On Friday 13 December, three young men were greeted at a local municipality by a crowd of approximately 50 persons welcoming them home. They were returning to Shefa Amr, a Palestinian town in the Western Galilee region in the north of present-day Israel.
The three had been arrested in late November. An Israeli court had banned them from entering their hometown for 15 days.
Mwafaa Nafa’, a 21-year-old activist from Shefa Amr, told The Electronic Intifada that he and the two others were also barred from having direct contact with one another for forty days.
The three had been arrested while trying to ensure that businesses were respecting a town-wide general strike protesting an Israeli court’s decision to imprison six Palestinian citizens of Israel over the killing of Eden Natan Zada.
“Because they were Arabs”
In August 2005 the Israeli soldier opened fire on a bus full of Palestinian civilians in Shefa Amr, killing four and wounding 17; the soldier was killed at the scene. The bus passengers said they were acting in self-defense, but this was dismissed by the court.
Zada killed his victims, the Haifa Municipal Court judges admitted, “simply because they were Arabs.”
The six were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 11 months to two years for different charges after being found guilty by an Israeli district court in Haifa this past July. A suspended sentence of eight months was given to another defendant who was subsequently released on probation.
The court had found four of the accused men in the case guilty of attempted manslaughter, and the other three guilty of less severe charges.
Nafa’ explained that on the day of the court sentencing, he and other young activists went across the town to check if businesses were complying with the general strike.
“The only place open was the post office,” he said. “They refused to close. When we were leaving, police pulled us over and asked to search the car. I asked if we look like vigilantes or criminals to them.”
They were subsequently arrested and taken to interrogation at the police station.
Nafa’ said that they were motivated to protest the court decision after seeing how the condemned suffered from “difficult emotional and psychological trauma. Their economic situation, their family lives, and their social lives were ruined. It’s not about their political positions — they’re humans and they’re victims.”
Jamil Safuri, one of the four men found guilty of attempted manslaughter, told The Electronic Intifada that the year after the massacre saw “around 700 people from Shefa Amr investigated by the state in a secretive way. In 2006, a large police force came and arrested the seven of us in the middle of the night.”
They were eventually released from detention while the police continued their investigation. “We were placed on house arrest for three months in residences outside of Shefa Amr,” he said. “Those were the hardest months for us because we were banned from our homes and not allowed to leave the country or travel anywhere within it.”
In 2008, Israel rearrested the seven men and formally filed extensive criminal charges against them.
That same year, Safuri’s 20-year-old son Anees, who was studying at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank, was arrested by Israel for allegedly plotting armed resistance operations. He was subsequently convicted of having ties to Hizballah, the Lebanese resistance organization.
Safuri said that while he was in jail “many [Israeli intelligence] agents posed as prisoners to try to get information out of us, to try to make us confess to something. I was very shocked to see these people at the witness stand in court testifying against me.”
Once offered a plea bargain by Israel, Safuri and the others refused to “confess to things that we didn’t do. This case is not about getting arrested or going to jail; it’s about being Arab in this country. In every country in the world, people have a right to self-defense … but not us.”
Safuri explained that while the world focuses on Israel’s widespread human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza, “we know that there is still an occupation here inside [present-day Israel].”
“Taught to kill Arabs”
Safuri said massacres like that perpetrated by Zada were to be expected, since “Israelis are raised in the military. They are taught to kill Arabs from the beginning.”
He said “this will continue to happen until there is a single, secular and democratic state for everyone.”
She also observed that Israeli soldiers are unanimously presented as role models and heroes in television, music, advertisements and throughout all corners of pop culture.
“It all starts in the educational system, where Israeli children are raised to be soldiers through military-centered programs from kindergarten to high school,” she said. “Palestinian Arabs [in Israel’s educational system] are dehumanized.”
Ameen Enebtawy, the recently-elected mayor of Shefa Amr, told The Electronic Intifada that Zada intended “to kill everyone on the bus even though he didn’t know them personally.”
“Defending their dignity”
“If the passengers didn’t kill him, he would have killed everyone on the bus,” Enebtawy explained. “It was self-defense, defending their dignity. If he had the chance to continue, he would have gone down from the bus and killed people in the street.”
In 2005, Israeli police officers told the Israeli newspaperHaaretz that Zada had already been handcuffed at the time that he was killed, though the accused have disputed this claim.
Although Israel’s then prime minister Ariel Sharon denounced Zada as a “terrorist” at the time of the massacre, Israel’s defense ministry refused to recognize the families of the slain as victims of terror, despite a wealth of evidence that Zada acted on right-wing ideological motivations associated with Israeli settler movements.
The families of the four victims, as well as the injured, were offered an undisclosed lump sum but denied the lifelong monthly financial compensation the state usually gives to Jewish Israeli victims of political violence.
Right-wing Israeli nationalists regularly vandalize Palestinian property in Israel, occupied East Jerusalem and the broader West Bank, operating with the same impunity as violent attackers who harass Palestinians.
“Even if another Natan Zada comes, we’re not going to be scared,” Mwafaa Nafa’ said. “We can go to their courts and their jails, but when we come out, we’ll continue our struggle.”
Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor at The Electronic Intifada. Find his writing at www.patrickostrickland.com, and follow him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_