Inside Israeli jails, the real victims of a cry for justice

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24 November 2009

By Jesse Rosenfeld
24 November 2009
The National

Amid the growing media fever over a possible prisoner swap involving the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas, another young captive has a less visible public profile – but personifies Israel’s chokehold on Palestinian self-expression.

Mohammad Othman, 33, from the West Bank town of Jayyous, and an activist with the grassroots Palestinian organisation Stop the Wall, was arrested on September 22 at the Allenby Bridge crossing on the Jordanian border. He was on his way home after a meeting in Norway with supporters of the global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel (BDS). Adameer (Arabic for “conscience”), the Palestinian prisoners’ support and human rights organisation, contends that his arrest is a result of “his successful human rights advocacy and community activism”.

Mohammad was interrogated for two months at the Kishon detention centre in northern Israel. His lawyer told me he was repeatedly asked about his meetings, contacts and political activities in Europe. He alleges that Mohammad was kept in isolation, deprived of sleep, questioned round the clock, and threatened with death.

On Monday, Mohammad was formally placed in Israeli administrative detention for three months. He is the latest of more than 335 Palestinians held in this way, a practice based on a 1945 emergency British Mandate law and highlighted in a report last month by the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem and HaMoked.

I first met Mohammad Othman in Jayyous a year ago, during a protest against the annexation of the towns’s farmland to build Israel’s wall. Residents had just had their permits to cross the wall to their farms revoked, and had rekindled their earlier campaign of resistance. He led me down an alley as soldiers began retaking the main street with tear gas and rubber bullets, forcing young boys to retreat from the barricades that were blocking the military jeeps from driving through the town. “We constantly worry about army raids and arrests, all the local activists do,” he told me after we were out of the line of fire.

On Sunday, almost exactly a year after that in Jayyous, I watched Mohammad stand in front of a military tribunal housed in a barracks that looked like an oversized chicken-coop inside Israel’s Ofer prison in the West Bank. His lawyers were appealing against his prolonged detention without charge.

Outside the court, family members of other detained Palestinians clung to the fence, waiting for news about their loved ones. British and German consular officials and representatives from Israeli and international NGOs filled the small courtroom. Shackled at the legs, and having only a fraction of the proceedings against him translated, Mohammad raised his fist twice to the gallery in a gesture of strength and resistance.

Across the West Bank, just as in that courtroom, Israel is trying to tighten its grip on expressions of Palestinian self-determination. The border village of Bil’in has captured the international eye with a forceful and well-documented resistance campaign against the dispossession caused by Israel’s wall. It is precisely such international calls from Palestinian society that Israel is targeting with a systematic campaign of violence and incarceration inside its controlled territory.

This summer a committee of representatives from Bil’in visited Canada to support a lawsuit against two Israeli settlement construction companies registered in Montreal. When they returned, their leader, Mohammad Khatib, was arrested by the Israeli army. And while those two companies continued to build illegal homes on the farmland of Bil’in, the military conducted systematic raids into the village for three months.

When I last spoke to Mohammad Khatib in September, he was exhausted from a combination of the Ramadan fast and constant night-time army invasions. He told me that young people arrested in Bil’in were severely beaten by the army on the way to interrogation, and then had confessions beaten out of them.
Last Thursday, pressure on the town again escalated again when undercover Israeli soldiers beat and arrested a 19-year-old village activist, Mohammed Yasin. Gaby Lasky, the lawyer for the Bil’in detainees, says she has been told by the military prosecution that the army intends to put an end to the village’s anti-wall demonstrations by using the full force of the law against protesters.

And that is the strategy of Benjamin Netanyau: hit all pressure points. On the diplomatic stage he is demanding acquiescence from the Palestinians’ official representatives, but that policy is not limited to a public-relations dance with a Palestinian Authority that a growing number of people are calling to be dissolved. The aim is to turn the Palestinians’ internationally heard call for solidarity into a cry for Israeli mercy. It is being expressed in military raids on Palestinian homes, and in political prisoners held without trial in Israeli jails and tied to chairs in interrogation rooms.

Jesse Rosenfeld is a Canadian freelance journalist working in Israel and the Occupied Territories since 2007, and currently based in Jaffa