The leader of nonviolent protests in the West Bank—a potential Palestinian Gandhi—is in an Israeli jail
Michelle Goldberg, 9 December 2010
Plus: Letter from an Israeli military prison from Abdallah Abu Rahmah
Abu Rahmah’s crime was organizing illegal demonstrations in a West Bank village where all demonstrations are by definition illegal. Abu Rahmah, 39, had long been involved in peaceful, multiethnic protests in the village of Bil’in, where Israel’s separation wall has cut Palestinians off from hundreds of acres of their land. Though barely covered in the American press, his conviction was protested by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, among others. “Israel’s attempt to crack down on this effective resistance movement by criminalizing peaceful protest is unacceptable and unjust,” said Desmond Tutu, one of Abu Rahmah’s supporters.
American Jews often ask where the Palestinian Gandhi is. What few realize is that if such a man exists, he’s probably sitting in an Israeli military prison.
Right now, there’s a small but significant nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank. The important recent documentary Budrus tells the story of its beginning in 2003. That’s when Budrus community activist Ayed Morrar, with the help of his astonishingly intrepid 15-year-old daughter Iltezam, succeeded, through peaceful but resolute protest, in thwarting plans to build the wall on their village’s land. Their model—community-based, grassroots efforts to protect their property—spread through neighboring villages, including Bil’in.
Over five years in Bil’in, demonstrators—a mix of Palestinians, Israelis, and foreigners—held weekly demonstrations against the building of the wall, which annexed much of the village’s land into a nearby Israeli settlement. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the wall’s route illegal, saying, “We were not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bil’in’s lands.” But construction continued. For most of the world, this village of 1,700 clearly has justice on its side. And though there has been some rock throwing, Abu Rahmah and other activists have done their best to prevent it and to maintain the moral high ground.
As Ethan Bronner wrote in the New York Times last year, the Bil’in movement “is one of the longest-running and best organized protest operations in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has turned this once anonymous farming village into a symbol of Palestinian civil disobedience, a model that many supporters of the Palestinian cause would like to see spread and prosper.”
Much rides on the fate of the Bil’in model. With peace talks going nowhere, there’s a lot of talk among Palestinians about a new uprising, a third intifada. There are Palestinian leaders who, for both tactical and moral reasons, are desperate to make it nonviolent. Everyone concerned about the future of the Middle East has good reason to hope that they succeed.
“I believe our future depends totally on the rise of the nonviolent movement,” the liberal Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti said over lunch recently. Nonviolent resistance, he said, is “why I live.”
Barghouti, who finished second to Mahmoud Abbas in the 2005 Palestinian National Authority elections, believes that continued settlements are making the death of the two-state solution imminent. As a last gasp, he wants Palestinians to unilaterally declare a state within 1967 borders and challenge the world to recognize it. “If the world community does not accept our approach of recognizing a Palestinian state immediately in ’67 borders, and forcing Israel to accept that, you will be witnessing the death of the two-state option,” he said. “And then we will have a very long struggle against apartheid. Nonviolent.”
This, as Barghouti knows, would be profoundly threatening to Israel. “For them, I am more dangerous than those who do military action, because I expose their system,” he said. Israel’s actions suggest that at least some in the military agree, because the Palestinian nonviolent movement is being systematically crushed.
In 2005, as Human Rights Watch reports, Abdallah Abu Rahmah’s brother Rateb Abu Rahmah was shot in the foot and arrested for stone throwing and assaulting a border policeman. During the trial, video evidence proved that the policeman had given false testimony. Eventually, the policeman confessed to fabricating his story, and Rateb was acquitted.
Mohammed Khatib, another leader of the Bil’in protests, was arrested in 2008 and charged with stone throwing. He later proved that he was on the Pacific island of New Caledonia at the time of the alleged incident. Nevertheless, he was held for nine months and only released on the condition that he report to the police station weekly during the time of the protests. Since May 2008, according to Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, an umbrella group for the nonviolent village-based movements, there have been 119 arrests in Bil’in. The Israeli army has started using live ammunition against the demonstrators, and four unarmed anti-wall protesters have been killed.
Last December, Abu Rahmah, the coordinator of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, was arrested in a 2 a.m. raid on his home. In a particularly absurd twist, he was charged with weapons possession, because he’d once collected used tear gas projectiles and bullet casings to demonstrate the types of ammunition that the IDF was using. Eventually, he was acquitted of that charge, but he was convicted of organizing illegal demonstrations and of incitement, which, under Israeli military law, means an “attempt, verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order.”
Abu Rahmah’s wife Majida has been denied permits to visit him in the Israeli military prison where he’s been held. He hasn’t seen his 1-and-a-half-year-old son since the baby was 6 months old. He’s not even allowed to make a phone call.
“We are concerned that his continued detention on charges of incitement and organizing and attending demonstrations is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to nonviolent protest against the annexation of Palestinian land to Israel,” said a statement by the British Foreign Office. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion.
Of course, the challenge to nonviolence isn’t only coming from Israel. There’s hardly a consensus about the need for nonviolence among the Palestinian population: A 2008 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that an overwhelming 84 percent of Palestinians supported a deadly attack on a West Jerusalem religious school that took place that year. But it’s at least conceivable that such support for violence could diminish if Palestinians believed there were other routes to freedom. One of the jobs of any social movement, after all, is to build ideological support for positions that might at first seem naïve or absurd.
“This is the Palestinian alternative to despair,” Jonathan Pollack, one of the leading Israeli activists working with the Palestinian protesters, said of nonviolent civil disobedience. “Both to the despair of futile negotiation, and to the despair of armed struggle. If Israel manages to kill this movement, to put this movement down, the consequences are going to be grave, both for Palestinians and for Israelis.”
from Abdallah Abu Rahmah
A year ago tonight, on International Human Rights Day, our apartment in Ramallah was broken into by the Israeli military in the middle of the night and I was torn away from my wife Majida, my daughters Luma and Layan, and my son Laith, who at the time was only nine months old.
As the coordinator of the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements I was convicted of “organizing illegal demonstrations” and “incitement.” The “illegal demonstrations” refer to the nonviolent resistance campaign that my village has been waging for the last six years against Israel’s Apartheid Wall that is being built on our land.
I find it strange that the military judges could call our demonstrations illegal and charge me for participating in and organizing them after the world’s highest legal body, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, has ruled that Israel’s wall within the occupied territories is illegal and must be dismantled. Even the Israeli supreme court ruled that the Wall’s route in Bil’in is illegal.
I have been accused of inciting violence: this charge is also puzzling. If the check points, closures, ongoing land theft, wall and settlements, night raids into our homes and violent oppression of our protests does not incite violence, what does?
Despite the occupations constant and intense incitement to violence in Bil’in, we have chosen another way. We have chosen to protest nonviolently together with Israeli and International supporters. We have chosen to carry a message of hope and real partnership between Palestinians and Israelis in the face of oppression and injustice. It is this message that the Occupation is attempting to crush through its various institutions including the military courts. An official from the Israeli Military Prosecution shamelessly told my Attorney, Gaby Lasky, that the objective of the military in my prosecution is to “put an end” to these demonstrations.
The crime of incitement that I have been convicted of is defined under Israeli military decree 101 regarding the prohibition of hostile action of propaganda and incitement as “The attempt, verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order” and carries a 10 year maximal sentence. This definition is so broad and vague that it can be applied to almost any action or statement. Actually, these words could be considered incitement if they were spoken in the occupied territories.
On the 11th of October of this year I was sentenced to 12 months in prison, plus 6 months suspended sentence for 3 years, and a fine. My family and I, especially my daughters, were counting the days to my release. The military prosecution waited until just a few days before the end of my sentence before appealing against my release, arguing that I should be imprisoned longer. I have completed my sentence but remain in prison. Though international law considers myself and other activists as human rights defenders, the occupation authorities consider us criminals whose freedom and other rights must be denied.
In the year that I have spent in prison, the demonstrations in Bil’in, Naalin, Al Maasara, and Beit Omar have continued. Nabi Saleh and other villages have taken up the popular struggle. Within this year, the International campaign calling for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions of Israel until it complies with International law has grown considerably, as have legal actions against Israeli war crimes. I hope that soon Israel will no longer be able to ignore the clear condemnation of its policies coming from around the world.
In the year that I have spent in prison, my son Laith has taken his first steps and said his first words, and Luma and Layan have been growing from children to beautiful young girls. I have not been able to be with them, to walk holding their hands, to take them to school as they and I are used to. Laith does not know me now. And my wife Majida has had to care for our family alone.
In 2010 children in Bil’in and throughout the West bank are still being awakened in the middle of the night to find guns pointed at their heads. In the year that I have spent in prison, the military has carried out dozens of night raids in Bil’in with the purpose of removing those involved in the popular struggle against the occupation.
Imagine if heavily armed men forced their way into your home in the middle of the night. If your children were forced to watch as their father or brother was blindfolded, handcuffed, and taken away. Or if you as a parent were forced to watch this being done to your child.
This week the door of our cell was opened and a sixteen year boy was pushed inside. My friend Adeeb Abu Rahmeh was shocked to recognize his son, Mohammed, whom Adeeb had not seen since he himself was arrested during a nonviolent demonstration 16 months ago.
Mohammad smiled when he saw his Father, but his face was red and swollen and it was clear that he was in pain. He told us that he had been taken from his home two nights previously. He spent the first night blindfolded and shackled, being moved from one place to another. The next day after a terrifying, disoriented, and sleepless night he was taken to an interrogation room, his blindfold was removed and an interrogator showed him pictures of people from the village. When questioned about the first picture he told the interrogator that he did not recognize the person. The interrogator slapped him hard across the face. This continued with every question that Mohammad was asked: when he did not give the answer that the interrogator wanted, he was slapped, punched and threatened. Mohammad’s treatment is not unusual.
Young boys from our village have been taken from their homes violently and report being denied sleep, food, and water and being kept in Isolation and threatened and often beaten during interrogation.
What was unusual about Mohammad is that he did not satisfy his interrogator and with competent representation was released within a few days. Usually children, just because they are children, will say whatever the interrogator wants them to say to make such treatment stop. Adeeb, myself, and thousands of other prisoners are being held in prison based on testimonies forced or coerced out of these children. No child should ever receive such treatment.
When the children who had testified against me retracted what they said in interrogation and told the military judge that their testimonies where given under duress, the judge declared them hostile witnesses.
Adeeb Abu Rahmah and I are the first to be convicted with incitement and participation in illegal demonstrations since the first Intifada but, unfortunately, it does not seem that we will be the last.
I often wonder what Israeli leaders think they will achieve if they succeed in their goal of suppressing the Palestinian popular struggle? Is it possible that they believe that our people can sit quietly and watch as our land is taken from us? Do they think that we can face our children and tell them that, like us, they will never experience freedom? Or do they actually prefer violence and killing to our form of nonviolent struggle because it camouflages their ongoing theft and gives them an excuse to continue using us as guinea pigs for their weapons?
My eldest daughter Luma was nine years old when I was arrested. She is now ten. After my arrest she began going to the Friday demonstrations in our village. She always carries a picture of me in her arms. The adults try to look after her but I still worry for my little girl. I wish that she could enjoy her childhood like other children, that she could be studying and playing with her friends. But through the walls and barbed wire that separates us I hear my daughter’s message to me, saying: “Baba, they cannot stop us. If they take you away, we will take your place and continue to struggle for justice.” This is the message that I want to bring you today. From beyond the walls, the barbed wire, and the prison bars that separate Palestinians and Israelis.