“Did you see the picture he took at Natbag (Ben Gurion International Airport)”, one of the photographers outside the court-room on Monday morning asked, before another answered “it looks like he took that with a Nokia phone, and it’s not even in focus”.
The press scrum was waiting at the Petah Tikvah Magistrate’s Court on Monday morning for the remand hearing for Iranian-Belgian businessman Ali Mansouri, whose arrest earlier this month on a series of espionage charges was reported to the press a day earlier by the Shin Bet.
As the hearing was delayed, they joked about the pictures the Shin Bet says they confiscated from Mansouri (who entered Israel on a Belgian passport with the name “Alex Mans”), and the baby blue short shorts Mansouri was wearing in a picture he posed for at the Tel Aviv boardwalk earlier in September.
Mansouri leaned in as an interpreter in a faded pink t-shirt – listed on the court document as having a classic Moroccan Jewish name – translated the proceedings into French. The courthouse guards had instructed the press that they could take pictures of Mansouri as he was led in, but could not ask him any questions – a restriction that was followed for a few seconds before Ali was asked in English about the allegations. He didn’t answer, but after the photographers left, one reporter from Channel 2 waved at Ali from the gallery and said “Shalom” to which Mansouri said “Shalom”, clasped his hands together as if in prayer, and nodded.
For a case involving a man described by the Shin Bet as a well-trained operative for a regional power involved in a shadow war with Israel, the proceedings were decidedly low-key, and also something of a sideshow. One middle-aged woman in a halter top awaiting a hearing in the same courtroom kept ducking in to the proceedings in order to avoid a man she was arguing with outside, while a relative of a close friend of mine sat outside waiting for the hearing to end so that he could face a domestic violence complaint charge issued by his wife in the same court-room, to begin once Mansouri’s appearance was over. The hearing was not closed to the press or to the public, and as it proceeded the reporters present furiously texted the comments of the attorney and the police officer to their respective outlets.
Like most other Shin Bet investigations of foreign or domestic spies operating in Israel, the case first broke following a press release by the security organization, sent out to Israeli media outlets Sunday morning. This release included the pictures Mansouri (spelled by the court as “Mansour”) allegedly took as well as a map tracing what the Shin Bet said was the trail he took from Iran, where he was recruited by the Quds force, to Turkey, Belgium, and then Israel.
Unlike in most such cases, the gag order was lifted before an indictment was issued, with the investigation still ongoing. Such a move raises questions, including the obvious one about who gave the order to expose the story and why, a question that led the articles on the hearing in Ynet and Walla. Such questions arose in part when the police representative said that he was told to ask for the gag order to be lifted on Sunday and that he believes the order came from senior police officials or “other higher-ups”.
It’s not clear why the security services had the order lifted only to then ask for a further 10 days to continue the investigation. If the man potentially had other accomplices in Israel or in Europe or elsewhere they now know he is in custody (if they didn’t before), while going to the press with the case before an indictment bears the risk that the case makes headlines before its solid enough to go to court.
At the end of the day, the proceedings, wide-open and well-covered by the press, did not give the impression of a dark new chapter in Israel and Iran’s shadow war, rather that of a quiet, somewhat strange foreign man brought for his day in court.