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Israel jails Palestinian peace activists

Mel Frykberg | Inter Press Service

18 January 2010

Israel has long argued that Palestinians should pursue their political objectives in a non-violent way. However, several prominent Palestinian peace activists have recently been arrested and jailed for doing just that.

Abdallah Abu Rahme, 39, the coordinator of the Bi’lin Popular Committee, which has challenged Israel’s illegal expropriation of Palestinian land both in an Israeli court and a Canadian one, has been charged with “illegal arms possession, stone throwing and incitement.”

The “illegal arms possession” charge relates largely to a protest exhibition Abu Rahme had made out of spent tear-gas canisters and plastic-coated rubber bullets, shot by Israeli soldiers, and assembled to form a large peace sign.

The canisters and bullets had been aimed at unarmed demonstrators protesting Israel’s separation wall which divides Bi’lin villagers from their agricultural land.

Bi’lin, a small village near Ramallah, has lost about half of its agricultural land to the wall, depriving farmers of their livelihoods.

The Israelis also allege Abu Rahme was in possession of M16 bullets.

On hearing the charge, Abu Rahme’s Israeli lawyer Gaby Lasky, asked, “What’s next? Charging protesters money for the bullets shot at them?’’

“We have evidence to challenge the Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) version of events. A number of Palestinian youngsters were pressured by the military into making false confessions after they were arrested at night, blindfolded and handcuffed,” Lasky told IPS.

Abu Rahme’s supporters include South African Nobel Peace Prize winner and former anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu as well as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and former Irish president Mary Robinson. Ex-Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland has also expressed support for Abu Rahme’s activities.

In 2008 Abu Rahme was awarded the Carl Von Ossietzky Medal for outstanding service in the pursuit of human rights by the board of trustees of the International League for Human Rights.

Israel banned him from travelling to Germany to attend last December’s award ceremony. Shortly before he was arrested IPS spoke with Abu Rahme, a school teacher, on the phone as he had gone into hiding and was unable to attend a pre-arranged interview.

“The Israeli soldiers have been targeting my home regularly. They break down doors and burst in at night, leaving my wife and young children traumatised by the continual raids. They have also been targeting the village as a whole arresting and assaulting people,” he told IPS from an undisclosed location.

“I didn’t expect them to target me because I have always been very open about my peaceful, anti-occupation activities and have done nothing illegal,” added Abu Rahme.

The Israeli authorities have for some time expressed frustration at their inability to crush the civil resistance organised by the Bi’lin Popular Committee even with the excessive use of military force.

The Israeli military informed Lasky that they would seek legal means to stop the weekly protests, during which a number of Palestinians lost their lives and several internationals and Israelis sustained serious injuries, against the separation wall.

Abu Rahme’s involvement in the protest marches led to Israel’s vague and blanket charge of “incitement”. Abu Rahme’s Popular Committee also successfully challenged the route the separation barrier had taken through Bi’lin land, with an Israeli court ordering its rerouting.

The Israeli military to date has refused to implement the court’s ruling but this has not lessened the moral victory achieved. The International Court of Justice at the Hague also ruled the separation wall illegal.

The Bi’lin Popular Committee has also taken the Israeli authorities to court in Canada over the involvement of two Canadian companies in illegal settlement building on Bi’lin land.

However, Abu Rahme is not the only peaceful activist to be targeted by the Israelis as they continue their crackdown on other Palestinian dissenters.

Muhammad Othman, 33, from Jayyous village in the northern West Bank, was also held in administrative detention, or without charge, since September last year until he was recently released. Othman has been heavily involved in the Anti-Apartheid Wall campaign.

Like Bi’lin, Jayyous has lost land to the separation barrier. An Israeli court also ruled that the wall cutting through Jayyous land had to be rerouted.

Last year Othman had travelled to Norway where he met with senior Norwegian officials to explain human rights abuses in the West Bank.

Norway’s national Pension Fund has subsequently divested from Elbit, the Israeli company which provides Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and other military technology to the IDF in addition to security systems for the separation wall and settlements.

Despite being abused during interrogation his interrogators were unable to charge Othman with anything, so they resorted to the administrative detention procedure which allows mostly Palestinian prisoners to be held without trial for months at a time.

Administrative detention orders can be renewed regularly and some prisoners have been detained for several years.

Jerusalem resident Jamal Juma, 47, the coordinator of the “Stop the Wall” Campaign was also arrested and held without access to his lawyer. Juma’s work has included addressing numerous civil society and U.N. conferences as well as writing a number of articles critical of Israel. He was released several days ago.

It is doubtful that Israel’s crackdown on the activists will work. “I visited Abdallah recently in prison. He is neither afraid nor bowed and has vowed to continue his activities whatever Israel does,” Abu Rahme’s wife Majida told IPS.