On a cold Ukrainian winter night in mid-February 2011, a Gaza civil engineer named Dirar Abu Sisi was lying in bed in a railroad sleeper car traveling to Kiev to visit his brother, Yousef, whom he hadn't seen in 15 years.
Abu Sisi had come to Ukraine as a refugee applying for Ukrainian citizenship. While there, he was staying with his wife's family, who are Ukrainian natives. Though he was the deputy chief of Gaza's only power plant, he and his wife, Veronika, increasingly felt that Gaza was an unsafe place to raise their six children. During his stay, he had formally applied for citizenship so that he might resettle his family in Ukraine.
But something strange happened that night on the train. Just outside the village of Poltava, two policemen rousted Abu Sisi from bed and took him away, according to a witness in the bunk under Abu Sisi, who saw the entire incident unfold. This witness, Andrej Makarenko, who was recently discovered by the Ukrainian independent newspaper, Pravda (Russian), also noted that a conductor was present. The latter at first confirmed Makarenko's story to the press, but later recanted, possibly under pressure from Ukrainian authorities. The Pravda reporter says the conductor has been given extended leave and has disappeared from his home.
Abu Sisi claimed in a prison interview with a Gaza human rights group that he was transferred to a private apartment in Kiev, where he was questioned by Israeli Mossad agents. He was then brought to the airport, placed on a plane and flown to Israel, making this a case of extraordinary rendition.
When Abu Sisi's wife, who was in Gaza at the time, realized he had disappeared, she smuggled herself through a border tunnel to Egypt and made the same trip her husband had to Ukraine. Once there, she began a desperate search for him together with Yousef. They didn't hear from Dirar for a week until the end of February, when he finally called from an Israeli prison. During that period of silence, she summoned the Ukrainian press and began accusing the Mossad of kidnapping him.
In early March, a confidential Israeli source reported to me that Abu Sisi was in an Israeli prison. Until that moment, no one knew what had happened after he was kidnapped. A few days after I reported this, and after scouring the Israeli human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) community, Dalia Kerstein of HaMoked wrote that the Gazan engineer was indeed in an Israeli prison. First, he'd been brought to the Shabak (also known as Shin Bet) detention facility at Petah Tikvah, where he'd been interrogated. Later, he'd been moved to Shikma prison outside Ashkelon. And the entire story was under gag order.
Kerstein identified Abu Sisi's Israeli public defender. When I called her, she was tight-lipped. There was a gag. She couldn't confirm anything. But by the mere fact that she didn't deny representing the detainee, I knew she did.
I continued reporting these new developments as I uncovered them. I also tried, with mixed success, to get the foreign and Israeli media to expose the case because I considered this an act of extraordinary rendition, a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty by Israel in order to kidnap someone who wasn't even its own citizen.
Later, I also reported – based on information supplied to me by Yousef – that during Dirar's trip to Ukraine, he had had an airport layover in Amman, where their parents live. Jordanian intelligence officials refused to allow him to board his connecting flight, held him at the airport overnight and refused to allow him to continue his trip to Ukraine for seven days. When they finally allowed him to continue his travels, he was accompanied on his flight to Ukraine by four Jordanian intelligence agents. This implicates Jordan in the kidnapping and indicates at least a three-nation conspiracy in his disappearance. Pravda also reported this part of the story.
The gag also prevented Israelis from knowing that Abu Sisi was jailed, what the charges brought against him were or what conditions he was being held under. I was especially concerned, because during such secret detentions the Israeli security service is often accused of torturing suspects to procure confessions, which are then used against them in court. Critics of Israeli security policy, including Israeli human rights NGOs, say this sacrifices democracy, due process and rule of law on the altar of security.
I felt it was urgent to break the gag and to pressure Israel to make some accounting of its own actions, but it's very hard to break a gag order. The Israeli press will not do it, since the government may remove their publishing license and so put them out of business. In the old days, an Israeli journalist could plant a story with a foreign journalist, who would publish it, thus allowing the Israeli to publish it inside Israel.
But that's now less possible in national security cases like this one. Few Israeli reporters break such a gag. In the past few days, I've asked Israeli reporters whether they can report the Jordanian connection to this story, but they tell me they may not report anything about how Abu Sisi got to Israel – this despite the fact that it is now being reported here, in the Ukrainian media and virtually around the world.
But there is a way to do it inside Israel. It's a bit like breaking down a mountain through thousands of years of slow, constant erosion. First, one blogger or media outlet publishes, then another. Finally, it becomes a torrent. The role of the blogger in these cases is a little like that first drip of water that falls on the hillside. It doesn't bring down the mountain. Perhaps it doesn't even carry much soil with it. After all, it's just a drip. But one leads to another, and, before you know it, you have a raging waterfall of media coverage and exposure.
One thing the security establishment does not like is exposure. As the infamous American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbyist, Steve Rosen, once said: “A lobby is like a night flower. It thrives in darkness and withers in the daylight.”
So too, Israel's security apparatus. While no one denies the need to protect Israel's citizens against terror, many find the pendulum has swung too far toward security and too far from respecting individual rights.
Despite the gag, Israeli journalists specializing in security reporting heard hints from anonymous security sources about the reasons for Abu Sisi's detention. Haaretz's Amos Harel noted that Iran has reputedly been training Gaza “engineers” to develop an indigenous weapons industry. That is, unnamed sources are claiming that a man who purported to be a power plant engineer was really a weapons manufacturer. No proof of the charge. The suspect can't speak for himself. His attorney can barely speak for him because she is under gag as well.
Other Israeli reporters intimated, using other unnamed security sources, that Abu Sisi might be the mastermind behind an interdicted shipment of Iranian weapons allegedly destined for Gaza in the ship Victoria. Der Spiegel claimed he was spilling his guts about the whereabouts of Gilad Shalit. More recently, unnamed sources claimed in this New Zealand Herald story that he'd given the Shabak information that enabled the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to attack a vehicle in Sudan carrying Hamas arms dealers and weapons bound for Gaza. In short, Abu Sisi had become an Israeli security Rorschach image onto which anyone could project whatever they wished to see. I half expected to read he'd provided the intelligence that enabled the Mossad to arrest and kidnap Adolph Eichmann in Argentina in 1960.
Early in the case, Haaretz's security correspondent, Yossi Melman, reported that Ukraine's security personnel kidnapped the victim on behalf of Israel, then transferred him to the Mossad, who delivered him to Israel. In an interview, Dirar's brother Yousef confirmed his conviction that the Ukrainians collaborated in the abduction. For three weeks, Yousef traveled to every Ukrainian police and intelligence service office he could find, asking for help in locating his brother. He was universally treated with disdain, like a fly to be swatted away. Every official he consulted told him not to talk to the media, but to remain quiet and his brother would come back to him. One person even offered a date, saying that Dirar would come back by March 9. By March 9, Yousef had long known that his brother was in an Israeli prison.
Abu Sisi's brother recently told me that a Ukrainian politician informed him that Ukraine's deputy intelligence chief, Vladimir Rokitsky, orchestrated the entire kidnapping scheme.
Among the heartbreaking things Yousef told me was the account of his brother's six children, who remain in Gaza without either father or mother. They are being cared for by his sister, Suzanne, who has six children of her own. He also recounted the suffering of his elderly father in Jordan when Yousef told him that Dirar had been arrested by the Israeli security apparatus. The man cried for almost a day without stopping, knowing that he might never again see his son, given his advanced age.
Israel has a long history of kidnapping foreigners and Israelis on foreign soil and spiriting them off to Israel for trial or secret detention. The phenomenon began with Adolph Eichmann, who the Mossad kidnapped 1960. Back then, this seemed an act of supreme justice in reparation for a rogue Nazi overlord who needed to be brought to justice.
But an act that seems almost heroic in one era can lose its glow in another. In the 1980's, Mordechai Vanunu traveled to Britain to tell his tales to the tabloid press about working in the heart of Israel's nuclear weapons facility at Dimona. Vanunu's breaking the nuclear taboo seemed to provoke the ire of the Mossad. It has spent seemingly every waking moment since making this man's life miserable. It began with Vanunu's capture in Europe, then his drugging and repatriation to Israel, where he was tried and sentenced to a long prison term. Despite the completion of his sentence, Israel has refused to allow him to leave the country, and he remains under a form of national house arrest.
The case of Abu Sisi seems yet another in a long line of extraordinary renditions. But the question for Israel is – at what gain for what cost? Nabbing someone perhaps proves the Mossad's power to get its man anywhere, at any time – a possible plus if the goal is to intimidate your enemy.
However, the cost is proving that as a nation, you respect neither national sovereignty, due process nor international law. You prove the claims of your enemies that you are a rogue state rather than an upstanding member of the international community.
In early April, after an unprecedented 45 days in detention without charges being filed (the maximum is usually 30 days) during which Abu Sisi's lawyer, Smadar Ben Natan, claims he was tortured, the Shabak released an indictment which claimed that Abu Sisi was Hamas' chief weapons engineer, that he developed and refined the design and manufacture of all of its missiles including Qassams and anti-tank rockets, among others, and that he applied Russian rocket research and engineering know-how to improving Hamas' missile capability (Read the full indictment in Hebrew and the English language summary.)
Among the claims offered was that during Abu Sisi's graduate studies in Ukraine, the suspect studied electrical engineering as a cover for his studies in rocket technology at a Ukrainian military engineering academy in Kharkov. But these charges contained many holes and inconsistencies. The named military academy had ceased to exist by 1992, while Abu Sisi earned his advanced engineering degree in 1999. The PhD adviser who allegedly sponsored Abu Sisi's military studies (who is named in the indictment as Constantin Petrovich, traditionally a first and middle name, but neither of which is usually used as a last name), only joined the institute where he currently teaches in 2004, while Abu Sisi left Ukraine around 1999.
A number of the Hamas military leaders alleged in the indictment to have recruited and tasked Abu Sisi with his weapons assignments have been assassinated by Israel, including Salah Shehadeh and Nizzar Rayan.
All of which leads to one of two possible conjectures: either, as his attorney claims, the Palestinian engineer, under torture, concocted a story that would satisfy his interrogators and ease his abuse, or the Shabak has manufactured a tale out of whole cloth.
The Ukrainian government has consistently denied either collaborating in the kidnapping or having any knowledge of Abu Sisi's whereabouts. However, there is speculation that Ukraine may have been motivated to participate by the fact that it is eager to sign a free trade agreement with Israel that it has promoted and which already allows visa-free travel by nationals of both countries.
Veronika Abu Sisi has initiated legal proceedings in her native country to force the government to account for its behavior and reveal what it did and why. If the courts refuse to take action, she and her brother-in-law, Yousef, plan to bring the matter before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
We are left to speculate regarding the reasons for Abu Sisi's detention. The number of possibilities includes the fact that, as Gaza's senior civil engineer, he would be a prize for Israel in its ongoing efforts to disrupt daily life in Hamas-dominated Gaza. Alternatively, Israel may feel that, as an engineer, he has knowledge that would be useful to it if he could describe to the security service aspects of the Gaza infrastructure about which they wish to know more. Gaza's only power plant is a critical element of the enclave's infrastructure. When Israel invaded during Operation Cast Lead, it bombed the plant and disabled it – causing all 1.5 million Gazans to lose power for the duration. Veronika Abu Sisi claims that Israel nabbed him because he was the “brain of the power system” and that he had rebuilt it himself after the last war. Others note that he had helped refine a new fuel system that made the plant far less dependent on Israeli-supplied diesel fuel. This may not have sat well with the Israeli authorities, who wish to control the system's operations should they want to limit or cut them off. If Shabak could probe Abu Sisi for technical details about the plant's operation and systems, it could penetrate it and disrupt it more easily, perhaps in a way similar to Israel's use of the Stuxnet virus to sabotage Iran's nuclear power plants at Natanz and Bushehr.
Of course, all of this is speculation because the national security state prefers to operate in the dark, prefers opacity. We can only look forward to a day when extraordinary rendition and the other favored tactics of such a state are as discredited as the lynchings and apartheid of a bygone era.