Benjamin Joffe-Walt | The Media Line
14 January 2010
A prominent West Bank activist said by Palestinian groups to be the first Palestinian imprisoned for promoting an international boycott of Israel has been released after being detained by Israel for over 100 days without charge.
Mohammad Othman, a 34 year old resident of the West Bank village of Jayyous, was released Wednesday after 113 days in Israeli custody.
Palestinian advocacy groups believe Othman to be the first Palestinian imprisoned solely for advocacy of the international boycott movement against Israel.
“I was interrogated every single day for 75 days from 8am until 6.30pm and sometimes until midnight,” Othman told The Media Line. “The entire time I was held in isolation. Physically they did not touch me, but it really damages a person to be in isolation. They also played all kinds of games, telling me they will arrest my brother, my friends and the journalists writing about me.”
Othman was first taken into Israeli custody by the Israel Security Agency, commonly known as the Shin Bet, on September 22 at an Israeli border crossing terminal. Othman was attempting to return to the West Bank following a trip to Norway, where he had met with senior government officials including Finance Minister Kristen Halvorsen to try and convince the country to boycott companies involved in Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Othman took Norwegian officials on a tour of the West Bank, traveled to Norway and played a major role in convincing a Norwegian state pension fund to divest the $5.4 million it had invested in Elbit, one of Israel’s largest defense firms. Minister Halvorsen announced the decision early last month.
“They are trying to put a lot of pressure on the boycott movement,” Othman said. “They realized how much pressure it is putting on them.”
“I was interrogated by ten different commanders, nine from the Shin Bet and one from the Mossad,” he said, referring to the Israel Security Agency and Israel’s national intelligence agency, respectively. “They asked me about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, my work, why I’m traveling around the world and why I have the contacts of ministers, prime ministers and embassies.”
Othman was held for interrogation for two months, after which he was put into administrative detention.
“After about 50 days they came up with this charge that I’m in contact with Hezbollah,” Othman said. “It’s crazy. I told them I am involved in a peaceful fight and dealing with international human rights organizations.”
“They had nothing against me but I was really worried when I was put into administrative detention,” he said. “It can be a few months or up to seven years.”
“I was often put in court without a lawyer and had to represent myself,” Othman said. “Two days ago I was sent to court again and I got the papers that I was going to be freed.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” he continued. “The judge said ‘Why aren’t you reacting?’ I said ‘Because it’s administrative detention so you can arrest me two minutes after releasing me’.”
While he was released without charge, Othman was required to pay 10,000 shekels ($2,716) bail for his release, an administrative technicality related to his initial detention for interrogation prior to his placement in administrative detention.
Officially, Israel has made no comment on the two cases and a spokesperson for the Israel Security Agency told The Media Line they were looking into the matter.
Magda Mughrabi, the Advocacy Officer at Addameer Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association, which represented Othman at some of his court hearings, argued Othman’s case exemplifies Israel’s use of administrative detention as a tactic to punish non-violent activism.
“Israeli is using detention as an arbitrary policy as opposed to something founded on strong evidence,” Magda Mughrabi, Advocacy Officer with Addameer Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association, told The Media Line. “Mohammad Othman wasn’t charged with anything.”
“Representatives of the British, Norwegian and German governments all attended the hearings and there was no substantiated evidence,” she claimed. “They issued an administrative detention order against him saying he posed a security threat to the area and his detention was necessary to neutralize the threat. Then later the judge said Mr Othman still poses a security threat but that there is no progress in his interrogation.”
“This is contradictory,” Mughrabi maintained. “Legally administrative detention can only be used for preventative purposes when there is information that there is an imminent threat to the security of the state. So if they say that his administrative detention should be shortened because there is no progress in the investigation that means they are not holding him for preventative purposes but as a substitute for prosecution because they don’t have evidence against him.”
“This is a war between the campaign and the Israeli authorities,” she added. “The human rights community has written a lot about the arbitrary use of administrative detention. It’s not used as a preventive measure but as a punitive measure when they don’t have enough evidence to prosecute someone.”
There are over 7,000 Palestinians currently held by Israel as ‘security prisoners’, around 290 of them administrative detainees and many of whom, Palestinians claim, have been arrested solely for political reasons.
Palestinian groups claim that Israel has arrested a number of non-violent activists in reprisal for their international advocacy efforts or involvement in demonstrations. Most notable has been the detention of dozens of Palestinian activists arrested in nighttime raids in the West Bank villages of Ni’ilin and Bil’in, the sites of weekly demonstrations against Israel’s separation barrier. Many of those arrested have been accused by Israel of incitement and put in administrative detention based on secret evidence. Very few have been charged.
Othman’s release came one day after Israel’s release of another prominent Palestinian activist, Jamal Juma.
The director of Stop the Wall, a Palestinian campaign opposed to Israel’s construction of a barrier around the West Bank, Juma was released Tuesday after being detained by the Israel Security Agency for 27 days without charge. Juma was arrested on December 16 less than 48 hours after being interviewed by The Media Line regarding the continued detention of Mohammad Othman.
Despite being a legal resident of Jerusalem entitled to legal rights similar to those afforded to Israeli citizens, Juma was processed in Israel’s military court system in the same legal procedures used by Israel for West Bank Palestinians like Mohammad Othman.
“This experience made it much clearer to me how much the non-violent Palestinian movement freaks them out,” Juma told The Media Line. “They see how our movement is opening the eyes of the world to the oppression of the Palestinians and they are determined to stop it but they don’t know what to do. They can’t call us terrorists so they bring people like me into jail without any real legal way to charge us.”
“They accused me of incitement and contact with terrorist organizations,” he said. “It’s so silly they even accused me of contact with the Zapatistas [laughing]. I told them ‘Do you think that when I meet 60,000 people at conferences I ask everyone there ‘Do you have a problem with Israel? Are you part of a terrorist organization?’ In the end they dropped it of course and didn’t charge me with anything at all because none of it made any sense.”
“I am only out of prison today because of international pressure, both official pressure from consulates and official bodies, as well as organizations around the world that don’t understand why Israel would arrest someone like me,” Juma said of the massive campaign launched by Palestinian activists for his release. “I really appreciate this level of solidarity.”
“You can’t imagine how much dehumanization there is in these jails,” he said of his detention. “I was interrogated constantly, put into isolation, put in a cell in which my head was in the door and my feet in the toilet. I was handcuffed for many hours, the cells are lit up 24 hours a day and the food is so bad you wouldn’t even give it to dogs.”
“They didn’t beat me or anyone I saw,” Juma added. “But this is a form of torture and the worst face of the occupation. Many prisoners almost lose their minds and all of this is done in shadow and nobody knows about it.”
Juma and other Palestinian advocates who have worked intimately with Othman say he was spurred to activism by the effect of the West Bank separation barrier on his family.
“Mohammad comes from a big and poor family in Jayyous village in the West Bank,” Juma said. “Lots of their land has been isolated behind the wall and he started his activism because of that, to show the threat the occupation presents to his family and his village.”
“He continued his activism both locally and internationally, calling on people and organizations and governments to boycott Israel for its crimes against the Palestinian people,” he said. “That’s why he became a target of the Israelis.”
The international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel is viewed as a serious national threat by most Israelis, many of whom see boycott advocacy as paramount to sedition, and a number of Israeli analysts argue that the threat posed to Israel justifies the arrest of its leaders.
“The demonization of Israel is a form of warfare and Israel is treating it as such,”
Dr Gerald Steinberg, Chair of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University told The Media Line. “Whether it’s through this so called boycott and sanctions campaign, or attempts to have Israeli leaders like Former Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni arrested in Britain, or International Criminal Court related activites, this kind of incitement is political warfare on par with military warfare in that the goal is to destroy the state of Israel.”
“As Prime Minister Netanyahu recently stated, demonization is as dangerous to the State of Israel as the Iranian nuclear threat,” he added. “That’s the broad view of the majority of Israelis.”
Dr Ron Breiman, the former chairman of Professors for a Strong Israel one of the founders of the secular Hatikva faction of the National Union, a right wing nationalist political party in Israel, echoed Dr Steinberg’s remarks.
“Israel needs to defend itself and should arrest people like this,” he told The Media Line at the time of Othman’s arrest. “In any normal country when someone is doing harm to his own state he would be punished for that. I don’t think a European country would allow such activities within her borders and we are too forgiving of it.”
“I want democracy and I want free speech,” Dr Breiman said. “But there are limits to free speech and even in a democratic country you cannot say anything that you want, especially in a state of war.”