Tel Aviv — They risked arrest in Syria and Lebanon to offer Israelis back home rare glimpses of their neighbors, but now a top Israeli national security commentator, a popular blogger and a travel journalist are under police investigation for breaking a decades-old law banning travel to “enemy” states.
The police, who say the journalists may have compromised national security during the trips, could recommend criminal charges that carry a maximum sentence of four years in jail. Mindful that they might be dragged into court after enduring four-hour interrogations, the reporters have reacted with annoyance and disdain.
“I’m not concerned” about facing charges, said Ron Ben-Yishai, a leading columnist and reporter for Israel’s top-selling daily, Yediot Ahronot.
Ben-Yishai, who has reported from Iraq and Lebanon, reached ground zero of an Israeli air strike in northern Syria in September. Though his article made Yediot’s front page, last month he spent hours with the International Crimes Investigations unit answering questions about the trip.
Ben-Yishai said he preferred to save ammunition to counter police allegations for a court hearing rather than speaking out prematurely in the press. Though he hopes law enforcement agencies back down from the investigation, Ben-Yishai sounded ready for a court battle.
Though visitors are not allowed entry to Lebanon and Syria with an Israeli passport, a handful of reporters have gained entry using their dual nationality. The argument pits the value of freedom of the press against the desire of Israeli security authorities to prevent espionage or a kidnapping which would create pressure to release Arab security prisoners.
“What is important is the seriousness with which we view the visit,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
“Every time they meet foreigners there, everything they say can be used against the State of Israel.”
The journalists broke a 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law. Originally passed to block Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel, it was amended to prevent Israeli citizens from visiting states defined as “enemies.”
Lisa Goldman, a Canadian immigrant who’s Tel Aviv-based Web log “On The Face” is widely read in the Middle East, got into trouble after traveling to Lebanon for a feature story on Beirut for Time Out Tel Aviv’s year anniversary issue on the Lebanon war.
Goldman said that one morning last November she got a call on her cell phone from an officer at the International Crimes squad who asked her to show up at headquarters in Petach Tikvah. Within an hour there were a pair of policeman at her central Tel Aviv apartment with a summons to an interrogation set for the next day.
The blogger said she was asked for details on her contacts in Lebanon, how she gained entry to the country, whether she was aware that Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group, and how she worked as a journalist after her Israeli press credentials had expired.
“It was ridiculous,” said Goldman, who got a warning from police after the interrogation. “I didn’t understand why they picked on me. There were so many other Israeli journalists with foreign passports who had traveled to enemy states regularly. I felt scolded.”
Yossi Bar Moha, the acting director of the Israeli Journalists Association, said he was concerned that journalists were being accused of spying for the enemy, similar to the allegations against former Israeli Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara.
“We can’t tolerate that journalist sent by a newspaper to cover an enemy country should be treated as a security threat.”
He acknowledged, however, that security authorities are concerned about having to trade prisoners to free kidnapped journalists. But a Haaretz editorial discounted that argument.
“Israelis must enjoy the freedom to endanger themselves, at their own risk,” read the editorial. The fate of a journalist is not the same as that of Gilad Shalit, who was abducted as a soldier serving the country. The state is not the nanny of its citizens.”