Friends told me that H. was in detention with other Palestinians in a prison near Mitzpeh Ramon. Startled, I asked why. "He was told that it’s a secret file," they said.
H. had been given a piece of paper saying he was under four months’ administrative detention, and this was later reduced to three months. It has since been extended for another three months.
H.’s lawyer, an Israeli, says that he has been given only generalized statements: that there is specific information about specific things and that H. "poses a danger to the security of the area." But no details or evidence. An appeal is to be heard by a military court.
I feel I have gone back years into the past, when I was a journalist in apartheid South Africa. The Afrikaner Nationalist government used detention without trial on a huge scale as a weapon to attack opposition. Thousands were arrested, many were tortured. I was deeply involved in investigations into the plight of detainees and wrote ceaselessly against it.
Because detention without trial was common in apartheid South Africa and is widely used in Israel today does not mean that Israel is an apartheid state. It has nothing to do with apartheid. What is the same, for Israel, South Africa and worldwide, is the questionable use and abuse of state power, and the harm done to individuals and to society by eroding the rule of law. The rule of law is a precious concept which safeguards the liberties of each one of us. If anyone has transgressed the law, then he or she must be brought to open court and charged as soon as possible.
I know that in this era of terrorism, and especially in Israel which is under such direct attack, it can be difficult to insist on consistent adherence to basic principles of freedom. In dealing with the new terrorism, the world’s democracies have enacted laws and adopted tactics which seriously detract from freedom and which would have been unthinkable only five years ago. The United States, for example, is flagrantly, and tragically, undermining its own constitutional beliefs by its treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Yet without the rule of law we are all at the mercy of faceless officials who can do as they please. We have to be vigilant.
I watched, and reported, as South Africa slid down the slippery slope of repression. Always there was government justification for harsher laws and greater power to detain people. The authoritarian state became entrenched.
I have known H. for more than seven years. I first met him when he was a tour guide with a Palestinian organization. I arranged tours by Israelis to Palestinian areas and H. was one of the guides. He was friendly and imparted information in a straightforward way. He lost his job soon after the intifada started. We kept in touch. We phoned each other from time to time and he visited me. He told me he was working in his village: He was the secretary of the medical clinic. He had a large family to support.
He said the Israel Defense Forces had put up an earth barricade around the village so that no cars could enter or leave. The half-hour drive to Bethlehem now took up to two hours: Villagers had to climb over the barricade, take a taxi to the next barricade, climb over and so on. It meant about four taxi rides, including of course for the young, the old and the infirm. The barricade was removed after a few years. He repeatedly invited me to visit his village and to look at the clinic’s work. I was unable to get there so could not check what he told me.
Now H. is in prison with many hundreds of others. I asked another Palestinian friend about H. He laughed and said the village clinic was probably funded by Hamas, and that could be the link with H.’s detention. There have been many arrests in the West Bank, he said.
I do not know whether H. is a terrorist intent on killing Israelis, or a decent man caught up in circumstances where he was trying to make a living and also help his people. I would be surprised to find that he is a would-be killer. I have always found him talking in terms of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs. I remember his work as a tour guide in furthering good relations.
His detention without trial also resonates with me in a very personal way. After the fall of apartheid, I was able to gain access to some of the South African Security Police files on me. I found reports that stated that I had attended social parties of extreme left-wing people. There were lists of these parties. In fact, I had never been to a single one. I was similarly wrongly described as having attended sundry left-wing meetings.
I learned that on at least two occasions, a "banning" order had been considered for me. This was an administrative decree which would have severely curtailed my personal liberties. The banning decision would have been taken in secret on the basis of secret information, which I would not have known or been able to challenge.
That is why I am concerned about H., and others held without trial, for months and even years. It is wrong, and dangerous, for all of us. The same cry that I repeatedly uttered in South Africa is relevant and needed in Israel: charge or release.
Benjamin Pogrund was deputy editor of The Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg. He was prosecuted for his reports exposing ill treatment of prisoners in South Africa.