” Naively, I assumed it’s obvious people uninvolved in the conflict are not a permissible target. I was obviously wrong. So I published a correction (Hebrew).

An organization called “The Legal Forum for Eretz Israel” quickly lodged a criminal complaint against me. This wasn’t the first complaint I’ve faced: Im Tirzu tried to pin two of them on me, and they were vaporized. On this case, Nitzan apparently decided that his political position would be strengthened by an investigation, so one was ordered. The first person to be interrogated was the administrative manager at the time of the blog group I was writing for, hahem. She had absolutely nothing to do with my writing – I’m not certain she even read that post – but it’s always good for the main suspect to know his friends are also in the crosshairs.

And so my turn came up. I consulted with the lawyer Michael Sfard, who told me to keep my mouth shut and only say that this is a political investigation and that I had nothing further to say. At the beginning of the interrogation, which took place in a rather normal if crowded room, the interrogator asked me to dismantle my smartphone and take the battery out, so I couldn’t record the interrogation. I haven’t even considered that.

Then he read me the warning. I knew it by heart – for a year, I’ve translated interrogation texts. I Police Investigator X, Police ID number so and so, have seen before me Yossef Zvi Gurvitz, ID number so and so, and told him: I, Police Investigator X, am about to interrogate you under suspicion of incitement for violence and terrorism. You do not have to say anything, but anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. I made an effort not to recite before he did.

He opened up a large binder, turned it over to me, and asked: “Is that what you wrote?”

I answered in the affirmative.

“Please confirm by your signature that this is what you wrote.”

I signed. He turned the binder back to him, and then began an interrogation which can hardly be described but as a sort of inquisition.

Why did you write this?

Because that’s what I thought.

Do you think all settlers should be killed?

No. I refer you to my clarification. (***)

Have you seen what Na’ama Carmi wrote about this? (He read me her text.)

Of course I did. I referred to it in my clarification.

What do you think of what she wrote?

That she and I think differently about issues, and that thinking differently is not a criminal offense.

Yes, but look at what she wrote!

She and I think differently about issues, and what I wrote is not a criminal offense.

But how can you keep thinking like this, after what she wrote?

She and I think differently about issues, and what I wrote is not a criminal offense.

And so we around we went for quite some time. I don’t know how long, precisely – my dismantled smartphone was also my watch – but I estimate it was at least three quarters of an hour. Do you support violence? No, but I make a distinction between civilians and armed persons, and if armed persons use violence they cannot then complain about violence directed at them. And then, the finale:

What would you answer, if someone told you what you wrote is an incitement to terrorism against settlers?

Look, if you can show me that, somewhere in Jenin, there’s a Tanzim squad which gets its commentary from blogs written in Hebrew, and that one of its members said “OK, so far we did not consider armed settlers to be a valid target, but this Abu Gurvitz convinced me, yalla, open up the weapons’ cache and let’s go,” I would say you have a case. If you can’t, there isn’t. (****)

And then came the real tough part. He took me to the lab, so they could take my fingerprints, photograph me, and take a DNA sample. I was now officially a criminal suspect. The lab did not have a DNA kit, so we wandered the corridors until my interrogator found one. Standing before that camera was the most humiliating part of the interrogation.

As we were making our way from office to office, looking for a DNA kit, he tries to tell me he’s really sorry, this shouldn’t be happening, it’s clear to him I’m not a criminal; perhaps there’s something I can say which will let us leave all this nasty business behind. This was a trick even I could see through. I knew how it works, and I knew that whatever I told him would later be written down in a memo which I’ll never see. I hummed in agreement but didn’t say anything.

We went back to the interrogation room. He asked me how many people have seen that comment. I told him I can’t know how many people saw a specific comment, but I can look up the number of uniques and views of that blog post. I had to tell him the difference.

He signed me out on a warning which said I was discharged under the following limitations: I had to report to the police whenever I changed my address, and I’m forbidden to speak about the investigation with anyone but my attorney. I went home, rather stressed, and updated Sfard on the phone. As far as I recall, this was on Thursday; on Sunday, I sent the interrogators an email with the numbers of uniques and views.

I waited for a second interrogation. It never took place. Two weeks later, Shai Nitzan decided to cash in his symbolic fortune, and informed The Legal Forum for Eretz Israel I was under investigation. They went with this to media. I found myself in a Kafkaesque position: I was portrayed as an inciter for violence and terrorism, and I couldn’t even say what I was interrogated about.

Time passed by. I changed apartments. I informed my interrogator. The apartment was a shitty one, a Jaffa one-room den created by dismantling one apartment into several. Ten months later, I moved again. I informed the interrogator, who thanked me for the update. In the meantime, I’ve had some work interviews; in each one I informed my prospective employee I’m under suspicion of terrorism. I’m pretty certain that for at least one of them this was a decisive factor in not hiring me. Can’t blame them – what do they need this headache for? Surely there’s someone who can do the job without being a suspect.

Eighteen months after the interrogation, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t over yet. The facts, after all, were not in dispute. I’ve admitted to what was attributed to me. I denied nothing. The only question remaining was whether what I wrote can be legally considered as incitement to violence and terrorism. This isn’t a very difficult question. How much work does it require? An hour of a prosecutor’s time? Two hours?

By that time, I was hanging out with the unruly gang of Yesh Din lawyers, each with their own specialty but all specializing in wiping out the remnants of my belief in the Israeli justice system. When I asked why does this investigation take so long, one of them nearly choked with laughter. I was politely informed that once an investigation begins, it doesn’t have to end; and that contrary to common myth, it does not end automatically after seven years.

Years have passed without me hearing from either the police or the prosecution, and, of course, as long as the investigation was open I was forbidden from speaking about it – doing so would revoke my release terms. On August 2015 I went to a police station and asked to see my criminal record; a lawyer had explained to me this was a way to see if a case was still open. A police officer gave me a look once reserved for particularly decomposed lepers, but he printed it out. Almost four years after my interrogation, the case was still open and I was still a suspect.

I did so again in August 2016. Yet another hostile face, as if I was somehow contaminating his office, but he printed my criminal file. The case was still open. I repeated the process in December 2017, this time in the Stampfer Station in Petah Tikva.

Rabbaq, I told myself (*****), if you do nothing, it will stay open forever. This is how Shai Nitzan likes it. I went into Michael Sfard’s office, signed a power of attorney, and he and lawyer Michal Pasovsky sent the police a letter demanding to know what the hell was going on with the case.

A short while later the police informed us the prosecution was handling the case. In March 2018, the police sent me a letter – to my 2011 address, naturally, even though I had kept informing them of my changes of address – in which I was informed the case against me was closed due to lack of evidence. My old landlady was kind enough to scan it and send it to me.

By that time I knew (Yesh Din was an education) that there are nine clauses for closing criminal files. The most common when it comes to Palestinian victims is Unknown Perpetrator (UP), or as the professionals call it “we couldn’t be buggered to do minimal work on this file.” Another common clause is lack of public interest, which people often misinterpret. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t interest the public; quite often it does. It means the prosecution believes the effort bringing this case to court is not justified by its importance.

Then there’s the lack of evidence clause, which means the prosecution agrees that a crime was committed but, alas, the dastardly perp was too clever for the investigators to gather enough evidence for prosecution (******). And then there’s the no guilt clause: no crime was committed and the suspect is innocent. There are a few more clauses (the suspect is underage, the case is handled by another government authority, and the ever-popular “we lost the file”), but the clauses mentioned above are the major ones.

The prosecution, of course, closed my case under the lack of evidence clause, which was patently stupid. It had all the evidence. Six years and three months ago, you may remember, I affirmed with my signature that I did write what I was suspected of writing. Now all it had to do was decide whether this was enough to prosecute or not. Shai Nitzan’s people felt it was very convenient – this way, they could leave the impression that a crime was committed, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough evidence.

We asked to see the investigative file. In Israel, once an investigation is closed, the suspect (and the victim) may see the file. Naturally, some information would be withheld; the police will not share with you information received from wiretaps or informants, for instance. But you’ll be able to see most of it. I wanted one thing: to see the timeline. I wanted to know how much time passed between one investigative act to another, between a prosecutor’s yawns and his slumbers. I wanted to know why a case which could be decided in two days is stretched to over six years. My suspicion is that this is how Shai Nitzan likes it: if there’s a sword hanging over your head, you’re more likely to keep silent. My Hebrew readers will attest that if this was the plan, it failed miserably.

The prosecution probably understood where we were going, because even though we didn’t officially ask for the change of the clause – we asked for the investigative file, so we could appeal the “lack of evidence” decision – they quickly informed us they changed the closing clause of their own volition, and it is now lack of guilt. They reached that conclusion four months after closing the case for the first time, and six years and seven months since my interrogation.

The decision was made at the beginning of July. I received the letter two days ago. Needless to say, the letter arrived at my 2011 address.

I didn’t suffer that much. I was never beaten. Never arrested. I was never even prosecuted. But for almost seven years I was held in the status of a suspect who must inform potential employees, who has to update the police of his change of address. For seven years, I was technically in a position that, were I to be near the scene of a crime, I was an automatic suspect. Seven years of not knowing whether the hammer will fall tomorrow. And it’s important to emphasize this: If I did not initiate a demand for explanations last December, this would have gone on. Because the person who ordered the case opened was quite content to keep it open.

Bear this in mind, the next time they tell you about the “open Israeli society.”

Footnotes.

(*) A special investigation unit of the Israeli National Police, often nicknamed in the media as “the Israeli FBI”. The Bureau might have a strong defamation case.
(**) In Israel, the Government Prosecutor is the number two position in law enforcement, answering to the Government Counsel.
(***) A gross error. Always listen to your attorney, and never, ever, answer a cop’s questions during interrogation.
(****) The same bleeding gross error.
(*****) Fuck this.
(******) This is the Israeli National Police we’re talking about, so the dastardly mastermind may conceivably be a toaster.
(Yossi Guvitz)

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under international law, nationals of an occupying power (or its allies) are not protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention. iow, settlers are not protected civilians. yossi, i remember years ago when you wrote about this situation (i think in hebrew) mentioning you were not allowed to discuss it. i wondered… Read more »

I don’t think Kafka intended to write an instruction manual.

I don’t remember the first time I read Yossi Gurvitz but I remember the impression I had: a man who care about justice, equality and the truth. The kind of man (or woman) who will be rewarded in the valley of Josaphat…

Yossi, Thank you for carrying this burden for so long. The more you stand up for the victims the more likely you will become a target of the bullies too. Every time I read another account of Israel’s thuggishness I’m glad all over again for having gotten out. Much respect… Read more »

Yossi Gurvitz and similar decent, committed people could be a lot more effective from outside the Azrael Hellhole. Staying inside contributes to the comedy of “democracy in Israel”. They can’t be useful in any clandestine work and their effectiveness within the system is not that great, no matter all the… Read more »