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Why Rebels Must Be Middle Class

Perhaps Tali Fahima's misfortune is being poor and of Moroccan background. Israeli authorities don't treat ashkenazi university students with the same harshness

Daphna Baram

20 Sep. 2004

How could a 28-year-old secretary, a devoted Likud voter with no record of political activism, find herself being interrogated for a month at the headquarters of Israel's security services? And how could she get herself sentenced to four months of "administrative detention" without trial, a punishment usually reserved for Palestinian activists? That is what happened to Tali Fahima this month, and her story tells us a great deal about Israel today.

Fahima began wondering about the roots of Israeli-Palestinian violence during the past year. She decided to meet Zakariya Zbeide, leader of the Jenin refugee camp. She spent a couple of weeks in the camp, hanging out with him and other militants, helping with educational projects and fundraising for children.

After her arrest, the Israeli media described her as a new version of Mata Hari. Even the liberal Haaretz said that she was Zbeide's lover, although there was no evidence. The security services leaked apparently groundless accusations against her: she had assisted in terrorist attacks, attempted to smuggle a bomb into Israel, and so on.

It is not unheard of for Israelis to visit Zbeide, who has survived at least five Israel Defence Forces attempts on his life. I personally know of five lefty activists who have enjoyed his hospitality during the past month. None was arrested or interrogated. So why was Fahima?

The answer is that her profile does not fit the bill. The Israeli security services know what a lefty activist should be like: a student or academic from a middle-class background, preferably of Ashkenazi (European Jewish) descent, who is a member of one of the tiny leftist groups. Such people are tolerated because they can be supervised and controlled.

Tali Fahima is like a British KGB spy who never went to Cambridge. She is of Mizrahi (Sephardic) origin, she is not an academic, she lives in an impoverished southern development town, and her only political activity has been to vote for Ariel Sharon. To show active political interest in the Palestinian plight out of the blue is just not the done thing in Israel.

Cases like Fahima's are rare, but they all get similar treatment. In the late 1980s, Rami Hasson, a Mizrahi gym-owner from Jerusalem, refused to serve in the occupied territories. While more "typical" refuseniks were imprisoned for a time more or less equal to their prospective reserve service and then left alone for another year, Hasson received summonses for reserve duties again and again, and served numerous consecutive terms of imprisonment until the army finally despaired of breaking him.

Mordechai Vanunu was another example. A Moroccan youngster in Dimona is just not expected to turn into a whistle-blower, exposing Israel's nuclear weapons to the world. Hence the harsh treatment meted out to him: more than 17 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

Fahima, Vanunu and Hasson all posed a danger to the social and political order. Their communities might be influenced by them, and start asking unpleasant questions. And so it is crucial to isolate them, pillory them as carriers of a plague, and teach Israel's poor communities that the price of dissent is very high indeed.


Daphna Baram is a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford. She was a fellow of the Reuters Foundation Program in Oxford University, and News Editor of Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir. Her book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel (buy from Amazon UK) was published by Guardian Books, in July 2004. This article was first published in The New Statesman.