In what may be part of a systematic effort by Israeli internal security forces to use journalism as a cover for intelligence-gathering, agents from Israel’s General Security Services, also known as the Shin Bet, impersonated a veteran Israeli television news correspondent. The impersonated journalist, Yoram Cohen, who works for Channel 1TV covering the West Bank and Gaza, learned of the ruse on Feb. 29 from Palestinian and Israeli colleagues, and later read about it in the Israeli daily Maariv, which quoted a Palestinian journalist who had been “interviewed” by the journalist-impostor on Feb. 28.
Karim Askara, a correspondent for the Bethlehem-based television station Al-Mahid, said he was approached by a man who identified himself as Yoram Cohen while he was filming Palestinian protests on Jebel Abu Ghaneim (known in Hebrew as Har Homa), the site outside Jerusalem where the Israeli government has broken ground for a controversial Jewish settlement. “There was a journalist nearby,” Askara recalled. “He said he was Yoram Cohen from Channel 1 Israel TV. I had heard his name before, but had never seen his face.” According to Askara, the man began to question him about the political atmosphere in the West Bank and the activities of the Palestinian police with regard to the demonstrations.
Moments later, when military intelligence officers of the Palestinian Authority arrested Askara after observing his conversation, he learned that the “journalist” was a Shin Bet agent. Askara was taken to military intelligence headquarters in Bethlehem, where security officers interrogated him for nearly nine hours and accused him of collaborating with Israeli intelligence. “They said that [the man] was an Israeli intelligence officer named åHusni,'” Askara said. “I told them I didn’t know anything about it. They took my film … and asked me a lot of questions. They accused me of having contacts with Israeli intelligence.”
CPJ subsequently learned that earlier the same day, teachers from a school in the nearby village of Talat al-Deek reported similar encounters with an Israeli who identified himself as Yoram Cohen.
For many Palestinian and Israeli journalists, the use of journalists’ identities for covert government operations immeasurably complicates their work in the West Bank and Gaza, especially given the widespread suspicion among Palestinians of the Shin Bet’s use of undercover agents throughout the Occupied Territories. “The big problem for me now is to work in the territories,” Cohen told CPJ. “People there know me and now they are afraid of me. It is very dangerous. Now people suspect that I gave information or work for the Shabback [Shin Bet]. My life could be in danger.
“I did a story in Qalqiliya once,” Cohen added, referring to the West Bank village he visited in 1995 to interview the friends and family of a Palestinian who had carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, “People were afraid to talk to me. They said they wouldn’t talk because intelligence [officers] had disguised themselves as a camera crew in the past.”
After the Feb. 28 incident, Channel 1 TV filed a formal complaint with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, which has direct oversight of Shin Bet activities. To date, neither the station nor Cohen has received a reply.