Haaretz stories cast doubt on health of Israel’s ‘democracy’

Haaretz staffer says he was told by a senior official that he would ‘suffer the consequences’ if he publishes the story.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Yossi Cohen on December 7, 2015. GALI TIBBON / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Cohen served as the Mossad chief from 2016 to 2021 under the previous term of Netanyahu as prime minister [File: Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images]

Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published two eyebrow-raising pieces in a row that cast doubts on Israel’s democratic norms.

On Wednesday, it published an opinion piece by Jonathan Pollak with chunks of text redacted, referencing a standing gag order preventing media from discussing “administrative detention” – a system under which Israeli forces hold Palestinians indefinitely without charge or due process.

The following day, it published a story detailing how, two years ago, the Israeli government prevented it from publishing an investigation using “emergency powers” and threats. This story later became the subject of an explosive report by +972 Magazine and the Guardian, alleging intimidation efforts by its intelligence agency, Mossad, against an International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor.

Obscuring/redacting truth

The “redacted” opinion piece was marked up deliberately by Haaretz staff, a stark visual representation of the opacity of the “administrative detention” system.

The headline read: “Israel’s Cause for Detention: …” with everything after the colon obscured by black squares reminiscent of the black marker used by censors of old.

And so the piece continued, describing the plight of those Palestinians caught up in an indiscriminate Israeli dragnet that would rather hold massive numbers of people indefinitely than follow due process.

Wherever the writer referred to police statements or anything to do with process or vague charges, the dreaded black marks appeared again, frustrating the reader and doubling down on reminding them of the perils of censorship.

The writer, Jonathan Pollak, is a longtime Israeli anti-Zionist activist who has had several run-ins with the Israeli security establishment, having been arrested several times in the past and convicted on at least four occasions on protest-related charges.

His most recent arrest was in January 2023, charged with throwing stones at a Border Police jeep. As his trial date approached, he took the unusual step of demanding that his trial be held not in a civil court but in a military court, the opaque justice system inflicted on thousands of Palestinians every year.

Exposure at a difficult time for Israel

In a piece by Gur Megiddo, Haaretz said on Thursday that it had been ready to publish a story about alleged Mossad pressure on the International Criminal Court prosecutor as long as two years ago.

Instead, Megiddo’s piece said, “Israeli government officials had used emergency powers to prevent the story from being published at the time.”

It is a revelation that has amplified accusations that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not above subverting the freedom of Israel’s media to block damaging stories.

Megiddo, who was the author of the earlier investigation, said that before he published that investigation, he received a call from a senior security official summoning him to his office.

During his meeting with the official, he was told that if he published, he “would suffer the consequences and get to know the interrogation rooms of the Israeli security authorities from the inside”, he said.

The report by +972 and the Guardian, published on Tuesday, centred on allegations that then-Mossad head Yossi Cohen attempted to extort then-ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, to force her to drop an investigation of alleged war crimes committed by Israel in Palestine.

“One of the investigation’s key findings would have been known to readers of Haaretz a long time ago if Israel was the democratic state it claims to be,” said Megiddo.

“Now the affair has been exposed at a difficult time for Israel.

“Instead of being exposed in an Israeli newspaper, the investigation has now appeared in a newspaper with global circulation. Instead of contending with the story during peacetime, it must now deal with it in the midst of the war.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2024 [Amir Cohen/Pool/Reuters]

Cohen’s covert contact to pressure Bensouda took place in the years leading up to her decision to open a formal probe into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in occupied Palestinian territory, the Guard report said.

Last week, Bensouda’s successor, Karim Khan, applied for an arrest warrant for Netanyahu partly based on that probe launched in 2021.

Khan announced his office had “reasonable grounds” to believe that Netanyahu and his now-Defense Minister Yoav Gallant bear “criminal responsibility” for “war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

In a post on X, Esther Solomon, editor-in-chief of Haaretz described Megiddo’s account as “chilling”.

Niall Stanage, associate editor of the American political newspaper, The Hill, described the report as a “new twist on Mossad intimidation of the ICC”.

Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, said “it is to the credit” of Bensouda that despite Israeli threats against her, “she opened a formal investigation of Israel in March 2021 as her term was ending rather than leave it to her successor.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies