Up against the wall: challenging Israel’s impunity

Israeli soldiers guarding a settlement built on the land of the West Bank village of Nilin (Ahmad Mesleh/Stop the Wall)

Six years ago, we were busy preparing for the start of the hearings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The world’s highest court was to decide on the legal consequences of Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank, which together with the network of settlements, military zones and Jewish-only roads annexes around 46 percent of Palestinian West Bank land. The court’s decision, months later, was clear: Israel’s wall is illegal, it needs to be torn down and the international community has an obligation to ensure that it is dismantled.

A victory? Not quite. Until today, neither foreign governments nor the UN have joined the Palestinian communities who have been destroyed by Israel’s wall in their efforts to dismantle it. Still, Palestinian villages show incredible perseverance and creativity in protesting the theft of their land and tearing down pieces of the cement blocks or iron fencing. They do so in the face of overwhelming repression.

The year 2004, when the court was deliberating the case, marked the first wave of repression aimed at the grassroots movement mobilizing against the wall. The key features of the Israeli attacks consisted of killings, mass injuries, arrests and collective punishment measures such as curfews, the closing of access to the villages protesting the wall and the denial of permits for farmers and workers to reach their jobs and lands beyond the wall or the “green line,” the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the occupied West Bank. The villages in northwest Jerusalem bore the brunt of Israeli violence.

Today the movement against the apartheid wall is once again in the crosshairs of Israeli repression.

A wave of serial arrests of well-known grassroots human rights defenders began this past summer and escalated in September 2009. A vocal advocate of Palestinian rights, Mohammed Othman, youth coordinator of the Stop the Wall Campaign, was arrested in September when he returned from a speaking tour in Norway. At the beginning of December, Abdullah Abu Rahmah, a key figure in organizing the weekly protests against the wall in the Palestinian village of Bilin, was arrested during a night raid at his home. In mid-December, I was arrested from my home by Israeli forces and taken to an interrogation center where I was kept for one month and then released without charge — a reprisal for my public outcry against Israel’s policies that have reduced Palestine to a number of isolated Bantustans behind cement walls.

We were all interrogated, threatened and intimidated while held in the deplorable conditions of Israeli jails. Othman was released just a day after me, but Abu Rahmah remains in detention.

Similar scenes are playing out in all villages protesting against Israel’s wall across the occupied West Bank. In the Palestinian village of Nilin, to date, Israeli soldiers have shot five persons dead, including a 10-year-old boy, and severely injured almost 500 individuals. Since the beginning of 2010 more than 20 have been arrested.

The arrests do not just focus on active members of the popular committees. Children and minors are particularly targeted because their arrest puts pressure on their families and the community at large. Further, being more vulnerable, Israeli intelligence officers often arrest children to recruit them as collaborators. Lately, in a number of cases, family members of wanted activists have been arrested to pressure those activists to turn themselves in.

Neither I nor other activists in the Stop the Wall Campaign have ever attempted to hide our longtime work as critical voices against Israeli apartheid and the architecture of its occupation. Based on the efforts of the popular committees in each Palestinian village, the Stop the Wall Campaign has been a public and central force of research, analysis and regular news dispatches from our “front line” — our bodies, our voices and our villages up against the wall.

Popular committees have been the basic structure of Palestinian social and political organizing for generations. The creeping criminalization of this social organizing structure therefore not only infringes our right to freedom of expression and association but risks creating a “politicide” and would, if successful, destabilize Palestinian society at its core. During the last six months, this has become Israel’s goal.

In September 2009, at the time when the UN-commissioned Goldstone report was to be officially adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, Palestinian civil society showed its strength in front of Israel and an all-too-compliant Palestinian Authority (PA). The report also contains a chapter describing the sharp increase in Israeli use of force against Palestinians in the West Bank — especially at demonstrations against the wall — during and after the Gaza assault.

The Goldstone report also describes the brutal tactics with which the PA attempted to beat down Palestinian internal dissent at the time. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Ramallah-based PA, attempted to suppress the findings of the Goldstone report, which corroborates Palestinian and international eyewitness testimonies of war crimes committed by Israel during its invasion of Gaza last winter. After the PA’s action at the Human Rights Council in September 2009, Abbas was met by a hefty uproar within Palestinian society and, eventually, pressured by its own constituents, the PA redacted its position on Goldstone.

Especially now that the president’s mandate is expired (since 26 January — which itself was extended for a year under emergency measures), the PA is keenly aware that it is not strong enough to challenge a united Palestinian society, calling for Israel to be held accountable for its crimes. It is clear that Israel also understands this balance of power and has concluded that Palestinian civil society is a force to be reckoned with and therefore should be weakened, if not eliminated.

In a situation where our top leadership is both de jure out of office and de facto too weak to stand up to Israeli and international pressure to defend our interests, such a weakening of civil society would allow Israel even more room to continue its crimes with impunity.

From the bombs dropped in Gaza on an entrapped civilian population, the repression against human rights defenders and the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, to the broad-daylight theft of land and construction of the wall, Israel remains a state that is not held accountable to international law.

Yet there is a window of opportunity opening up in defense of law and Palestinian human rights. In the coming months, the European Union (EU) and its member states will negotiate a new “Action Plan” to implement the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

The fact that this agreement is enacted at all sheds doubts over the acumen of the EU decision-makers: the agreement with Israel seems a contradiction in terms, as article two renders the agreement conditional upon compliance with human rights law and democratic principles. However, to keep a veneer of respect for its own rules and regulations, the EU has started up a “political dialogue” with Israel on its violations of human rights. The result of more than five years of discussions is not only disheartening for Palestinians but also embarrassing for the EU as the only result ever recorded for this “dialogue” is the “willingness” of Israel to talk about the issues.

At last, there seems to be some discontent within EU diplomatic circles about the fact that Israel not only disrespects all human rights and international legal obligations but even imprisons those who try to defend these rights, at a national level and through international advocacy. Yet without sustained civil society pressure, this change in perception will be absorbed into meaningless expressions of “concern,” and no action will be taken.

Member states of the EU have given valuable support to the campaign to release Mohammed Othman and myself. Yet far more decisive pressure from Europe needs to be forthcoming, not just from governments but also from European civil society, to force Israel to change its policies. As long as the EU member states uphold their cooperation agreements with Israel, hide the 2004 International Court of Justice decision against the wall under the carpet, and are unwilling to implement the recommendations of the Goldstone report — even at risk of losing their own credibility — more Palestinian human rights activists will be arrested, detained, tortured, or killed.

An active civil society is a key component of any democratic society and without it justice in Palestine and the rest of the region will remain as elusive as ever.

Jamal Juma’ is a coordinator of the Stop the Wall Campaign. For more information on the campaign visit stopthewall.org.