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Filling up Israel’s jails to no avail

Seth Freedman | The Guardian

20 October 2009

The plight of Palestinian activist Mohammad Othman has dominated the agendas of NGOs in the region ever since his detention in late September. However, while his case is at the forefront of their minds, Othman is just one of 11,000 Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israeli jails, 800 of whom are incarcerated under the terms of administrative detention – meaning that they are imprisoned indefinitely without any charges brought against them.

As things stand, Othman appears to be heading for the murky world of administrative detention, given the treatment handed out to him thus far by the military courts. Othman was arrested by soldiers at the Allenby Bridge crossing on 22 September as he tried to return home to the West Bank town of Jayyous following an advocacy trip to Norway. Despite a lack of evidence presented against him in court, judges in subsequent hearings have extended his remand, leading to his having spent almost a month in solitary confinement.

According to Addameer, a local prisoners’ support group, Othman’s captors will soon have to decide whether to issue an administrative detention order against him or release him without charge. However, given that today Othman found his remand extended by 11 days, it appears he’ll be kept in limbo.

Arresting Othman is a coup for the Israeli authorities, sending a strong message to his compatriots that dissent against the occupation will not be taken lightly. For years, Othman has been at the vanguard of the anti-wall campaign, an issue close to his heart given the devastation wreaked on his hometown by the erection of the barrier.

During his visit to Norway, he met the Norwegian finance minister Kristen Halvorsen, and their meeting was seen as pivotal in shaping the decision by Norway’s national pension fund to divest from Israeli electronics firm Elbit, whose products are used in the construction and maintenance of the illegal separation wall.

While Israeli officials claim that Othman is being held for belonging to an unnamed terrorist group, Othman’s supporters point out that it is too much of a coincidence that he was arrested just after his high-profile trip to Scandinavia. Furthermore, they say, he has been interrogated for up to 16 hours a day ever since being detained, and given Shin Bet’s notoriously tough methods of extracting information, if he had anything to hide it would have been long ago discovered by his jailers.

Othman’s nightmare is only the latest in a long line of suspiciously timed arrests by the Israeli authorities. According to Adalah, one of the principal NGOs campaigning for Othman’s release:

The villages of Jayyous and Bil’in have both been targeted with arrests and repression due to their multi-year nonviolent protest campaigns. Twenty-eight Bil’in activists have been arrested by Israel since June when Bil’in’s lawsuit against settlement construction on village land was heard in a Canadian court.
Just weeks after he testified in Canada, Bil’in activist Mohammed Khatib was jailed by Israeli forces for 15 days and then released on bail. Bil’in protester Adeeb Abu Rahme and 17 others are still being held in Israeli jails, and Bil’in protest organiser Abdullah Abu Rahme is ‘wanted’ by the Israeli army for his nonviolent organising.

However, instead of silencing the anti-occupation protests, Israel’s treatment of Othman, Khatib and Abu Rahme appears to be backfiring: demonstrations are taking place around the world on the campaigners’ behalf, along with well-organised publicity campaigns aimed at highlighting the dire situation for those trapped behind the separation wall.

Naomi Klein has taken up the cause as well, noting:

As we see with Mohammad Othman’s arrest, Palestinians are still treated as the enemy, even when they embrace this non-violent tactic. It is clear that for the supposedly democratic Israeli state, no tactic – no matter how peaceful – is an acceptable way for Palestinians to resist an illegal occupation.

Whatever happens in Othman’s case, the signs are clear that the Israeli authorities will continue to stifle legitimate protest at every opportunity, and the omens look bleak for any change to their repressive policies as long as the cabinet remains in place. Led by the hyper-defensive Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli officials give short shrift to anyone calling for boycotts or sanctions against the state, and individuals such as Othman are easy prey for those looking to make an example of anyone deemed an enemy of the state.

Daniel Seaman, director of Israel’s government press office, summed up the prevailing attitude when questioned about Othman’s arrest. Scoffing at the idea that Othman was detained for his pro-boycott activities, he went on to declare:

Boycotts are a joke … [They] are an old weapon used against Jews and the state of Israel for generations, so those invoking the boycott should not act so disingenuous as if they are doing this for some noble reason. It is as old as hatred for the Jews.
Israel has done everything for the peace process and taken risks for peace: relinquishing territory, giving up settlements. Instead of bringing us closer to peace it has resulted in more Israeli deaths. What have the Palestinians done to increase the prospects for peace? Palestinians have contributed nothing to the world except violence and terrorism.

Against such a caustic backdrop, it is clear that even once Othman is finally released, there will be plenty more like him filling up cells in Israeli jails. With senior Israeli spokesmen making such proclamations against the entire Palestinian people, there seems little room for manoeuvre for the activists fighting desperately for their nation’s freedom – and the prospects for peaceful resolution continue to diminish.