Palestinian "sex + corruption" videotape scandal continues

Some of the reactions are interesting — some Israeli comments on various news stories and blog posts say they are happy to learn that the Palestinian leadership is interested in sex rather than violence… “Let them make love, not war”, one Israeli wrote.

OK.

This only shows how the lack of contact, the media incitement against Palestinians, and the separation of peoples has created such a demonization that it has become impossible to view The Other as really just human.

But, this “he’s only human, and nobody is perfect” business does not adequately deal with what was shown about Rafiq Husseini, Chef de Cabinet of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on the Palestinian “sex + corruption” videotape that was aired, repeatedly, on Israeli TV during the past week, and which is also now available globally on the internet via Youtube.

While we have seen, in recent years, images of a number of Palestinian men forced to strip down to their underwear — or more — to fulfill the imperious demands of Israeli mililtary forces, this is the first time we have seen one of the top officials (he couldn’t really be called an operative) in the Palestinian Authority take of all his clothes — all of them — roll into bed, and wait for a woman (who remained off-camera in what was clearly a “sting operation” to entrap him. When he is surprised by a group of four Palestinian men who walk into the bedroom (instead of the woman he was waiting for), Husseini keeps a lid on his anger, and hops out of bed and gets dressed again.

The defense offered by some Palestinian leaders, going now right to the top, is not inspiring.  Ma’an News Agency reported today that Abbas told a Dubai satellite TV channel yesterday that “When Israel wants to defame someone or some party, they launch accusations against him from all directions”.  Ma’an said that “Abbas referred to ‘Israel’s attack’ on him via a media interest in hundreds of leaked document and a sex tape allegedly used in a corruption scandal”.  This Ma’an report is published here.

For full disclosure, it should be noted that Ma’an chief editor Nasser Lahham yesterday wrote an editorial published by his news agency which — among other things — called on Husseini to resign: “No matter what pain it causes him personally, chief of staff Rafik Al-Husseini must resign immediately for the sake of the country and national interest. Bold steps are required to overcome this crisis and quickly – his silence is no longer enough … guilty or not, any competent media advisor would urge someone in his position, the head of the Office of the President, to cede all responsibilities until a commission of inquiry can be established and its results reviewed … [But] The leadership has unfortunately adopted the same tired and evasive tactics, failing to take responsibility”.

Nasser Lahham does see himself, of course, as a media pundit and a media advisor, and was invited to appear on the Palestinian TV show last night on which Rafiq Husseini was supposed to participate as well, but didn’t. Instead (see below) one of the women involved, apparently Husseini’s secretary, called in. On the TV show, Lahham expressed outrage and indignation, said that there was no real, free, journalism in Palestine, called into question the authenticity of the full videotape that was shown on Israeli TV, and said that he was once honored to have a visit from Rafiq Husseini. His editorial can be read in full here.

Also in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Ma’an News Agency last night published a “right of reply” from the disgruntled Palestinian Authority (PA) security officer who was shown on the videotape interrupting what Husseini thought would be a sex session, and who was interviewed non-stop on Israeli TV last week — after Israeli-Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh flogged the story for all it was worth starting in late January in the Jerusalem post. In the “right of reply”, the disgruntled Fahmi Shabaneh wrote, among other things, that “The Rafiq Al-Husseini episode occurred in June 2008. Rafiq misled President Abbas about what happened. I was suspended for 10 days through a decision taken by President Abbas, after he was contacted by [PA official] Ibrahim Al-Masri Tawfiq At-Tirawi, who was abroad … After President Abbas reviewed the facts that I told him, and after I delivered copies of the tapes that revealed the lies and fabrications of Rafiq Al-Husseini, I was back at work on 31 November 2008 at Abbas’ request. I was also promoted as head of intelligence in the West Bank’s northern district on 21 December 2008. That I returned to my post infuriated Rafiq Al-Husseini, so I found myself imprisoned in an Israeli jail for a month and a half, after which they imposed house arrest from 4 January 2009 until just recently. After the Al-Husseini story came to light, Israel demolished part of my house, which is in At-Tur, East Jerusalem. The Palestinian general intelligence and the PA didn’t help me [after I was arrested by Israel – n.b. he writes later that this happened on 12 January 2009] by hiring a lawyer, paying legal fees, or paying expenses related to my house arrest, which resulted in my having to sell my home to cover the costs of the case and the arrest. I wrote President Abbas four letters, two others to the prime minister, another to the Fatah movement’s court [established by Abbas for inter-party matters], three letters to Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala), a letter to [PA Housing Minister] Muhammad Ishtiyah, and letters to the head of each security department and a plethora of other officials, knocking on doors to no avail. I still have all this correspondence … I will not waver from what I’ve committed to doing, and will host a press conference on 28 February 2010 in the event that no procedures are taken against those whose names I gave to President Abbas”.

There are plenty of questions out there about whether or not sections of the tape may have been doctored, whether or not the dialogue was electronically altered by sophisticated means, and whether some of the sequences may have been shot at different times, there are some facts that stand up:
(1) Rafiq Husseini is shown sitting in a small living room with two women whose faces are blurred on the Israeli TV video, apparently to hide their identities, but whose voices were apparently not altered. (Both the living room, and the bedroom which is shown later, do not look as though they are places where someone normally lives. The two rooms are quite small, and have the anonymous crisp look of a temporarily-rented furnished apartment. Nasser Lahham noted on last night’s Palestinian television program that Husseini appeared to be wearing a different shirt in the living room and in the bedroom which was shown later…)
(2) In any case, one of these women is apparently either his secretary, or a secretary working in another office in the Ramallah Muqata’a Presidential headquarters where Yasser Arafat was beseiged under constant threat of death for the last years of his life, and where Yasser Arafat’s tomb now stands.
(3) The other woman is a friend of the secretary, and was apparently sseeking something that Rafiq Husseini was in a position to arrange.
(4) One or both of these women were apparently aware that a unit of the Palestinian security services was seeking to get Rafiq Husseini in a compromised and ridiculous position on videotape; and cooperated with this operation.
(5) The conversation between Husseini and the two women in the living room did not have the tone of a normal social interaction. Husseini appeared arrogant, and bantered in a suggestive way.
(6) Though it is clearly suggested, it is not absolutely certain either (a) that the bedroom was in the same apartment as the living room shown on the videotape, or (b) whether or not the presence of Husseini in both rooms happened in sequence on the same day.
(7) What is clear is that Husseini in the living room was being asked for something … and Husseini in the bedroom was clearly expecting a sexual encounter from a woman to whom he called out, but remained off camera.
(8) At least some of the men who entered the bedroom and surprised the naked Husseini waiting expectantly between the sheets were recognized by Husseini as Palestinian.
(9) One of these women who was in the living room — who identified herself in a phone call into last night’s Palestinian TV program as one of the two women, and whose voice seemed very similar if not identical to the voice of one of the women who was pictured on the videotape with Rafiq Husseini, and who apparently is either his secretary, or a secretary working in another office of the Presidency — said that almost everything that was being said was a lie (but neither of these women appeared undressed or in the bedroom with the visibly naked Rafiq Husseini). The explanation that this woman offered in her phone call last night was illogical, unsatisfactory, and implausible.

Many here are remembering Bill Clinton’s unforgettable testimony: “I did. not. have. sex. with. that. woman”.

(I should note here that neither the host of the program nor Nasser Lahham asked her any probing questions — they seemed embarrassed. Nasser Lahham wrote in his editorial published before the TV show that “Adults and children alike were left speechless when they saw what aired on Israel’s Channel 10 last night. How could parents explain to their kids, with any credibility, what they were witnessing? The shock was enormous”.)

It has been written in other news reports about this sex + corruption scandal that Palestinian society is “deeply conservative”. Well, yes and no. There is enormous social pressure to appear deeply conservative. But from what I have seen, observed, heard and experienced, I can state that everything that goes on everyplace else in the world also happens here. It’s just that here, it’s important to pretend that it doesn’t happen, and to save face publicly. Some people would call this hypocrisy. Palestinians would say it’s simply smart — and it would be not only utterly insensitive, but would show a complete lack of culture, delicatesse and good manners, and would also be incredibly stupid to behave otherwise, here.

Just this is enough to set aside all the other possible questions and discrepancies about the videotape (and about the motivations of the person who made the accusations, about the motivations of the Israeli media and the Israeli leadership and the Israeli secret services) and to show that something is very wrong inside the Muqata’a, and inside at least a certain segment of the leadership.

The episode(s) shown in the videotape aired on Israeli TV are reported to have happened in June 2008. And nothing was done, until now?

The crisis has been brewing since Khaled Abu Toameh published in the Jerusalem Post on 29 January his first article in this recent series. And nothing was done, until now.

The fact that the leadership appears to be tone-deaf, and prefers to lash out at all its possible opponents rather than acting as it should and must act, shows that this is just a repeat of the scandal concerning the lightly-taken decision to put off the first Human Rights Commission vote the Goldstone report … and it further erodes the political viability of the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian Authority.

Another indication that something is wrong is the defiant reaction that there is no corruption so long as “the PA maintains transparency with donor countries and operates a strict oversight mechanism on their payments”, as one PA official reportedly told YNet, here — as if donor money is the only thing that is important, the only thing that needs to be handled correctly.

American editor at Ma'an News Agency denied re-entry into Israel + held for deportation hearing

Jared Malsin, the editor of the English-language website of the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency, was detained upon arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport when arriving from a trip abroad.

Jared Malsin is at right in this Ma’an photo, holding the small recording device.  He is listening to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  Ma’an’s Chief Editor, Nasser Lahham, is wearing the red tie and standing to the Prime Minister’s right in the photo.

Jared Malsin in right of photo speaks to PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad

Jared is also a friend and colleague who edited some of my contributions donated to Ma’an News Agency.  Recently, we both found ourselves in the same Arabic-language class (Media Arabic) in Jerusalem for the last three months of 2009. [He apparently did not previously study Arabic at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.]

Jared Malsin, an American from New England, [Josh, in a comment posted below, informs me that “He’s actually from New Hampshire, not Vermont”], has a Jewish father [Jared’s colleage from Ma’an tells me that his mother is not Jewish, which is a crucial point in Jewish religious law — but having a Jewish father still makes him eligible for Israeli citizenship, should he choose to exercise this right].

UPDATED FRIDAY: Ma’an News Agency reported that “More than 48 hours after he was first detained, Malsin is still being denied access to any of his belongings. He was not been given a change of clothes, toiletries, or offered the chance to shower.  ‘I have nothing’, he said during a visit to his detention cell by a US consular official on Thursday afternoon.  ‘I don’t even have a pen or paper, not even a book’.”  This was sent out as a Ma’an press release.

Ma’an News Agency has reported this morning that “Malsin was detained at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport on Tuesday afternoon while returning from the Czech Republic on holiday. After eight hours of interrogation, the Israeli Interior Ministry ordered him held and scheduled deportation for 6am on Thursday. Ma’an attorney Castro Daoud intervened amid pressure from US diplomats seeking an injunction against the deportation. The request was rejected by the Israeli attorney general, whose own ruling was then overturned by a Tel Aviv judge … Judge Miriam Sokolov will hear Malsin’s case at 10am at the Tel Aviv District Court. A verdict is expected by noon. Hebrew-language interrogation transcripts obtained by Ma’an reveal that Malsin was deemed a security risk on the apparent basis of his political beliefs. Interrogators gathered online research into the journalist’s writing history, which the transcripts indicate included news stories ‘criticizing the State of Israel‘, among other allegations that he ‘authored articles inside the territories‘. The security agents questioned why Malsin would have entered the West Bank if he were truly interested in becoming an Israeli citizen [sic], say he ‘claimed to be Jewish’, and allege that ‘he exploited his Jewishness to gain entry into the State of Israel’. Among the specific grounds for detaining him were ‘lying to border officials’, ‘here illegally’, and ‘entered Israel by means of lies’.” Ma’an also reported that “Israeli officials have refused to publicly acknowledge Malsin’s presence at the airport or anywhere else”.  This report can be read in full here.

The Jerusalem Post has reported that “An American Jewish journalist who works as a senior English-language editor at the Ma’an Palestinian news agency was denied entry into Israel on Tuesday and is scheduled to be deported on Thursday. Security sources told The Jerusalem Post that ‘suspicious signs’ were identified on Jared Malsin, adding that the suspicions were passed on to the Interior Ministry. The sources said ‘no security advice’ was given to the Interior Ministry regarding Malsin. The Interior Ministry then took the decision to deny Malsin entry into Israel. The ministry was not immediately available for comment. Malsin was detained after he deplaned from a flight from Prague with his girlfriend, Faith Rowold, on Tuesday afternoon. It was not immediately clear whether Rowold, a US national who works as a volunteer for the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, was also denied entry. ‘He was really confused’, said George Hale, a colleague of Malsin who spoke to him by phone before Malsin’s phone was confiscated on Tuesday night. ‘They interrogated him about pro-Palestinian activities and asked if he was involved in such things’, Hale added. ‘We are not activists in any way. That would reflect poorly on our impartiality. He is not known for being an activist. If he’s at a protest, it’s with a camera’, Hale said. In a statement released by Ma’an, the news organization said it ‘scrupulously maintains its editorial independence and aims to promote access to information, freedom of expression, press freedom, and media pluralism in Palestine’ …”. This JPost article is posted here.

  • If Ben Gurion Airport security gave “no security advice” to the Interior Ministry [and if Jared were a security threat, the Ben Gurion Airport security would surely have had to say so], why did the Interior Ministry decide to deny him entry?

UPDATE: Colleagues at Ma’an have just said that Jared’s deportation hearing has been postponed until Sunday, and he remains in Israeli detention.  The conditions in these detention facilities are known to be rather bad — and this delay means Jared will have spent  more than four days in them before his hearing.  His girfriend, Faith Rowold, was deported today (Thursday).   According to a source in the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, she was in Jerusalem for at least a year on a one-year church volunteer visa,  and had left the country (and was trying to return on Tuesday) in order to obtain a valid new visa.  (Other American-national church volunteers in Jerusalem who have had the special one-year visas for this category have reported to this correspondent earlier that their requests for visa extensions were denied this year.)  Faith Rowold went back to Czeckoslovakia, and may try to see if she can resolve the problem from there, the source said.  The source added that U.S. Embassy and Consular officials were “heavily involved” in trying to resolve both cases…

UPDATE TWO: Ma’an has a more detailed account published as a press release on their website here.  It reports that “Interrogation transcripts reveal that Malsin’s detention was linked to his work as a professional journalist. Airport officials indicated that he was denied entry into the country for ‘failing to cooperate’ with Israeli security personnel, and because he had authored news stories ‘inside the territories’ and articles ‘criticizing the State of Israel’. The documents question his Jewish heritage, as well … US Embassy staff have registered objections with the Israeli authorities over Malsin’s treatment. Dutch officials, whose government provided some of Ma’an’s initial funding in 2005, expressed concern and are monitoring the situation. Danish representatives, who also provided start-up funding for Ma’an were also contacted.  Nevertheless, foreign diplomats say there is little they can do in cases where Israel cites ‘security reasons’ for denying a foreign-passport holder’s entry, although Israel has yet to specify any allegations in Malsin’s case. Israeli security officials, meanwhile, have quietly expressed concern to Ma’an over this latest abuse of power by the Interior Ministry”.

The question of donor funding what is supposed to be an independent news agency — something which is peculiar to the Palestinian Authority area — is highlighted in an “Order of Events” that Ma’an compiled on this same page that “Jared’s phone was confiscated by El Al security officials when he boarded a flight in the Czech Republic on 12 January 2010. He was denied the opportunity to make any calls to his consulate, his family or a lawyer between 11am (upon boarding) and 11pm (when his mobile was briefly returned) … [H]is long-term girlfriend, Faith Rowold, a two-year, registered volunteer with the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, was also seized and placed in a holding cell pending deportation. At 4pm when the flight was disembarked in Tel Aviv, Faith used the phone of a fellow traveler, an Israeli national, in the restroom of the airport. She called her sister with a brief message saying she had landed but indicated that there were problems. At 6:30pm, the office of US Citizen Services was contacted in Jerusalem. Officials called Israeli airport authorities, who assured them that there were no American citizens being held there at that time. The names of Jared and his companion, also a US national, were reportedly not flagged. The official suggested the couple were out having a good time in Tel Aviv and had simply not gotten in touch … Jared used the mobile of a French traveler admitted to the detention hall at 8:30pm to call his Faith’s sister again and asked a colleague to immediately contact the US Embassy. He said he was being questioned and feared being denied entry into Israel; he provided passport numbers for himself and his fellow traveler. The US Consulate official was contacted again with the information that Jared was not out in Tel Aviv, but had in fact been in Israeli custody since 11am that morning. The official immediately expressed concern and said he would call his contacts again at the airport. The official called back at after 9pm and asked for more information on Jared and his fellow traveler: are they married, is she pregnant, is there a Palestinian connection, what newspaper does Jared write for, etc.  The consulate official was informed that Jared worked with Ma’an.  He was also informed that while the US, EU and UK fund programs and productions with the Ma’an Network, that staff at each of the consulates consult the English Desk site daily, even hourly, the State of Israel does not recognize Ma’an as a news organization, and therefore denies its journalists press accreditation.  By 11pm, both Jared and Faith were informed that they had been denied entry. Their mobile phones were returned to them for two hours, and then confiscated just after midnight when they were transferred to holding cells”…

UPDATE THREE: The BBC website has reported that “[Israeli] Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabin Hadad said Mr Malsin had been denied entry because he had refused to answer during questioning. She said issues related to Mr Malsin’s visa ‘could have been solved if he had co-operated’, said Ms Hadad. An official report on the questioning, which Maan said it had received from the court, accused Mr Malsin of failing to arrange the correct visa, but did not give details. It said he was suspected of ‘exploiting the fact that he is Jewish to gain a visa’. This was apparently on the basis that, when seeking a visa extension previously, he had told Interior Ministry officials he was exploring the option of emigrating to Israel, but had written articles critical of the country. By law Jews from around the world are eligible to emigrate to Israel. The report also said Mr Malsin had refused to give the name of the friend he said he lived with in the West Bank … Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that allegations that the decision was because of Mr Malsin’s journalism were ‘simply absurd’.” This same BBC report quoted Jared Malsin’s colleague at Ma’an, George Hale, as saying that ‘Malsin, a graduate of Yale University, had initially come to Israel on the Birthright programme, which funds visits to Israel for young Jewish Americans. Mr Malsin had never overstayed a visa, except for his most recent one, which was a few days overdue and that he had been told by officials this did not matter, Mr Hale said. Foreign nationals working or volunteering with Palestinian organisations in the West Bank often complain of difficulty obtaining visas. Many are present on three-month tourist visas, which do not provide permission to work and may not be extended”.  The BBC website report is published here.

  • So, as the BBC reported, “Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that allegations that the decision was because of Mr Malsin’s journalism were ‘simply absurd’.” While these allegations may well be “simply absurd”, as Mark Regev said, it nonetheless appears that Israeli security officials at Ben Gurion Airport and the Israeli Ministry of the Interior have made and sustained them.  If so, why?  And why have other Israeli government officials not challenged them?

According to a link on the mondoweiss blog, Tel Aviv-based journalist Mya Guarnieri wrote on the Huffington Post today that “Although Bethlehem-based Maan is identified as a Palestinian news service, it is widely known as an independent media outlet — free of political agendas and noted for its unbiased reporting. As such, it is attracting a steadily growing readership, receiving over 3 million visitors a month. Malsin appealed the deportation order and was scheduled to stand before a judge in Tel Aviv on Thursday morning. But according to Maan’s lawyer, Castro Daoud, the hearing has been delayed until Sunday for unknown reasons. In the meantime, Daoud says, Malsin remains in the custody of Israeli authorities. Since his detainment, which Israeli officials initially denied, Malsin has had little contact with the outside world. Daoud has had only one brief meeting with his client and Malsin has made a short phone call to Maan staff writer and sub-editor, George Hale. Speaking to The Huffington Post, Hale reports that Malsin was shocked by the detainment. Malsin was also surprised that Israeli security officials were questioning him about the International Solidarity Movement, an activist group that Malsin has no affiliation with. ‘He [Malsin] is the last person who would be involved with the ISM. He is a journalist’, Hale says” Guarnieri added that “When considered within a larger context, Malsin’s detention seems to point to a government intent on silencing dissent”. This report is published on the Huffington Post here.

  • As we reported earlier this week here, Israeli forces conducted a 3am raid into the heart of downtown Ramallah to detain a young Czech woman [Eva Novakova] who has been in the area with the International Solidarity Movement, and for the previous three weeks working as the group’s media coordinator. She was taken from Ramallah into Israel, and deported from Ben Gurion airport at 6am on Tuesday.  Was it just a random coincidence that a few hours later Jared was detained while returning from a holiday that just happened to be in the Czech Republic?   It is interesting to read, in one of the Ma’an reports on Eva Novakova’s deportation, that “Dusan Kralik, the Embassy of the Czech Republic’s envoy to Israel, said he was not planning to protest the move, which Nováková’s supporters say was carried out without due process, bypassing Israel’s judiciary. ‘She was here illegally, without permission’, Kralik told Ma’an. ‘She’s supposed to leave’.”   This Ma’an report is posted here.  It is also interesting that one of the emails that Eva Novakova must have been responsible for sending out, as the ISM media coordinator for the three weeks prior to her seizure in Ramallah and deportation from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, is one dated 3 January, reporting on another deportation, of another American: “Minnesota resident Ryan Olander is facing deportation after being held in Israeli prisons for over two weeks. He spent his Christmas and New Year at a deportation facility in Ramle, where his request for release has been rejected by the prison judge. His lawyer submitted an appeal to the District Court in Tel Aviv on 27 December 2009 challenging the request of the Israeli Ministry of Interior for Mr. Olander’s deportation. The lawyer is anticipating the decision of the judge within the next 48 hours. Ryan Olander was arrested from a tent the Palestinian al-Kurd family built in their own backyard [in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem] following a recent setter take-over of a section of their house. He was drinking tea and talking to the family members when six Israeli police walked into the tent and took him for questioning at the Russian Compound police station in west Jerusalem (http://palsolidarity.org/2009/12/9944). Despite being released without charges the following day, Ryan was illegally re-arrested by immigration police only a few moments later, right outside of the same police station that told him he was free to go“.

UPDATE FOUR: Israel’s Haaretz newspaper finally published a brief story on Friday, saying that “Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said: ‘Mr. Malsin is not staying in Israel on a journalist’s visa and the team that questioned him had no idea he was a journalist. He returned to Israel with his girlfriend. Both of them are registered … as having been here illegally several times’. Interrogation transcripts obtained by Maan indicate that Malsin may have been deemed a security risk due to stories he wrote criticizing Israel”. This Haaretz story is posted on their English-language website here.

  • [n.b. – What?  They were in Israel “illegally” several times?   How is that possible?]

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It’s hard to understand what the real issues are.  If the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) refuses to give press credentials to employees of the Ma’an News Agency, based in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, then Jared Malsin could not have asked for a journalist visa.  So, what kind of a visa should he have requested, exactly?

UPDATE FIVE – REALITY CHECK: My own journalist visa from the Israeli Ministry of Interior, issued on an annual basis, is about to expire, again. Its renewal depends entirely upon a recommendation from the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO), which is part of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office — and this recommendation is entirely based on the issuance of a valid GPO card. I have now received a letter in response to my application for renewal of my GPO card saying that (this year) I do not meet the requirements — and the first reason cited is that (1) my website DOES NOT HAVE at least 100,000 hits a day from at least 20,000 distinct IP Addresses. In addition, the GPO letter says that (2) it has not been proven to its satisfaction that I was engaged in press work … in Israel or abroad, on a permanent basis … during the year prior to my application for renewal. [This is despite the regular publication of my articles on this website and elsewhere throughout the entire year…] And, the GPO letter suggests that it has not been proven to its satisfaction that (3) I “arrived in Israel for the performance of services in the field of news media for the period of at least one year, at the request of the Media, and an express and binding work order/contract requesting these services was presented to the GPO” [though I arrived with a valid contract and have had a GPO press card for more than 2.5 years]. The GPO letter then informs me that I am “entitled to submit an objection in writing to the Prime Minister’s Office Legal Adviser with [sic] thirty days of receiving this notice The objection will be discussed in committee according to the rules”. The letter is signed by Daniel Seaman, Director of the Government Oress Office. When I spoke to him on Sunday, he told me that this had not been brought to his attention — but that I could appeal. “We do not decide who is a journalist”, he told me, “we just decide who is eligible for a GPO card”. I have had a GPO press card since May 2007. I presented a valid work contract upon my arrival, from a media for whom I had worked for over a year prior to my arrival. Since then, I have been working continuously and exclusively as a journalist. Last year, when there was an issue over what kind of press card I would be issued, Danny Seaman said to me: “Do you think we don’t know what you write? I don’t agree with it, but, I recognize you are a professional journalist. We read everything. We even read your blog”. Now, facing the possibility of not having my GPO card renewed, what kind of visa can I ask for? The only other possibility would be the usual three-month tourist visa. If I were obliged to ask for that, would I be accused of lying? And, if I were granted such a visa, I would have to travel in and out of Israel (and the occupied Palestinian territory — because for this purpose, if for no other, the Palestinian areas do not count as “another country”) at great expense and inconvenience, with great uncertainty at every return, every three months…

And, by the way, both this year and last year, Danny Seaman informed me that I can stay in the country for up to two months after my visa expires — “especially as an American” — without any problem. When I asked him if he could put this in writing, he declined. But the Ministry of Interior is now saying that among their objections to Jared Malsin (and Faith Rowold) is that they have overstayed their visas by a few days.

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On January 29, 2007, the Israeli GPO sent out an email to journalists containing the “translation of the unedited verbatim transcript of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee meeting (http://tinyurl.com/yczjf3) regarding foreign journalists’ visas, on 20.11.2006”. It is a fascinating document.

In it, MK [Member of Knesset] Ahmad Tibi opens the session by stating that “Today, there are approximately 800 foreign journalists in the country covering issues both inside the State of Israel and in the Palestinian Administration (PA) areas. Usually, foreign journalists arrive for a period of three-to-five years. However, approximately 20 journalists have been in the country for over 10 years. The Entry into Israel Law does not distinguish between foreign journalists and other foreign workers, all of whom receive B-1 visas. The visas are valid for 36 months and their validity is not extended except in exceptional cases. A foreign journalist in Israel must – in order to be here – hold a B-1 visa and a foreign press card from the GPO, headed by Daniel Seaman. A foreign journalist whose B-1 visa has expired needs a letter-of-recommendation from the GPO, i.e. he needs a letter-of-recommendation from the Government, of the Prime Minister’s Office which, on the face of it, seems improper. In order for the reporting to be professional a journalist must depend solely on professional elements, in the Interior Ministry alone, and not on the recommendation of those he reports on. What is this like? For example, if his report is critical of Ahmed Tibi and then I need to give him a recommendation and I do not give it and I do not extend the validity of his visa. Therefore, journalists believe that the visa is a tool for controlling their reporting. If ‘those high up’ are not satisfied with a certain journalist, he greatly suffers from the fact that his visa is not extended or he is given the runaround or he does not receive a letter-of-recommendation from the GPO”.

There was a lengthy but revealing exchange between committee members and the Ministry of Interior spokeswoman, of which excerpts follow below:
Moshe Gafni: … A journalist is called a foreign worker?
Sabin Hadad [
then, as now, Ministry of Interior spokeswoman]: He [sic] has a foreign worker’s visa.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: As a journalist, he is subject to the Entry Into Israel Law, like a foreign worker.
Moshe Gafni: Doesn’t he have a press card that gives him a different status from other foreign workers?
Chairman Raleb Majadele: Foreign journalists receive a visa for 63 months, five years and three months. At the end of this period, if Reuters and its correspondent continue the contacts between them, they apply to the GPO, receive a recommendation for one year and the Population Administration approves an extension for one year. At the end of the year they must apply again and repeat the same procedure.
Ahmed Tibi: Or they don’t get a recommendation.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: We will yet hear if they receive a recommendation or not, there is data. This proposal is here before us today for us to discuss. There are people who believe that journalists need to receive separate visas in order to maintain freedom of the press, so that they will have quiet and not depend on the GPO, and who claim that 63 months is not enough.

Sabin Hadad: As far as we know, during the last five years, there have been no problems, at least we haven’t heard of any. The simple procedure – correspondents go to the GPO, the GPO determines who is defined as a journalist and who not. I, in the Interior Ministry, have not monitored the journalists, I do not have the professional tools to check who is actually a journalist and who not. That is the GPO’s job and they do it just fine. During the first five years journalists do everything via the GPO … Only in recent months has a problem come up regarding extending the visas beyond five years. They started to say: Yes, extend. No, don’t extend. There are specific provisions in the law stating what to do after five years, there is an exceptional case. For five years, those who want to, can work. Any expert and any foreign worker who wants to work beyond five years, first of all, if it’s approved, the approval is for one year only according to the recommendations of the relevant ministers.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: What happens after the sixth year?
Sabin Hadad: A journalist who wants to continue working here even after the sixth year and his newspaper continues to employ him brings the same recommendation to the Interior Ministry, but the process is more complicated, there are no automatic extensions … The decision is the Interior Minister’s in the end.
Chairman Raleb Majadele:: Who does this, the journalist himself or the GPO?
Sabin Hadad: This is part of the new procedure that has been agreed upon. In the discussions we held with external elements, including the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the Foreign Minister’s Bureau, the Interior Minister, and in the past week we also held a discussion with FPA representatives, it was decided that in extensions beyond five years, the determination of who is a journalist and who not will still be the GPO’s but they will not make recommendations. The decision is the Population Administration’s and we announce the decision in advance: In the absence of another factor – criminal, security, etc. – we will extend visas for foreign journalists, for one year each time, and we will not refuse. The agreement is that we will extend in the absence of other factors.
Chairman Raleb Majadele:: Is the agreement current, that you have agreed to forego the recommendation of the GPO?
Sabin Hadad: It is not a recommendation. They only decide who is considered a journalist and who is not, that’s their job.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: I am not going into the professional aspect. Have you decided to forego the recommendation of the GPO?
Sabin Hadad: It is possible to say that we have foregone the recommendation.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: Meaning that a journalist whose 63 months in Israel are up brings directly to you the confirmation of his continued employment by his newspaper abroad and you clarify with the GPO whether or not he is a journalist?
Shalom Ben-Moshe: They confirm that he is a journalist working in the country.
Sabin Hadad: He goes to the GPO with confirmation that he’s a journalist and we make a decision, whether or not to extend his visa. We do not receive a recommendation from the GPO: I recommend to extend or not. We only receive confirmation regarding his employment as a journalist. Another thing that was made clear by our Legal Adviser during the meetings is that if they tell us that after five years a person is no longer a journalist, it’s not the end of the story”.

Shalom Ben-Moshe [Director of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry Foreign Workers Unit]: I am the head of the Unit for Foreign Workers and I am the one who issues work permits in the country. In effect, not every non-Israeli in whatever work in the country is called a foreign worker. They can be university professors and there are these, scientists and soccer coaches and women foreign workers from the Philipines and journalists as well … The law determines that whoever wants to work in Israel must submit an application for a work permit, and it is not currently important from who. He receives a work permit for a year and renews his work permit annually. If he is an expert in the medical field, for instance, he must bring a permit from the Health Ministry that he is indeed an expert in his field; if he is a university scientist, he must bring a permit from the university; if he is a soccer coach, he must bring a permit from the soccer federation that he is indeed a coach.
Ahmed Tibi: That’s all. A recommendation that he is a good player is not required.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: Then there is positive discrimination in favor of journalists that they get visas for 63 months?
Shalom Ben-Moshe: No. The visa is renewed every year, for up to five years, for up to 63 months. After 63 months, the law determines that a person cannot stay in the country for any reason, he must leave the country. If he wants to work beyond this period he must submit a special request, which comes to me.

Chairman Raleb Majadele: Then what is the GPO needed for?
Shalom Ben-Moshe: According to the new arrangement, the GPO confirms that the person is indeed a journalist and works for this or that recognized foreign company. Up until now, it recommended and from now it confirms that the person is indeed a journalist working for this or that newspaper.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: Journalists are like scientists?
Shalom Ben-Moshe: Exactly, like doctors, scientists or any other worker.

Ahmed Tibi: This position of yours has been known for a month or two. In practice, have Mr. Jorg Bremer, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung correspondent, and Ms. Wafa Amar, the Reuters correspondent, received extensions? They applied, there is confirmation that they are journalists, Reuters and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung have applied as official insitutions to the GPO and to you. Have you issued them visas?
Sabin Hadad: Wafa Amar’s visa was approved already a year ago but nobody did anything. They spoke to us at the end of February, they asked what was happening with the year visa. We said that the GPO has the confirmation and that they should go there. They didn’t. Until a week ago, when we renewed it for another year, they didn’t do anything. That is, she was here and for 1.5 years illegally so, of her own volition. Her visa from September 2005 had been approved.
Ahmed Tibi: Now that she will apply, will she receive?
Sabin Hadad: She came a week ago and has already received it.
Moshe Gafni: Why didn’t she come to take the visa?
Ahmed Tibi: They sent her all over the place. I know her. There is a problem with Mr. Seaman. Maybe he will be able to comment on this.

Chairman Raleb Majadele: I believe that the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, and the Interior Ministry, and the Population Administration, and the GPO champion freedom of expression and freedom of the press. I am sure of it.
Sara Marom-Shalev
[MK – member of committee] : Why did they bring this up then?
Shalom Ben-Moshe: I do not recall an instance in which a journalist who asked did not receive an answer.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: Why did it have to come to this? What interest does the State of Israel have in visa extensions for foreign journalists coming up for a Knesset committee discussion? … What interest do we have? We want a country that receives people cheerfully. Who has an interest here? We invest a lot of money in our overseas emissaries so that they will promote the state’s image. Here, we could do this for free. True, one cannot trust everything that’s written in a newspaper, but do we need to discuss this? Who needs such a thing? We want to be a state that is counted among the free, democratic and enlightened countries that is an example for others, and we can be like this.
Daniel Seaman: I would like to thank the Chairman and MK Tibi for giving us the opportunity to clarify the issues. As you see, many things are not clear. You asked a correct question, why did it need to come to this? As someone who deals with the issue, having worked with the press for 15 years, six of these as the [GPO] Director, I say that there didn’t have to be this problem. The GPO has never strayed into areas that are the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry or the Population Administration. Moreover, I can only commend their work, their responsiveness, their readiness to help us. I have no arguments with these bodies and whoever testifies against them does not understand the issue.
I would like to vigorously reject any hint to the effect that the GPO works according to invalid considerations. First of all, there is no recommendation from the GPO and there never was. I note the example of the letter we wrote for Mr. Jorg Bremer, an action that the GPO does as a service to foreign journalists. I can attest to MK Ahmed Tibi that even if a journalist was critical of him, we do not invalidate a correspondent because of his criticism of MK Ahmed Tibi. We do not enter into the contents of journalists’ reports … The GPO is the body that identifies journalists in Israel, especially foreign journalists. Many people come here and indentify themselves. We work according to rules that have been approved by the Attorney General’s Office. They were approved by the High Court of Justice and were amended according to High Court of Justice decisions over the years. The decision of who is a journalist and who not is given via a GPO card. Afterwards, the bearer of our cards – and there are several kinds – is eligible for the services of the GPO.
In practice, as has been mentioned, the journalist can do everything directly with the Interior Ministry, the Population Administration and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. The journalists can apply to them directly and then the Population Administration asks the GPO if the person is recognized by us as a journalist, that’s all. In practice, I approve that a person has a press card, no more. True, the letter opens with the words ‘I recommend’; we thought to put it positively but there is no letter that says ‘I do not recommend.’ I know of no person who carries a GPO card who did not receive the GPO’s recommendation when he applied to us. By the way, this is not required. Journalists can come and take only the letter but we do more. An employee of mine, Ms. Sharon Goldhammer, basically does the work for journalists so that they do not need to stand in line, in order to help those who come from different cultures. You know this, cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings. We help them so that everything is done in one office: A journalist arriving in the country does everything via the GPO as a service of the State to those journalists.
[
n.b., a year ago, around the beginning of 2009, journalists were informed that Sharon Goldhammer was no longer doing this service for journalists — on the apparent basis that a journalist had been rude to her. This change may or may not have been in practice for a few months already in 2008. In any case, the journalists now have to stand in line at the chaotic Ministry of Interior.]

Daniel Seaman: … [As] has been said here, we identify this person as a journalist. By the way, many foreign journalists do not speak Hebrew. With English or Arabic, it is yet possible to get by at the Interior Ministry but a Japanese or Chinese journalist, a journalist who speaks Turkish, French or another language, will encounter difficulties at the Interior Ministry. The GPO does everything for them. If there is a misunderstanding, if the forms are not filled in, it’s done for them, they do not have to run all over the place. We know how the bureaucratic processes go in the country, not only at the Interior Ministry but at all ministries. There is an English expression that ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ – this is our case exactly. The service that we have tried to provide journalists, to arrange things for them, somebody tried to use it to cast suspicions to the effect that irrelevant considerations come into play here. I reiterate, the content of publications and even the issue of freedom of expression, is not a consideration at all, it doesn’t even come into it. The person wants service from the Interior Ministry. If he is not recognized by us as a journalist, he does not receive a letter from us, this is where everything starts and ends. True, we wrote ‘recommend’ for appearance’s sake, that it should look nice. Do you want us to delete the word ‘recommend’? We’ll delete it. For historical background: A journalist who comes here, in the first five years, must renew his visa annually, for himself and his family. With this process there is no problem. In the past, the same process applied for beyond five years. The problem began in February three years ago when the legislature enacted a law that restricts presence [in the country] to 63 months. This is where we encountered the first problems. Despite the journalists’ position and their suspicion that someone among us, in the bureaucracy, is trying to harm them, the consideration is not ours. Moreover, neither us, nor the Interior Ministry, nor the clerks, nor the GPO, has the job of criticizing the legislature. You decide – we carry it out. No thought was given regarding journalist, so we decided to try to find a solution within the system. We brought several proposals. To our dismay, there have been three Interior Ministers in three years, including the Prime Minister in an acting capacity, and whenever a decision by the Interior Minister was needed, the process was postponed, but the Population Administration and the Interior Ministry responded to each and every applicant. In the specific instance of Mr. Jorg Bremer, there was no reason for the issue to reach the press. He applied to us in September, using the same process that everyone does, and we dealt with him like we deal with everyone. He was only asked to wait patiently until after the holidays for the committee to convene.
Ahmed Tibi: You certainly regret the remarks that were published in the newspaper and attributed to you.
Daniel Seaman: I regret that it was published. This certainly wasn’t my official reaction to things. I was certainly angry with the journalist’s false testimony that was presented. It was claimed in the newspaper that Mr. Jorg Bremer had not been treated fairly. Here is a photograph of the flowers that he sent to my employee [shows a photograph of a bouqet of flowers to the committee]. If this is his response to unfair treatment, I don’t know how he responds to fair treatment. I don’t know what he felt. I know that he received good service. I must point out that the GPO Director is not involved in the process. I have a faithful employee who deals with journalists, knows them, and deals with all of their personal needs. She also dealt with this issue. Mr. Jorg Bremer was a bit anxious, didn’t believe in the system and asked to speak to me. I was happy to help him. I don’t know how pleased I am today but I was happy then to help him. I certainly reget the remarks and I am even ashamed of them. I will try not to repeat them, certainly not to journalists.

Chairman Raleb Majadele: You said that there has been a turnover of Interior Ministers and that as an organization you want to promote solutions for journalists. Where do things stand?
Daniel Seaman: In practice, the solution is already working, therefore we did not understand what was the need. In the newspaper, it was presented as if I was telling him to conceal some truth. I asked him not to take steps because the system works. Why make noise on this issue at the moment? Until his application, 15 journalists’ applications had been submitted, including that of the person sitting here, the head of the BBC office, who – as far as I know – was the first for whom an application for an exception had been submitted, and everybody responded positively. In Mr. Jorg Bremer’s case, he was impatient to wait until the committee convened.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: Are there Foreign Ministry representatives here? What is your position?
Tamar Sam-Ash:
We are interested that a solution be found for everyone in the framework of the law. As I understand it, the solution is at hand. We are certainly interested that journalists here will be able to do their work as efficiently as possible and report on what happens in the country as they see it.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: Representatives of the FPA [Foreign Press Association] may speak. Anybody care to comment?
Simon MacGregor [FPA] : I would like to thank you for inviting us here today. It is a pleasure to be here. After having listened to the testimony that has been presented here, it is difficult to identify where in the system the problem lays. We have the impression that there is a new approach of cooperation and a desire to improve the process of renewing visas for those who stay beyond five years and make it smoother. It is also true to say that in the past year we have encountered problems in the visa-renewal system and in the lack of transparency, which our members find difficult to understand. Several cases were brought to our attention in which the renewal of the visa took much longer than it should have. As of yesterday, two of our German colleagues, who checked again at the Interior Ministry, have still not had their visas renewed. It is possible that the delay is for bureaucratic reasons.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: As of yesterday they did not have visas. Has the validity of their visas expired, are they now in the country illegally or is there still time until their visas expire?
Simon MacGregor: From a work permit point-of-view, they are now working illegally.
Ahmed Tibi: Even though they submitted applications.
Sabin Hadad: They are in the country illegally because they did not go and do it, but the computer already lists them as having received visas. I said this yesterday as well. There is a misunderstanding here. I spoke with the visa department today myself and I even went one step further and called Mr. Bremer to tell him to go to the Ministry to bring the visa.
David Azoulay: From which office will the visa be obtained, from the Population Administration?
Sabin Hadad: Yes. Maybe there was some misunderstanding about the place.
Daniel Seaman: As soon as the process started, a journalist works legally. When he is in the process, he is not an illegal worker.


Sara Marom-Shalev : … I am sure that a journalist can not be like any foreign worker. The status of a journalist must be different. He doesn’t need approval from the Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor. There is the Interior Ministry, there is the GPO – these two need to discuss with the Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor. A journalist that is a foreign worker – that’s a bit strange.
Shalom Ben-Moshe: Then the law should be changed. A person working in Israel needs to receive a permit.
Ahmed Tibi: Its possible to include them in a specific group and give them a press visa.
Shalom Ben-Moshe: The foreign journalist is no different than the foreign professor who comes to work in a university.

Sara Marom-Shalev: We must be more wary of journalists than with professors.
Shalom Ben-Moshe: But there is no difficulty to give him a work permit.
Ahmed Tibi: How many journalists are waiting to have their visas renewed?
Sharon Goldhammer: Not even one is waiting in my department. There is one journalist who will receive a visa renewal tomorrow morning.
Ahmed Tibi: What about Ms. Wafa Amar?
Sharon Goldhammer: I am responsible for foreign journalists only. I must say that this functions very effectively. A journalist who submits a request to the committee waits 30 days at the most in order to receive an answer….
Naama Pelai [attorney from the Interior Ministry Legal Adviser’s Office]: In the Entry into Israel Law no special visa has been determined for journalists. The relevent visa is a visa for foreign workers. A foreign worker is also a foreign worker in construction, agriculture or nursing care, as well as an expert – a bank manager, an athlete and so on. Therefore, presently, as far as the law is concerned, there is no other way to define a journalist other than a foreign worker B/1 visa. This allows for an extension after five years in special circumstances as defined in the paragraph, and in that framework a way was found to extend journalists’ visas after five years. We are working on amending the regulations, that will determine precisely the types of people for whom it will be possible to grant an extension after five years. Groups will be specifically defined for which an extension will be given after five years. But even today it functions within the framework of the paragraph of the law. Legally, these are the only ways available today to resolve this problem and it is impossible to do this with a special visa or special license.
Chairman Raleb Majadele: I haven’t heard where the visa request of Ms. Wafa Amar from Reuters stands.
Sabin Hadad: I thought that that was closed. A week ago she was in the office. They called from the office to see if it was approved, and it was approved.
Ahmed Tibi: This morning she still did not have a visa” …

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In Jared Malsin’s case — though it has not been stated by anyone (or even hinted at) — perhaps the only possibility is that officials of the Israeli government think that Ma’an News Agency itself should have, or could have, made an effort via the Palestinian Authority to request a work permit from Israel?  Otherwise, what other avenue is there?   This is not at all clear.

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UPDATE SIX: The NY-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has written on the organization’s website that “The Israeli Ministry of Interior issued a deportation order on Wednesday morning against Malsin for ‘security reasons’, according to his lawyer, Castro Daoud.  ‘Interrogation transcripts show that Malsin was deemed a security risk because of his political beliefs’, Daoud told CPJ.  ‘Security at the airport gathered news stories written by him which they deemed critical of the State of Israel’. He added that security officials also interrogated Malsin about a pro-Palestinian activist group called the International Solidarity Movement. ‘My client has no affiliation with any activist group; the allegations that he represents a security risk are baseless’, Daoud added.  ‘We are alarmed by the Israeli government’s efforts to deport Jared Malsin on vague security charges’, said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem.  ‘We call on the Israeli authorities to ensure that our colleague be allowed to carry out his work without further harassment’.  Malsin was slated for expulsion back to Prague at 6:05 a.m. on January 14 but Daoud succeeded in obtaining an injunction against the order.  ‘We successfully appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to overrule the Ministry of Interior’s decision thanks to pressure from the U.S. Embassy’, Daoud told CPJ.   Israeli authorities do not recognize Ma’an as a news organization and as such Malsin has been entering Israel and the Occupied Territories on three-month visitor’s visas.  Malsin’s colleagues say that he is known to the Israeli military and civilian authorities and had recently been invited to tour a military base on a settlement in the occupied West Bank.  Malsin has been denied access to a shower, clean clothes, and reading and writing materials, according to Hale, who was able to briefly talk to Malsin on Thursday morning”.  This CPJ notice is posted here

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