In June 1996, Bashar Tarabieh, a resident of the US, visited his family in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. On August 19, three days before he was scheduled to return to the US, he was arrested at 2:15 am by Israeli security service and police agents. Charged with spying for Syria, burning down a local council building in 1993 and again in July 1996, Tarabieh was held in the interrogation section of Jalameh prison near Haifa. On August 26, through an agreement worked out among the judge, prosecutor and his lawyers, Lea Tsemel and Hassan Jabareen, Tarabieh was transferred to a hotel in Acre for 48 hours and then released. Since 1994, Tarabieh has worked as a consultant for Human Rights Watch which actively publicized and protested his arrest. Tarabieh’s “Education, Control and Resistance in the Golan Heights“ (Middle East Report 194/5) was the winner of MERIP’s 1995 Shehadi Award, given annually by MERIP for the best article by a new author. On October 5, Beshara Doumani, an editor of this magazine, interviewed Bashar Tarabieh in Philadelphia.
After your story was first publicized in the Philadelphia lnquirer, it appeared in other papers in the US, Europe and Israel. When the Israelis arrested you, did they not know that you worked for Human Rights Watch?
This was their mistake. I had an extension of detention hearing the day after my arrest, and the judge, Faris Falah, apparently was convinced by the security agents that I was a “security threat.” He renewed my detention, including five days incommunicado [no meeting with a lawyer] and imposed a press blackout. Judges generally trust the word of the police and the security agents.
Their most serious allegation, spying for Syria, was very weak. First they claimed that I had met a Syrian agent in the Golan Heights three or four years ago; later they claimed that I had met an agent in the US. This contradiction proves that they had no evidence. If I were such a serious threat, they wouldn’t have waited two and a half months while I was in the Golan before arresting me.
How did your treatment compare to that of other detainees?
I was exposed to every method of standard interrogation with the exception of beating and “shaking” [shaking creates a whiplash effect]. The methods of torture used in Israel, called “moderate physical pressure,” are regulated by the secret appendix of the Landau Commission Report. An interrogator threatened me, saying, “We are going to use Landau Commission methods against you.” I said, “Isn’t [Landau] the judge who justified torture?” He said, “He didn’t justify torture.” I said, “What are you going to do? I am not familiar with the secret appendix.” He said,“You know that we can use shaking,” implying that it is one of the permissible methods.
I was subjected to shabeh [being tied to a miniature chair with the front legs cut shorter than the back legs, forcing the person to lean forward]. If you try to straighten out, the back of the chair digs into your back. I was handcuffed from behind to the legs of the chair with a dirty sack over my head. I was in shabeh about seven to nine hours every day.
In order to prevent people in shabeh from hearing the screams from the interrogation rooms, they constantly play loud music, the same cassette, 24 hours a day. This helped me to keep track of time. Whenever I heard “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” I knew that an hour had passed.
Another form of psychological pressure is sleep deprivation. Every hour, someone comes in to the cells on the pretext of checking on the prisoners. The sound of the two heavy metal doors opening always wakes you up. You assume one of four things is going to happen: They might just be checking on you, bringing you food, coming to take you to interrogation — and this can happen at any hour of the day or night — or to beat you. So you always jump up to be prepared. Obviously, this prevents people from sleeping more than a few minutes at a time. The food is absolutely disgusting. For the first four days, I didn’t eat more than a piece of bread at each meal because the food seemed rotten. The interrogators claim that this is the same food that they eat, but I don’t believe it. When I met my lawyer on the fifth day of interrogation, the food changed dramatically. By that time, they knew that there was a lot of media attention on my case and they wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t complain about my treatment. They also replaced the dirty sack with blackened ski goggles. This was easier to handle because I didn’t have to struggle for air. This also made it possible for me to catch glimpses of what was going on in shabeh. I saw people being held in a row along the hall. I saw a man in shabeh who fell over; he had fallen asleep and lost his balance. Agents picked him up and hit him. Fifteen minutes later he fell over again. He must have been there for a long time — you would have to be very tired to sleep in that position.
Every night in the cell, I could hear prisoners communicating by shouting through the fan system which connects all the underground cells. One night I heard a prisoner telling another that he was being taken to the hospital the next day because his hand was broken.
You were arrested for your political activism.
Arrest is a common form of harassment aimed at intimidating political activists. The main reason I was arrested was because I am affiliated with the only non-governmental organization in the Golan, the Arab Association for Development (AAD). This organization was established in 1991 and works primarily on health, education and cultural activities. Since the AAD is registered and operates according to Israeli law, the government cannot legally close it. I believe that this is why they tried to charge me with spying for Syria — if they could link me to both Syria and the AAD, they could use this as an excuse to close the organization.
Is the AAD seeking to provide the infrastructure for self-rule?
The Golan community has never attempted to achieve self-rule; the size of the population is too small [approximately 17,000]. We are trying, however, to develop institutions that can improve the standard of living for people as long as the occupation continues. Health was the first priority, and the AAD successfully challenged the Israeli government to provide vastly superior health care services.
The Israeli government follows a standard pattern: don’t provide adequate services until some indigenous alternative surfaces (as was the case with kindergartens and the health center), then try to force the local initiative to close down through a combination of Israeli-sponsored competition with and repression of the local organization.
Although the AAD has been targeting health and education, our main goal is to provide services in the cultural sphere. Israel is targeting us culturally by trying to change our identity from Syrians living under Israeli occupation into “Druze” who are loyal to Israel.
Israel has tried to foster an ethno-religious identity among Syrians from the Golan by imposing on us the Israeli Druze curriculum, which has historical distortions intended to foster a chauvinistic identity that can be manipulated by the Israeli state. It was more or less successful in the Galilee, but it hasn’t worked in the Golan. To give you an example from my arrest, for my first hearing, the judge and the prosecutor were both Israeli Druze. The only Jew was my defense lawyer, Lea Tsemel!
It seems that the Israeli security services are sensitive to media pressure.
The media attention helped speed my release. I knew from the moment I was arrested that the sole purpose was to harass me, that HRW would protest and that this would draw media attention, especially since I am a US resident. This allowed me to be antagonistic. Whenever I could, I told them that I know about the Shabak [the Israeli General Security Services], that I have worked for organizations that investigate the Shabak, that it abuses the rights of detainees and that it was abusing my rights. I was able to provoke my interrogators on many occasions. As a result, sometimes they would lose control. For example, on the second day, there were two playing good cop, bad cop. Surprisingly, it was the “good cop” who lost control. He said, “The penis of the Shabak is longer than the penis of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, longer than the penis of B’tselem and longer than the penis of HRW. And this penis will follow you all your life.” On another occasion an interrogator said, “When you are in Shabak interrogation, there is nothing called ‘human rights.’ There is nothing called ‘individual rights.’ There is only ‘states rights.’”
Another way that I really antagonized my interrogators was by insisting on speaking Hebrew. They conduct interrogations in Arabic, and they kept trying to get me to speak Arabic, but I refused. They speak Hebrew “at home;” and Arabic when they interrogate “the enemy.” I am sure that it is awkward for them to interrogate someone who is as fluent as they are in their own Hebrew language.