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Israel bows to pressure and admits arrest of rights activist

The Israeli authorities finally revealed yesterday that they had been holding a prominent Israeli-Arab human rights activist for several days and had accused him of spying for Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrillas.

Israel appeared to buckle under intense domestic pressure to release details of the case against Amir Makhoul after a gagging order issued by the courts had prevented the media from reporting details of the case. The order, which covered details including his identity, riled democracy advocates in Israel after a similar case last month involving the secret house arrest of an Israeli journalist.

Mr Makhoul, the director of Palestinian non-governmental organisation (NGO) Ittijah, was arrested in a dawn raid on his home in the Israeli town of Haifa on Thursday last week.

Israeli police said yesterday that they suspected Mr Makhoul and Omar Sayid, a member of the Arab political party Balad who was arrested on April 24, of spying for Hizbollah. Israel views Lebanon as an enemy state and fought a devastating month-long war against Hizbollah in 2006. In recent weeks, Israel has accused Hizbollah of obtaining Scud missiles from Syria.

A lawyer acting for the two men said the charges had "no basis" and were merely a tool to clamp down on outspoken Israeli-Arabs, Palestinians who have taken Israeli citizenship. "Contacts with foreign agents has become a serious [tool] for criminalising Arabs in Israel," said Hasan Jabareen, general director of the Adalah human rights organisation, and part of Mr Makhoul's legal defence team.

"Any contact, whether it is with human rights organisations or just social contacts, can be perceived by Israel as contact with foreign agents," Mr Jabareen said, adding that lawyers had not been allowed to meet with Mr Makhoul.

Mr Makhoul, whose brother Assam is a former member of Israel's parliament, is a leading advocate on Palestinian rights issues, particularly within the Israeli-Arab community. Assam Makhoul told Ha'aretz newspaper that the family believed that Mr Makhoul had angered the Israeli authorities with his campaigns that fought the government's "racist and discriminatory policies" towards Israeli-Arabs.

Israel's 1.5 million Arabs who took citizenship in 1948 when the country was formed remain a minority among the 7.5 million population, and have long claimed that they are treated as second-class citizens compared to Jewish Israelis; economic and educational standards for Arabs are much lower than in Jewish communities.

Israeli police entered Mr Makhoul's home at around 3am on 6 May. They searched his home, confiscating the family's mobile phones, laptops and cameras, before taking him away for questioning. The family was given no explanation for the arrest, beyond unspecified "security" reasons. Ittijah's offices were also searched.

Prior to his arrest, Israel's Interior Ministry issued an order banning Mr Makhoul from travelling abroad for two months because of security concerns. The arrest of the two men has inflamed tensions amongst the Arab-Israeli community. A demonstration was planned in Haifa to protest against the detentions.

Several Palestinian and international rights bodies condemned the arrest, and said that Israel had "escalated" a sustained campaign against Arab rights groups. "In addition to arbitrary arrest and detention, Israeli authorities have met Palestinian human rights activism in recent months with a variety of measures, including raids, deportations, travel bans, visa denials and media attacks against nongovernmental organisations," the groups said in a joint statement.

Israeli NGOs have complained that they are witnessing a growing state-backed campaign to curb their freedom of operation, including a proposed new law that would strip many activist bodies of their NGO status. Right-wing activists have also stepped up their efforts to discredit organisations perceived as anti-Israeli.

Because of the gagging order, Mr Sayid and Mr Makhoul's arrest was initially only reported on blogs, while Israeli reporters made cryptic references to the case. The affair carried particular resonance in Israel, coming so soon after the case of Anat Kam, an Israeli whistle-blower who was placed under secret house arrest in December, but news of her detention was only made public at the end of March after Israeli newspapers dropped hints about the case.