Poet pursued as criminal inciter

April 14, 2017
Sarah Benton

‘With furious cruelty’–Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour still facing prosecution in Israel

By Kim Jensen and Yoav Haifawi,  Mondoweiss
April 13, 2017

March 19 and March 28 marked two critical hearings in the trial of the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour who faces up to eight years in prison on the charges of incitement and support for terrorism.

The sessions largely focused on the testimony of two literary witnesses brought by Tatour’s defence attorneys Gaby Lasky and Nery Ramati. The defence’s overarching objectives were to establish Tatour’s inalienable right to freedom of expression, to point out the distorted police translation of Tatour’s poem, and to demonstrate anti-Arab bias in the judicial system. The contentious hearings started late and dragged into the evening as the prosecutor Alina Hardak spared no attempt to undermine the credibility of the witnesses.

The first witness to take the stand was Professor Nissim Calderon, a professor of literature and an expert in Hebrew poetry at Ben-Gurion University. His testimony established a long-standing pattern of respect for freedom of expression within the Jewish literary tradition. He argued that Jewish poets have benefited from a special legal immunity, even when they have penned fiery protest poems aimed at antagonistic regimes.

Calderon cited the examples of revered Hebrew poets who have made explicit appeals for violent resistance and who avoided legal prosecution. According to Calderon, the pioneer of Hebrew poetry, Haim Nahman Bialik wrote scorching fulminations against the pogroms of the Tsarist regime at the turn of the 20th century. “[W]ith furious cruelty,” he wrote, “we drink your blood mercilessly.” Despite explicit appeals for violence, Bialik was never prosecuted for incitement and neither was the Jewish poet Shaul Tchernichovsky who wrote similarly provocative resistance poems. Like Bialik, Tchernichovsky never suffered from repercussions from Tsar’s anti-Semitic secret police for his inflammatory poetic expression.

Professor Calderon also cited the right-wing Zionist poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg who was a co-founder of Brit HaBirionim (Alliance of Thugs), a fascist-inspired Zionist organization that violently resisted the British in mandate Palestine. Though Greenberg was a member of the Alliance and used his poetry to express support for their violent acts, he was never charged by the British for incitement. According to Calderon, this customary immunity is due to the fact that is a universal expectation and an aesthetic demand that poets express powerful emotions.

In the cross examination, the prosecutor argued that Greenberg was not arrested because the British mandate didn’t prosecute inciters. Calderon refuted this claim by using the case of his own uncle who was deported from Palestine because he supported illegal Jewish immigration. When Hardak suggested that freedom of speech is rightfully limited in times of tense political crisis, Calderon countered with the obvious fact that that the British were in the midst of fighting a war against the Nazis when Greenberg wrote his inflammatory poems, and still they didn’t arrest him.

“Should freedom of expression be given to anyone who claims to be a poet?” Hardak grilled the witness. “What if someone has only written a single poem? How do we determine that Tatour is really a poet and that her writing is actually a poem?” Hardak seemingly forgot her own argument during earlier hearings when she emphasized that Tatour is a dangerous threat to public safety precisely because of her status as an influential poet.

Professor Calderon reiterated his position that if a text is crafted as poetry then it is “entitled to all rights we give to poetry in our culture.” He proceeded to read segments of the translation of Tatour’s rhythmic and stylized poem, “Resist, my people, Resist them” in order to demonstrate its poetic qualities. Calderon then reminded the prosecutor that the legal indictment against Tatour calls the work in question “a poem.”

Calderon went on to make the case that freedom of expression is not only designated for elite literary figures, but for ordinary citizens. He cited the liturgical poem “Maoz Tzur Yeshuati” which is sung at Hanukkah celebrations around the world. “Every year,” Calderon testified, “Jews sing with their children about their enemies, calling them barking dogs, and saying that they should be slaughtered. They know that this is a song about a massacre, but it is not a massacre.”

“You’re not an objective witness,” Hardak snapped at the professor, who was quick to agree with her. “There is no such thing as an objective witness in literature. There is no court to determine the meaning and merit of literary works.”

Toward the end of the cross-examination, Hardak claimed that Calderon only relied upon texts from the distant past and hadn’t furnished any current cases. Not to be outdone, Calderon quickly offered the example of the popular singer/songwriter Ariel Zilber who sang in support of the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin. “No one prosecuted Zilber, nor should he be prosecuted. He received the defence of all those who are loyal to poetry.”

Dr. Yoni Mendel and the Art of Mistranslation

The second witness on March 19th was Dr. Yoni Mendel, an experienced literary translator and a researcher of the Arabic language within its social and cultural contexts. The general thrust of his testimony was to demonstrate that the original police translation had wilfully twisted Dareen’s text “Resist, my people, Resist them” to make it seem far more extreme and violent than it was. In essence the translator had put incriminating words in Tatour’s mouth.

Mendel submitted his own translation based on his formidable professional skills and expertise. Though he mentioned a number of discrepancies in the original translation, much of his testimony and the counter interrogation concentrated about the meaning of the Arabic word “shuhada’” (plural for “shahid”) which he translated as “martyrs.”

The much-contested line reads اتبع قافلة الشهداء itb’ qāfelāt al-shuhadā’. In English this can be rendered as “follow the caravan of martyrs.” In the police translation to Hebrew the Arabic word “shuhada” was not translated, but simply replaced by the Hebraicized plural “shahidim.” Mendel explained that this detail is critical because the invented word “shahidim” provokes powerfully negative reactions for Israelis who wrongly conflate this word with terrorism. When Israelis hear the word “shahid” they think of a suicide bomber, whereas when Palestinians speaks about a shahid they are more likely to think of a sick woman who dies at an army checkpoint because she was not allowed to pass. To convey the exact meaning the translation should use the word for martyrs in Hebrew, “halalim.” Like the Arabic word “shuhada,” “halilim” implies all of those who die in wars and other disasters, including innocent victims.

Mendel supported his interpretation of Tatour’s poem by demonstrating that the poem doesn’t celebrate the purveyors of violence but rather commemorates its victims, specifically 16-year old Muhammed Abu Khdeir who was kidnapped and burned alive, baby Ali Dawabsheh who was burned with his parents in his home in Duma, and Hadeel Al-Hashlamoun who was shot at an army checkpoint in Hebron (al-Khalil).

In cross examination, Hardak asserted that Mendel’s interpretation of “shuhada” as victims must be wrong since the poet could hardly advise her readers to be murdered like them. Dr. Mendel explained that the poem’s call to “follow the caravan of martyrs” is not meant to be taken literally. The poem doesn’t ask readers to be killed and follow the martyr into their graves, but rather to commemorate the victims, to comfort the bereaved families, and to refuse to accept political solutions that deny Palestinian national and human rights.

Hardak Attempts to Tarnish Dr. Mendel’s Reputation

During the cross-examination, the aggressive prosecutor attacked Dr. Mendel’s credibility, citing two opinion articles he published in 2012 and 2014 which purportedly reveal a pro-Arab slant. She quoted the articles out of context and proceeded to attack his political views. The defence lawyers requested the judge to limit the examination to questions that directly relate to the trial and Mendel’s obvious expertise as a translator, but the judge rejected their objections and allowed the hostile counter interrogation to continue.

After almost five hours of exhausting attacks and rebuttals, the prosecutor switched strategies and presented Dr. Mendel with three videos from YouTube which ostensibly showed images of Palestinian acts of violence (the spectators in the court weren’t privy to the videos). Hardak demanded that he translate the videos to the court in order to “test” him. Mendel translated parts of the videos while the prosecutor insulted his skills and questioned his expertise. Since neither the prosecutor nor the judge speak or understand Arabic, it was difficult to see how this exercise could be designed to test the competency of the witness.

At a certain point, the prosecutor presented yet another video and asked Mendel to describe what he saw. He wearily answered that he saw yet another example of the unending violence on both sides. According to the prosecutor, Mendel thereby failed the test for not rushing to condemn Palestinian violence.

Eventually the true intention of the showing the videos became clear: the prosecutor wanted these highly prejudicial clips to be entered as evidence into the court record “through the back door” in order to impose an Israeli narrative of victimhood. Tatour’s lawyers objected to the submission of the videos, arguing that they are irrelevant to the case. The argument turned into a battle of insults and shouts, and eventually the judge postponed her decision until the next hearing.

March 28, 2017: Israeli Discrimination in the Spotlight

The defence team for Dareen Tatour has always argued that their client has been the victim of unjust discrimination at the hands of a rigged criminal justice system. From the outset of the trial, Tatour’s first lawyer Abed Fahoum contended that the Israeli criminal justice system investigates, indicts, and jails Arab citizens for incitement at a far higher rate than Jewish offenders. He had asked Judge Bambiliya to instruct the police and the state prosecutor to provide him with relevant statistical data so that he could substantiate his claim. The judge refused the request on the grounds that there was no evidence of discriminatory enforcement.

It turns out that this wasn’t true.

In June 2016, the Negev Coexistence Forum submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to receive data about this pressing legal issue. The applicants received a reply in August 2016, and two journalists John Brown and Noam Rotem wrote a detailed article (in Hebrew) on the police’s data and published it on a news site called Sikha Mekomit (Local Call).

The released data confirmed an unambiguous pattern of discrimination against Arabs. From the beginning of 2016 to the report’s release, 37 indictments were filed against Palestinian Arabs for incitement, as compared to zero for Jews. According to the Ministry of Justice, only three cases were filed against Jews for incitement in previous years. The lack of prosecution doesn’t mean that Jewish citizens weren’t involved in posting inciting hate speech on social media. According to the Berl Katznelson Foundation’s hate report, 175,000 inflammatory calls were recorded in 2016. A third of these were explicit threats including murder against Arabs, leftists, and asylum seekers.

The new attorneys for the defence, Gaby Lasky and Nery Ramati, found the FOIA police data. On March 28, they summoned Chief Inspector Yaniv Hami, the officer in charge of releasing it, to testify and submit the data to Judge Bambiliya. His testimony, however, turned out to be anti-climactic because all he managed to say was that, yes, he was the person who released the data. He couldn’t answer most questions, since the reports were produced by a statistician on behalf of the police, and he only mediated their transfer to the applicants. After more heated disagreement between the prosecution and the defence, the data was finally entered into the court record for further review.

The Prosecution Wins another Month of Detention for the Poet

At the end of the Inspector’s brief testimony, the defence rested its case, and it was expected that the timetable for the summaries and the verdict would be set, but the prosecutor stopped the proceedings and asked to summon a surprise witness: the very first attorney who advised Tatour on the morning of her arrest on October 11, 2015.

In the very early hours of that morning, Tatour was brought in for interrogation, but refused to answer questions before consulting a lawyer. Before her second interrogation, she was permitted to consult with attorney Hussam Maw’ed. The investigator charged her with many violations, most of which never appeared in the indictment that was later filed. At first, Tatour denied all the accusations. However in later interrogations, once the police presented Tatour with the materials they found on her computer and phone, she admitted publishing them and explained in detail her intent behind each publication.

When Tatour testified before the judge in November 2016, she was asked by the prosecutor why she had “lied” during the first interrogation. She explained that in her meeting with the lawyer Hussam Maw’ed he informed her of the serious nature of the charges and he advised her to deny everything. At this stage it was not clear to the police or to Tatour what the charges even were.

The prosecutor demanded that that attorney Hussam Maw’ed be brought as a witness in order to refute Tatour’s testimony regarding his legal advice. The defence objected sharply to summoning a lawyer to testify against his former client, explaining that this would constitute a serious breach of attorney-client privilege. Despite the reasonable objection, Judge Bambiliya approved the prosecutor’s request to summon the witness, refused to limit his testimony, and set a special session for April 27 at 12:00 noon. All this is unlikely to change the result of the trial, which is about the content of Tatour’s publications, but it prolonged the trial and added yet another month to her house detention.

Tactical Manoeuvre to Slant the Record

Just as it seemed that the hearing was ending, the prosecutor Alina Hardak reminded everybody that she still wanted to submit the three videos that were shown to the defence witness, Dr. Yoni Mendel, during cross-examination on March 19. What she brought as evidence was a sheet of paper with three links to the YouTube videos and a DVD disc with a text file containing the links to allow the judge to play the YouTube videos.

In one video, a Palestinian man announces his intention to carry out an attack in Tel Aviv and to be a shahid. The second video is called “the lovers of the stabbings” and erroneously displays the picture of Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, who is mentioned in Tatour’s poem, among the pictures of perpetrators of attacks (Amnesty International has called the murder of Hadeel an extra-judicial killing). The third video shows scenes of stone throwing and more violence, including a car trying to run over pedestrians. These are the videos that were used to “test” the translating ability and the bias of Dr. Mendel.

Defence attorney Ramati fiercely objected to submitting the video links on three primary grounds. First of all, he explained, whoever uploaded the films could alter their content at any time. Second, the videos were not neutral material for testing Dr. Mendel’s translation abilities; and third, the prosecution’s insistence on submitting videos could only be construed as an attempt to introduce new, unrelated content that would bias the court against the defendant, bypassing all the due procedures for presenting evidence in a criminal trial.

The prosecutor insisted on the importance of the court watching the videos yet again in order to understand the context of Dr. Mendel’s testimony. The judge agreed to this, and the discussion and debate over the videos and their content was debated for a long time. Then the issue of whether or not a person can edit the content of a Youtube video without changing the link ensued, and even the spectators in the court got involved in the discussion.

Ultimately the judge decided that, since she can’t decide the factual question of whether it is possible to edit videos after they are posted on YouTube, she will not accept the links at this stage. It was the first small victory in the Sisyphean struggle of the defence in an outrageous trial in which the prosecution has already crossed too many red lines to count. And yet, no doubt, there will be a few more red lines to be crossed before a verdict is reached this summer.

Some of this report was based on articles previously published in Hebrew by Yoav Haifawi (here and here) and Ofra Yeshua-Lyth (in HaOketz)

Allies of Dareen Tatour have set up a fundraising page for the legal defence fund for Dareen Tatour.

Dareen Tatour at the Nazareth Magistrates Court. Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org

Political poetry as a crime: Inside the surreal trial of Dareen Tatour

By Yoav Haifawi, +972
March 26, 2017

Arresting someone for publishing a political poem is extraordinary. Having to prove at trial that police mistranslated your poem is nothing short of surreal.

It has been nearly a year and a half since Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour was arrested in her home for writing a poem. She spent three months in various prisons, including half a year under house arrest in the town of Kiryat Ono near Tel Aviv. Although she was able to return to her home village of Reineh, near Nazareth, she remains under house arrest as the trial comes to an end.

Tatour, 34, was arrested by Israeli police on October 11th, 2015 for a poem she had published on Facebook, along with a number of other Facebook statuses she posted at the height of recent wave of violence in 2015-2016. She was charged with incitement to violence and identifying with a terrorist organization — all because of her poem.

The main clause of her indictment was based on a poem that she had allegedly posted on YouTube under the title: “Qawem ya sha’abi, qawemhum” (Resist my people, resist them). Another main clause in the indictment relates to a news item, cited in a post on Tatour’s Facebook page, according to which “The Islamic Jihad movement calls for continuing the Intifada all over the [West] Bank…” The same post calls for a “comprehensive intifada.”

The prosecution wrapped up its arguments in September of last year, most of which were designed to prove that Tatour’s Facebook account indeed belonged to her, and that it was she who published the poem and the two Facebook statuses.

In November, Tatour testified and admitted that she had written the statuses. She explained that she was protesting the occupation, denouncing the crimes committed against Palestinians by the Israeli army and the settlers, adding that the police translation distorted her texts. Over three long days of cross-examination, Tatour was grilled by Prosecutor Alina Hardak, who attempted to push Tatour to admit her “support for terrorism” — to no avail.

Should poets be arrested?

On Sunday, March 19th, Tatour’s attorneys, Gaby Lasky and Nery Ramati, brought two expert witnesses to testify before Judge Adi Bambiliya-Einstein in the Nazareth Magistrates Court.

The first witness was Prof. Nissim Calderon, an expert on Hebrew literature. In his written expert opinion, Calderon stated that there are special rules concerning the expression of poets, describing a long tradition of poets who used harsh words to oppose oppression or injustice — sometimes going so far as to clearly call for violent actions. The poets, Calderon said, were not prosecuted, even by oppressive regimes like the Tsar in Russia or the British Mandate in Palestine.

Dareen Tatour (left) and Professor Calderon, centre, speak at the Nazareth Magistrates’ Court, March 19, 2017. Photo by Yoav Haifawi

To prove his point, Calderon chose three of the most prominent Hebrew poets, bringing specific examples from their subversive texts. He cited Hayim Nachman Bialik, one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry, who once wrote the lines: “With furious cruelty / We will drink your blood mercilessly.” Calderon also cited poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who wrote: “Give me my sword, I won’t return it to its scabbard / What did my lips elicit? I want battles.” Despite these clear calls for violence by leading Jewish poets, the Tsar’s anti-Semitic secret police refrained from arresting or prosecuting them.

The third example Calderon cited at length was right-wing Zionist poet, Uri Tsvi Greenberg. Greenberg openly incited to violence and was a member of “Brit HaBirionim” (The Thugs Alliance), a Zionist organization that violently resisted the British occupation. He was never punished for his poems.

When the prosecutor implied that Greenberg was not arrested for his poetry because the British Mandate did not prosecute inciters, Calderon responded that his uncle was exiled from Palestine for supporting illegal Jewish immigration. When the prosecutor suggested that poets should not necessarily be immune to legal action during times of tension, Calderon said that the British did not prosecute Greenberg even when he called for resistance to their rule.

What did the poet mean?

Both the prosecutor and the judge understood that they have a problem with the police translation of Tatour’s poem. The officer who translated it had no specific expertise in translation. When he was previously asked during his testimony why he was chosen to translate the poem, the officer responded that he studied Arabic literature in high school and has a love for the language.

During Tatour’s testimony, the prosecutor wanted her to provide her own Hebrew translation of the poem. She refused, adding that she does not know Hebrew well enough to translate poetry. The prosecutor then wanted her to read the poem in Arabic so that the court’s translator will translate it, and thus the words would be attributed to her included in the protocol. She refused.

Perhaps the prosecution felt some relief when the defence brought its own Hebrew translation of the poem, done by Dr. Yoni Mendel, an experienced literary translator and Arabic expert. His translation was significantly different from the one that appeared in the indictment. Mendel, too, provided expert testimony, claiming that the police’s translation had deliberately and systematically distorted the text to make it appear extremist and violent.

The most blatant contradiction between the two translations was in the following lines: “Do not fear the tongues of the Merkava tank \ The truth in your heart is stronger \ As long as you are rebel in a land \ That has lived through raids but wasn’t exhausted.” The last two verses were translated by the policeman to “As long as you resist in a land \ Long live the Gazawat and will not tire.”

The police officer omitted the word “Gazawat,” likely because he could not find the proper translation into Hebrew. In his testimony, Mendel explained that the word was used by Arab tribes at the time of the Jahiliyya (what Muslims call the period before the founding of Islam) to describe attacks on tribes for the purpose of robbery or enslaving women. Tatour’s text clearly uses these lines to refer to the raids that Palestinians are subject to; the police translation, somehow, managed to transform the victim into the aggressor.

Who are the martyrs?

On a more profound level, much of the emphasis on the translation — and a great deal of the cross-examination — focused on the sentence: “Follow the convoy of martyrs.”

The Arabic word for martyrs, “shuhadaa,” was not translated into Hebrew by the police translator, but rather was grammatically adjusted into Hebrew and became “shahidim” — an Israeli transliteration that, for most Israelis, conjures an image of Palestinians who were killed while carrying out attacks on Israelis. Mendel explained and demonstrated that when Arabic terms are transliterated instead of translated, it neutralizes their original meaning and the basic human empathy that underlies them. Divorced from their original context, Arabic words like shahid or intifada acquire a new, threatening meaning in Hebrew.

Mendel went on to explain that for the Palestinian Arab public, the word shuhadaa refers to all the victims of the occupation — the majority of whom were not actively involved in resistance. In the specific context of Tatour’s poem, Mendel supported this interpretation with the fact that Tatour’s poem referred to three specific martyrs: 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli Jews; Ali Dawabsheh, a Palestinian baby who was burned alive with the rest of his family in their West Bank home; and Hadeel Al-Hashlamon, who was shot and killed by the army at a checkpoint in Hebron.

The prosecutor tried to prove that Tartour was not referring to murdered Palestinians, since no one wants to be murdered. Mendel explained that the call to “follow the martyrs” does not mean a desire to die, but rather refers to a more general concept of adhering to Palestinian heritage. This includes embracing bereaved families, never giving up the struggle, and refusing to accept solutions that deny Palestinian national and human rights.

Tatour has become a symbol for Israel’s persecution of Palestinians over political expression, mostly on social media. Many poets, writers, intellectuals, and activists, both in the country and abroad, have expressed their solidarity with her, calling for her immediate release and for the charges against her to be dropped.

The fact that leading intellectuals such as Calderon and Mendel volunteered to provide testimony during a grueling cross-examination (Mendel was grilled for five hours) is a prime example of just how much this particular trial resonated with much of the liberal public. Even defenders of freedom of expression and the arts have begun collecting money to help with Tatour’s legal expenses.

The last witnesses in Tatour’s case will be called to testify on March 28th, which will likely the last hearing before the verdict is read in a few months. Tatour faces up to eight years in prison, and an appeal from one or both sides is likely in such a high profile case. In the meantime, Tatour remains under house arrest and may stay in detention for a full two years before the court comes to a decision over the meaning of her poem.

Yoav Haifawi is covering Dareen Tatour’s trial in his blog, Free Haifa

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