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24 May 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Close encounter with Shin Bet

Robert Tait was merely a reporter trying to leave the Gaza Strip. Then he fell foul of Israel's secu

By Robert Tait

It could have been a scene straight from John le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl, or perhaps Operation Shylock, Philip Roth’s biting satire on how paranoia lives, breathes and prospers in the state of Israel. In a tiny, brightly lit room, a hard-nosed Shin Bet agent is questioning an archetypal innocent abroad.

Yet this was no work of fiction. This was me, in a claustrophobic room, under harsh lights, sitting across from a senior member of Israel’s domestic spying agency at half past two on a Saturday morning, forced to rebut suspected links with Palestinian terrorists. On the wall in front of me, a picture of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister and self-proclaimed scourge of the terrorists, smiled benignly.

I had been in de facto captivity, kept under constant watch by two Israeli soldiers, for nearly 13 hours. My detention had started after I had attempted to cross from the Gaza Strip into Israel shortly after lunchtime on the Friday.

My inquisitor bore all the hallmarks of my preconception of an Israeli intelligence agent – tall, burly, middle-aged, cropped grey hair, confidently proficient in English. Friendly, yet bullying.

“You seem very amused to be here,” he said accusingly, an extravagant misreading of my mood, which had, in fact, veered from frustration to tightly concealed outrage, and then finally to a relaxed complacency stemming from the conviction that I had done nothing wrong. This sang-froid was rapidly undermined when, on examining my reporter’s notebook, my interrogator characterised my journalist’s shorthand as “Arabic”. He affected deep scepticism at my attempts to explain the principles of Teeline shorthand.

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I had fallen under the suspicion of Israel’s ever-vigilant security apparatus after trying to enter Israel at the Erez checkpoint along with three other foreigners. All of us were given body searches carried out with forensic gloves, which were then tested for traces of suspicious materials. The process was repeated twice – a process of elimination which determined that I was the rogue element.

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The others were allowed to leave. Under a broiling sun, I was ordered to stay. The number of soldiers in the area suddenly increased – a sign that I was regarded as a security risk – and they eyed me with unconcealed hostility. I was abruptly ordered not to use my mobile phone and to keep it in my pocket. I was then instructed to go into a cubicle, where I was told to strip to the waist and take my shoes off. My bags were searched a second time. Nothing suspicious was found.

Next, I was escorted towards the grandly named VIP lounge, normally a precursor to being allowed back into Israel. Confined to the lounge, I had my passport confiscated and my every move watched by two soldiers who had been detailed for the task. This continued for four hours, until a sudden explosion followed by the sound of gunfire nearby prompted another alert and the soldiers, donning bulletproof vests and protective helmets, poured out into the courtyard.

Though I wasn’t wearing such protective clothing, I was nevertheless ordered to accompany them and wait in a small room, again under watch. Exasperated, I rang Danny Seaman, the head of foreign media at the Israeli Government Press Office, to try to clarify my situation. He empathised but could offer little help.

Security alert over, it was then Shin Bet’s turn. First, I was taken to a tunnel area through which Palestinian workers usually pass when they are allowed into Israel. Before a preliminary interview with a junior agent, I was subjected to another body search, which could be best described as “intimate”, and divested of my mobile phone, wallet and everything else apart from money. It emerged that I was being detained because suspicious material – possibly explosives – had been detected on my clothes.

I have never touched explosives, but I soon figured out what could have led to my predicament. Along with some other journalists, I had originally tried to get into Gaza the previous Thursday morning to see the Zeitoun quarter. Following two days of fierce fighting, prompted by the killing of six Israeli soldiers, blown up in their armoured vehicle, Zeitoun had been destroyed. The Israeli authorities had decided to prevent journalists from entering or leaving Gaza.

The explanation proffered was that the army had “specific information” that terrorists could be using journalists as cover to carry out attacks. Only by Thursday evening were we allowed through; and it was Friday morning by the time I reached Zeitoun, accompanied by a colleague, Patrick Bishop of the Daily Telegraph. As we surveyed the carnage near the spot where the six soldiers had perished, a dust storm blew up, reducing visibility to a few yards. It was this dust, I deduced, that had contained particles of explosives from the blast that had killed the Israeli soldiers. There was no other explanation; I had not touched any suspicious objects or been in contact with known militants.

I had aired this theory several times by the time of my nocturnal appointment with the senior agent from Shin Bet. But he insisted that the material detected on my clothing was “highly irregular”. What if he were to hold me for another four or five days, he asked, threateningly. Who did I know in Gaza? And in Israel?

It was, I was convinced, a game. They knew I was innocent. But I had to undergo further “checks” for another hour and a half. Then, just after 5am, my interrogator returned, apologised for the inconvenience, shook my hand and told me I was free to go.

I had been cleared of a crime, but not, I suspect, of the abiding distrust of Israel’s ever-watchful security state.