Interview: Palestinian rights defender banned from traveling tastes freedom in Geneva

1 March 2012

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Shawan Jabarin

(Adri Nieuwhof)

For most of the past six years, Israel has forbidden Shawan Jabarin, a prominent human rights advocate and former administrative detainee, from leaving the occupied West Bank. On exception, he was allowed travel to Geneva this week to meet Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression.

Israel imposed its travel ban on Jabarin — based on “secret evidence” — after he was appointed director of the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq in 2006. Neither Jabarin or his lawyers have been allowed to see the evidence.

Adri Nieuwhof interviewed Jabarin when he arrived to Geneva’s airport.

Adri Nieuwhof: Welcome to Geneva. What does it mean for you to be here?

Shawan Jabarin: Today I asked myself that question. I was here before in a bit of the same situation. This time I felt that Israel stepped back because of the solidarity, the support that came from various groups and different people all over the world. Besides the people who wrote articles, Amnesty International had a campaign for one year. Hundreds of letters and messages were sent to Ehud Barak [Israel’s defense minister], asking him about my case.

To be here reactivates me, strengthens the belief of the [Palestinian] people and the right to defend that strongly. I am in the struggle for people’s rights. It [this visit] is a push for me to do more and more.

I have to recognize Frank La Rue from Guatemala, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, [for facilitating my travel to Geneva]. I met him when he came to Palestine. I will meet him tomorrow [27 February]. I think that during his visit of two weeks he got the full picture of the situation of the Palestinians and how it affects their rights in every aspect. He released a statement which includes my case. He sent me an invitation to speak at a meeting with representatives from different states at a side event to the Human Rights Council. He closely followed my case to come here, to speak to the people in the UN. It is important, even with pain in the heart that this organization does not really stand behind rights with action, only with words. It is important to continue addressing them.

On a personal level, to be outside is to take a breath, to see the snow on the mountains, to refresh your mind with new technology on airplanes. I have not travelled for years. To be exposed to the new way of life. To taste the normal life, to live free. To impose a travel ban is like imposing imprisonment. My prison is a big prison.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Jordan was [to go] to the cemetery with my uncle and his son to visit the grave of my uncle who died two years ago. I could not go to his funeral. I did not eat — I went straight to the cemetery.

AN: How do you assess the current situation in relation to Israel’s respect for rights of the Palestinian people?

SJ: I think their practices and actions speak for themselves. They have no peace on their agenda. If it is on their agenda, they have their own interpretation. Israel is killing Palestinians every day, pushing peace further away. Israel killed any opportunity for real peace, completely ignoring Palestinian fundamental rights. For them, Palestinians are not a people that have rights.

It was clear when I crossed the bridge [Allenby bridge between the West Bank and Jordan]. The Shabak [Israel’s General Security Service] officer asked me if there is a Palestinian people and if they have rights.

The continuation of the oppression, the suffering, it creates a mentality of ignorance. The settlers, even the young generation, show not just hatred, they show it in a very, very aggressive way. I can see an explosion coming. The settlers will be the main players. I have real concern about their killing a big number of Palestinians, a massacre. Or violence at al-Aqsa [mosque in Jerusalem]. The settlers are supported by public figures, the Israeli government.

I have no doubt that there is no hope in the near or mid-term future. But there is hope for the long-term future. There is a lesson in history that criminal oppression will not continue forever. I see something growing, some change at the level of the public opinion.

If you look at the bigger picture on an international level, I feel that — even if I don’t travel — there is a change in the people’s understanding. The face of Israel as an occupying power is clear. In Europe, it is a genuine change. In the United States, the support to Israel is unconditional, but we see every day new voices of intellectuals, activists and politicians who speak about this taboo, they criticize Israel.

This month, media from the US contacted me many times. Many visitors of our website [www.alhaq.org] are from the US. It is not enough to conclude that there will be change tomorrow. But it is important. The absence of political will in the international community makes it difficult. I have pain in my heart. Why do we have to pay such a high price as a people? Peace and justice will come one day.

AN: The hunger strikes by Khader Adnan and Hana al-Shalabi have led to more attention for Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinian political prisoners. Do you think it is important to campaign for the rights of the prisoners?

SJ: Everyone has to support the prisoners’ rights, to support human values. The prisoners are struggling for their cause, for peace, for values. Even if Israel calls them terrorists, Palestinians look at them as heroes, as leaders.

Israel completely ignored the international standards of treating prisoners in a human way. They are sending a message to people who defend rights: go to hell. Wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers could not visit their relatives. Give me one example in the world where visits to relatives in prison are denied because of security risks.

Israel is a superpower, controlling everything with technology. What does a security threat reason mean to deny a visit to a seventy-year old father? I am ready to deal with it with an open mind, but I cannot see the logic. The punishment mentality is guiding the Israeli practices and policies. Every day new rules are created, [prisoners] have to take off their clothes while the rooms are searched, [the prison authorities] are transferring prisoners, isolating them for years. It is psychological torture. It is part of a revenge, a punishment mentality. To restrict [Palestinians] from their freedom is not enough.

The administrative detention policy was created by the British in the 1940s, and now Israel uses this policy [to detain Palestinians without charge of trial]. It is a violation of the principles and standards of due process and fair trial practiced in all democracies. This is what you teach young lawyers. Israel ignores this. It brings administrative detention orders to a military court that follow military law. The evidence is secret. The court rubber-stamps the order. It is arbitrary detention.

It is difficult to live under administrative detention. These days there are approximately 320 Palestinians detained under administrative detention, and 24 of them are members of the Legislative Council. Israel uses it as a stick to beat people, because they dislike their activities or way of thinking. It is politics.

Khader Adan, when he took his step to go on hunger strike, he knew well what it meant. He knew you have no rights. He sent a message. He lost a lot of weight and maybe harmed his physical functions. Maybe he will not fully recover. His hunger strike was like shouting, using a strong voice. It has cost him a lot. It is a historical act, 66 days on hunger strike. [Irish political prisoner] Bobby Sands died after 66 days of hunger strike.

The Israelis can renew administrative detention orders indefinitely. Some people are detained for five or eight years under administrative detention based on secret evidence. What is security? What is a secret file? A main principle is to receive a fair trial. Israel acts in a way of revenge against the Palestinians. It will not build security.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.