Inconsistent on Terrorism: The Globe and Mail on Jamal Akkal's case
An En Camino Media Alert
January 1, 2004
In mid-October of this year, Canadian resident and citizen Jamal Akkal traveled to the Gaza Strip, Palestine, where he had grown up. Akkal, 23 years old and until recently a student at the University of Windsor, was going to meet up with his fiancée in the community of Nusseirat, where he himself had been born. The trip was only supposed to last a couple of weeks.
Akkal entered the Gaza Strip from Egypt by the border crossing at Rafah, a refugee camp that houses thousands of Palestinians. Just days before his arrival, the Israeli military had made one of its periodic incursions into Rafah - described promptly by Amnesty International as "a war crime" - destroying 170 houses that had sheltered a total of more than 2000 people, leaving 53 Palestinians wounded, and killing 8, including 3 children. Traveling northward, Akkal soon reached his fiancée's home in Nusseirat. Early into his visit there, an Israeli assassination attempt missed its targets in that community, wounding 49 bystanders (including 11 children) and killing 8 (including a child and an on-duty doctor). So life progressed in occupied Gaza. And as the month of October came to a close, Akkal began his planned trip back to Windsor.
To this day, however, Jamal Akkal has neither made it home nor been able to contact his family in Canada. As he arrived in Rafah to go through to Egypt, border officials arrested him at the behest of Israel's intelligence agency, Shin Bet. More than a month later, he was still sitting in Israeli prison without having yet been charged, and the Israeli embassy in Ottawa stated publicly that he was a Hamas assassin with plans to attack Israeli and Jewish targets in Canada. Since then, the charges have been made formal, and Akkal has been brought before an Israeli military court.
These events should have precipitated a sharp reaction in the Globe and Mail, Canada's principal national newspaper. In traveling to the homes of his friends and relatives, a Canadian citizen had been arrested by the same state that is occupying and systematically assaulting their communities, all in flagrant violation of international law. Further, Akkal was arrested not one month after Canadian citizen Maher Arar was released from prison in Syria, having endured more than a year of detention (and torture) thanks to a U.S. deportation spurred by charges of involvement in Al-Qaeda. Immigrants and refugees to Canada of Muslim and Arab descent are plainly faced with increasing danger, and even citizens are proving quite vulnerable in their travels abroad. There is an obvious and urgent need for a vigorous discussion of these racist trends.
Unfortunately, Globe writers and editors have failed to provide adequate coverage of Jamal Akkal's case. Relevant background information and analysis has been either omitted or grossly underemphasized, with few fundamental questions being raised as to the legitimacy of Israeli claims to jurisdiction over the Gaza Strip in general or to the soundness of the judicial process in which Akkal is caught in particular. Coverage has been further skewed by its adherence to a conception of 'terrorism' that is both politicized and, it must be said, racialized.
By failing to serve as a forum for the sort of vigorous discussion that is required, the Globe and Mail is contributing to the normalization (if not the trivialization) of illegal repression, so long as it is 'anti-terrorist.' This is a slippery slope, and everyone concerned with the preservation of civil rights and political liberties has a stake in demanding better.
Hamas or Al-Qaeda?
From available information, it seems that a collaborator for Shin Bet who is active in the Nusseirat refugee camp saw Jamal Akkal fire 8 rounds from a rifle, possibly in the presence of prominent Hamas activist Ahmed Wahabi. The collaborator relayed this information to Shin Bet, who arranged to have Akkal arrested as he attempted to leave Gaza. During interrogation processes over the next month, Israeli intelligence extracted a range of 'confessions' on which they have built their case. Akkal was intensely interrogated throughout this period, and his lawyer argues that he gave his interrogators what they wanted only after 20 days of psychological torture, having been tied to a chair with his hands behind his back and deprived of sleep for days and nights on end. Certainly, it is somewhat puzzling that the confession that Jamal Akkal finally signed was written in Hebrew, a language that he does not understand.
The allegation that Hamas had enlisted Akkal to attack targets in Canada also stands somewhat at odds with the fact that Hamas has never been active outside of the Middle East, as the organization is wary of making enemies in the international community. Indeed, relentless waves of extrajudicial assassinations and other repression at the hands of the Israeli state have even prompted Hamas to scale down its activities within Israel/Palestine itself; just a few days ago, the lull in Hamas attacks over recent months evolved into a formal temporary halt of attacks within Israel's pre-1967 borders.
To try to work against doubts that Hamas would stage attacks in North America, the Israeli government issued a document in early December claiming that although Hamas had arranged to organize Akkal's planned attacks, Al-Qaeda was to step forth to take public responsibility for them. When formal charge sheets were finally put forward on December 14 (this time with no reference to Al-Qaeda), Lieutenant-Colonel David Benjamin, Israel's top military prosecutor in the Gaza Strip, explained the alleged plot to reporters as follows: "The plan was, as we understand from his statement, to find a person who looked Jewish by the skullcap or some other defining feature...in Canada,…And they said, 'You know, make sure it's a Jew, and then go and attach a bomb to the door of the house.'" In relaying this quote Paul Adams, the Globe's Middle East correspondent, noted that the Lieutenant-Colonel "seemed bemused by the amateurishness of the plot" - 'amateurish' or fabricated, one has to wonder. (G & M: December 16, A14)
A little less outlandishly, the Israeli military charged Akkal with having been approached by Ahmed Wahabi "to raise money in mosques in North America. The fund was ostensibly to be for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers but would actually be used to fund his militant activities." But the basis of these charges is also information taken from Jamal during prolonged interrogation.
Globe and Mail writers and editors fell critically short in providing the relevant background information regarding the regime of occupation whose administrators had arrested Akkal. Commentary regarding Israeli jurisdiction in the matter pertained exclusively to the challenge being mounted by Akkal's lawyer, Jamil Al-Khatib, regarding the authority of Israeli military courts over cases in which the defendants are foreign nationals, and in which the alleged crimes were to take place outside of the territories under Israeli military control - the thrust of the argument is that Jamal Akkal should be tried by Israel's civilian as opposed to military judiciary. This challenge was mentioned on numerous occasions in the Globe, most recently with reference to its rejection by the military court on December 30. (G& M, AP: December 31, A10)
Mr. Al-Khatib is working within the Israeli judicial system, and is thus forced to argue within the framework provided by it. The Globe and Mail is in principle free from the constraints of this framework, but nonetheless proved unable to make the obvious and relevant point: namely, that the Israeli forces of occupation have no legitimate jurisdiction whatsoever over Akkal, nor over anybody else in the Gaza Strip. Israel's initial invasion of the Gaza Strip in 1967 was, after all, quickly met with United Nations Resolution 242, which emphasized "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and called for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict." That Israel is still occupying Gaza and was in a position to arrest Akkal at all, more than a third of a century after the passing of Resolution 242, is not a function of legitimate legality but of military force.
Prevalent notions of Israeli defense from terrorism are about as convincing as Israel's legal claims over occupied territory. It is true that the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in September of 2000 and continues to the present, has involved increasing numbers of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilian targets. However, Palestinian civilian fatalities during this period (presently totaling more than 2750) have exceeded Israeli civilian casualties (totaling between 600 and 700) at a ratio of approximately 4 to 1. And besides, the military occupation of the Gaza Strip preceded the emergence of suicide-bombing-style tactics by decades; to accept the shallow Israeli posture of self-defense is to accept the sort of falsely circular reasoning that seeks to rewrite history. The Globe and Mail's omission of any critical analysis or information on this topic obscures the political realities of the region. It is in this context, of the intellectual normalization of both occupation and the repression that serves to defend it, that Globe analysts have dealt with Akkal's case.
The Globe and Mail did include numerous references to the possibility (verging on certainty) that Akkal experienced some form of torture at the hands of his Israeli interrogators. On December 5, Paul Adams wrote that "representatives of the Arab community in Canada…said…that such confessions are often obtained by coercion," and quoted Mazen Chouaib of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations, who warned that every "so-called confession" of detainees in Israel "is suspect because the Israelis use coercive measures, beatings, to interrogate people."(G & M, Jeff Sallot: December 5, A1) Some limited space was also provided to Akkal's lawyer's assertion that "his client told his Israeli interrogators what they wanted to hear after 20 days of…'psychological torture,'" and that "Mr. Akkal was tied to a chair with his hands behind his back and deprived of sleep."(Paul Adams: December 6, A1; and Canadian Press/Associated Press: December 15, A13) An unsigned letter on December 10 even noted that "Amnesty International says ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners is widespread in Israeli prisons." (A26)
While these references were published, the emphasis on Israeli torture policies in the Globe's coverage has not been commensurate with these policies pervasiveness, nor with their central pertinence to Akkal's case. Indeed, the Israeli government itself has released a document pertaining to the period of popular Palestinian uprising from 1988-92, acknowledging that Shin Bet used systematic torture against Palestinians and regularly lied about it. During the period in question, repression was bad enough, with soldiers responding to Palestinian demonstrations by breaking the bones of participants. However, Palestinians would scarcely have expected at the time that repression would escalate to the point it has today, with F-16 planes and Apache helicopters emerging as regular means of repression. With this escalation on the outside, one can only imagine the developments that have taken place within Israel's prison walls.
Akkal's specific allegations of sleep-deprivation torture also call to mind an article on Facility 1391, a secret detention centre that Israel has removed from maps and airbrushed from aerial photographs. The article, published by the Guardian about two weeks after Akkal was arrested, quoted human rights lawyer Manal Hazzan's assessment that the detention centre "exists to make torture possible - a particular kind of torture that creates progressive states of dread, dependency, debility," torture of a kind that in fact pervades a broad range of Israeli facilities. Especially pertinent to Akkal's case is a description of Israeli interrogation techniques provided by former detainee Mohammed Jadala. The Israeli authorities had arrested Mohammed for suspected Hamas membership, bringing his brother into the same prison system for purposes of psychological pressure, and responding to inquiries regarding where they were being held with comments such as "on the moon." The article quotes Mohammed: "They kept me there in a solitary cell for about 67 days. During this period, they continued with the torture, but they used a different method. They did not let me sleep more than two hours a day. When I started to get drowsy, they woke me up by making noise or by throwing water on me. As a result of the torture, they were able to get me to admit to all kinds of offences."
In a range of crucial respects, then, Globe writers and editors have deprived readers of the background information regarding the reality of Israeli occupation that would be necessary to contextualize and critically assess Israeli allegations against Akkal. Nonetheless, they republished detailed Israeli allegations in article after article on the case.
"A very Western-looking young man"
Despite knee-jerk references to cycles of violence, ancient religious hatreds, or whatever else, the fact remains: the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is far from symmetrical. It is a conflict between colonizer and colonized, between occupier and occupied, between settler and native. This asymmetry is manifest in endless contrasts - contrasts of lifestyle, between the refugee camps of Rafah and the suburbs of Tel Aviv; contrasts in the threat of fear and humiliation - between sporadic suicide bombings on the one hand and endless settlements, checkpoints, curfews, tank shellings and air raids on the other; and, certainly, contrasts of support from the powerful states of the West - between disdainful repression and financial support.
Alongside its close allies, Canada has codified this last contrast into law. And the Globe and Mail has served to legitimize the glaringly inconsistent "anti-terrorist" repression policies under which Akkal was detained by citing their Canadian equivalents without offering any critical analysis. For example, in "Canadian is Hamas Assassin, Israel says," published in the December 5 issue of the Globe, Jeff Sallot writes that "Membership in Hamas, a radical Sunni-Muslim group, was made a crime in Canada last year under the Anti-Terrorism Act adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington."(A1) Nowhere in this article, nor in any subsequent coverage of Akkal's suspected association with Hamas, was the basis of this Canadian government policy critically examined. That this sentence can stand alone, seeming coherent (if not immune to scrutiny) all by itself, speaks volumes to the skewed character of Globe coverage.
After all, what association does Hamas have with the attacks on the United States that precipitated the Anti-Terrorism Act? If U.S. claims that Afghani Holy Warriors were behind the attacks are true, Hamas bears less responsibility for deaths in the World Trade Center than does the CIA (which provided billions of dollars worth of support to fundamentalist Afghan anti-communists throughout the 1980s). And if the legislation was intended to target terrorists more broadly, why does Hamas find itself on the list, and not, for example, the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF)? The latter organization is, after all, responsible for thousands more civilian deaths than Hamas, and indeed than all Palestinian terrorist organizations put together. Through programs like Birthright Israel, furthermore, scores of young Canadians regularly travel to meet IOF officials in Israel/Palestine, receiving military training, practicing on firing ranges, and in some cases serving as part of the occupying forces. Many come back in continued contact with active "terrorist" personnel, intent on advocating on behalf of their policies and fundraising for their "militant activities."
The Globe considered none of this. Their neglect on these topics does not derive from any reasoned comparison of the opposing terrorist sides in Israel/Palestine, at least not one that their commentators saw fit to write about. Rather, it apparently derives from their adherence to a conception of "terrorism" that has been freed from the constraints of any consistent definition (such as "violence directed against civilians to further political ends"), and disproportionately associated with the actions of dissidents, especially Arabs and Muslims. Globe analysts did not even consider the notion that the much more pervasive terrorism committed by powerful states should be referred to and treated as such.
These tacitly racist undertones kept in step with the times, pertaining not to skin colour but to the distinction between "Western" and "non-Western." Consider, for example, one of the more sympathetic articles written about Akkal, "'He is only a man looking for a good future,'" again by the Globe's Middle East correspondent, Paul Adams. (December 6, A1) Although Israel has declared that "Jamal Akkal is a Hamas terrorist bent on bringing the organization's bloody brand of mayhem to the streets of Canada," writes Adams, "he certainly doesn't look the part." From the photos shown Adams by Jamal's fiancée, the former student appeared to be "a very Western-looking young man: clean-shaven, clad in T-shirts and ball caps." "Although Shaima Akkal was dressed in the headscarf and long cloak of a devout Muslim woman," Adams writes of Jamal's mother, she also exhibited liberal "behaviour that would be highly unusual for a woman in a household guided by the ultra-conservative Muslim social norms of Hamas." It would seem, then, that a "non-Western-looking" man with a conservative background wouldn't have fared nearly so well under Adams' investigative scrutiny. But, Adams continues, "it is not altogether surprising that the Israeli authorities might have had some suspicions about Mr. Akkal, just from reading the name on his passport." After all, distant relatives sharing Jamal's family name have been involved in various militant activities throughout Gaza, which to Adams seems legitimate grounds for automatic suspicion of Jamal as well.
"Locked in a PR nightmare"
Clearly, Globe and Mail analysts did meet Israeli charges against Akkal with skepticism, but little beyond what was needed to keep pace with Canadian government pronouncements. After all, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) itself voiced skepticism regarding Israeli allegations, noting that they had neither found nor been provided with any evidence suggesting that Hamas plans on becoming active in North America. And even Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, Bill Graham, seemed slightly irked by the timing of the Israeli embassy's public accusations, arguing that "the gentleman in question [should] have an opportunity to defend himself. That's what courts are for." Especially in the public relations aftermath of Maher Arar's deportation to Syrian prison, the Foreign Affairs Minister was compelled to publicly point out that Jamal "is a Canadian, and the Canadian passport has to be respected." But, as Jeff Sallot and Paul Adams stressed in concluding their article on Graham's statements, the comments were not intended as "a reprimand" against the Israeli ambassador. (A1) Were the situation reversed, with a white Canadian associated with the Israeli military having been abducted by Palestinian groupings, it is most doubtful that Graham and the Globe's commentators would have reacted so tactfully.
To Globe commentators, as to Canadian officials, the issue at hand was not the legitimacy of occupation-related repression, nor the clumsily inconsistent treatment of various kinds of "terrorism," but rather the narrow appropriateness of Israel's treatment of Jamal's case. This skewed perspective is perhaps most readily identifiable with respect to the longest article the Globe and Mail ran on Akkal's case, a piece by Paul Adams that was published on December 19. In the previous article on the case, just three days earlier, Adams had recounted that as "soldiers marched [Jamal] through a chaotic scrum of Israeli and Canadian journalists, he was also asked whether he had any message to send to Canadians. 'Help me,' he replied." But the title of Adams' December 19 piece, "Locked in a PR nightmare," referred not to the shackled Windsor resident but to his captors. Akkal's ensnarement in this public relations nightmare was treated as less noteworthy then the conundrum that the Israeli government faced.
"What should have been a public-relations coup for Israel," explained Adams, "sending the message that Canadians and Israelis share a common struggle against Islamic extremists," instead "illustrated one of the most serious problems that Israel faces as it tries to [explain] the tough military policies of the Sharon government toward the Palestinians." The serious problem Adams refers to is not the illegality of these policies, the torture and other human rights abuses that are characteristic of them, nor the lack of due process afforded even those Palestinians with the privilege of a Western passport. Rather, it is the inefficiency of "Israel's public-relations machine," which is plagued by the sort of "interagency squabbling" that causes it to present its justifications "in a haphazard fashion that can undercut Israel's case." And so Adams article went through the various interviews that the Globe and Mail had conducted with "many of Israel's most senior spokesmen, [including] the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Press Office," who all "agreed that Israel needs to co-ordinate its overseas public-relations efforts better." With a Canadian citizen having been illegally arrested, likely tortured, and put before a military court that has no legitimate jurisdiction over his person, the Globe's Middle East correspondent pinpointed the "public-relations machinery" of the guilty state in question as the topic of primary importance.
Globalizing the Israel/Palestine conflict model
What accounts for the Globe and Mail's skewed coverage of Jamal Akkal's case? In previous media alerts, we have proposed ways in which mainstream Canadian media outlets are linked to the systems whose policies they cover, and how this narrows the spectrum of opinion permitted expression on a wide variety of topics. (See, for example, "Peace through Occupation", "Africa through the Canadian Corporate Lens", "Justifying Occupation", and "Is the Canadian Media Fueling Conflict?") But it is still worth exploring how this pertains to Israeli policy and the case of Jamal Akkal in particular. After all, what stake does the Globe and Mail (or the Canadian government, for that matter) have in legitimizing Israel's purported "anti-terrorism"? The answer is to be found in the increasing globalization of this "anti-terrorist" policy-framework.
Social movements across the world have long been attuned to the global significance of the Israel/Palestine conflict. The conflict between the fourth-strongest military in the world and a poor, dispossessed people, all taking place in a region with immense petroleum reserves and tremendous geopolitical importance, has quite far-reaching social effects. Highlighting the perseverance of Palestinian resistance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, many solidarity activists the world over have put forth "Globalize the Intifada" as a broad call to anti-imperial struggle. Intifada, literally translated to Arabic as "shaking off," is used in reference to three phases of Palestinian resistance: the armed revolt against British occupation that lasted from 1936-1939; the wave of strikes, boycotts, and other resistance to Israeli occupation that began in 1987 and continued until the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1993; and the most recent period of Palestinian revolt, the Al-Aqsa Intifada, beginning in September 2000 and continuing to the present.
In mainstream intellectual circles, the Intifada is associated perhaps most directly with the suicide-bombing tactics that have characterized the most recent period of revolt, and which have in turn been used to justify the Israeli colonial policies against which these tactics are directed. These mainstream associations are linked to Israel's ideological-military response to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, whereby it has struck a defensive posture against Palestinian attacks, while responding to them with disproportionate violence and the intensification of occupation, thus precipitating further anti-colonial terrorism, justifying a continued tightening of the siege, and so on. This model stands almost exactly opposed to the model of struggle that solidarity activists have sought to globalize. But since the suicide attacks on Washington and New York in September of 2001, it is precisely this conflict-model which global elites have sought to replicate and broaden.
It is worth remembering that even before the attacks on the United States in 2001, the Canadian government had been escalating its repression against a variety of domestic social movements - indigenous resistance struggles, anti-globalization and anti-poverty movements, environmental movements, and so on. Activists oriented towards militancy and direct action tactics were especially vulnerable to repression. However, following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States moved to aggressively enact a range of repressive and anti-immigrant legislation. The Canadian government kept in step with a variety of its own legislative acts, notable among them Bill C-36, that served to curtail civil liberties and the freedom of immigrants and refugees in particular. Palestinian immigrants and refugees to Canada have been hit particularly hard by these trends, with refugee claimants encountering judges that ask them their political views, and some of whom have explicitly defended Israeli policies as legitimate "attempts at establishing secure political frontiers and preventing terrorist attacks on its territory." (For more on these subjects, see En Camino's interview with human rights lawyer Amina Sherazee, as well as "Stop the (re)Deportations!")
These domestic policy trends have been paralleled by the increased militarization of Canadian foreign policy, again in step with U.S.-led initiatives. The Canadian government gave its full-fledged support to the 2001 invasion (and subsequent military occupation) of Afghanistan, a campaign that claimed more civilian lives than the attacks on the World Trade Center. And when the United States moved to intensify its war in Iraq into another full-scale invasion in the spring of 2003, the Canadian government provided some twenty-five military planners for the U.S. military's central command in Qatar, an additional 1300 military personnel on three Canadian warships to protect U.S. air craft carriers central to the air war, 31 troops to work alongside the invading American and British forces, and 10 Canadian bomber-pilots. As with all major state initiatives, these shifts in policy were ideological as well as military, and key to the ideology was the so-called "war on terror." Given the centrality of bombing campaigns, ground invasions and military occupations to this broad and open-ended war, a definition of terrorism that implicated attacks on civilians by state as well as non-state actors would be ideologically untenable. It is for this reason that the specific association of terrorism with the activities of dissidents, especially those of Arab and Muslim descent, and even more particularly with those who use suicide bombing as a tactic, has cemented itself. And so the ideological framework honed in association with Israeli policy is now being more broadly applied.
It is in this public relations and policy nightmare that Jamal Akkal is locked. In the media alerts listed above, we have outlined how mainstream media in capitalist democracies often serve to convey state-promoted ideology and priorities. In the present Canadian context, this includes promotion of a flexibly "anti-terrorist" political framework that can serve to rationalize military campaigns abroad as well as effective state regulation of domestic political activities. However, although the Globe and Mail, like other corporate media outlets, is institutionally geared towards promoting such a framework, the structural constraints on its employees are far from absolute. And Globe writers and editors could readily provide more critical commentary if they chose to do so.
Given present policy trends, we can expect things to get much worse, civil rights and political liberties to be much further curtailed, if emerging progressive social currents are not extended and strengthened. However, open and critical discussion of current events forms the necessary foundation for the growth of healthy social movements. By failing to serve as a forum for such discussion, the Globe and Mail is contributing directly to the deterioration of the Canadian political climate, and to the increasing endangerment by powerful states of residents and citizens both at home and abroad. And readers have the right to demand better.
The Globe and Mail's Foreign Desk: Foreign@GlobeAndMail.ca
Paul Adams: PAdams@GlobeAndMail.ca
Jeff Sallot: JSallot@GlobeAndMail.ca
(1) Amnesty International, "Israel/Palestine: Wanton destruction constitutes war crime" and Ali Abunimah's "117 Palestinians killed, hundreds killed during media's 'relative calm,'" posted on Electronic Intifada on December 26, 2003
(2) Ali Abunimah, "117 Palestinians killed, hundreds killed during media's 'relative calm'"
(3) "'I'm innocent,' Akkal tells Israeli court." December 16's Globe and Mail: Paul Adams, A14.
(4) "Israeli military charges Akkal." December 15's Globe and Mail: Canadian Press and Associated Press, A13
(5) "Background to the Israel-Palestine Conflict," by Stephen Shalom:
(6) See Palestine Monitor, and Btselem
(7) Borger, Julian, "Israeli government report admits systematic torture of Palestinians," February 2000:
(8) "Facility 1391: Israel's secret prison," November 2003
(9) David Mcnally, "Militarism and Imperialism, Canadian style," New Socialist Magazine, May 2003. As cited in En Camino's "Justifying the Occupation"