Grassroots organizer targeted by PA, Israeli forces

Israeli authorities pull Mousa Abu Maria away from a visitor during a court appeal of his administrative detention, Jerusalem, July 2008. (Oren Ziv/

Mousa Abu Maria, father of a newborn baby and co-coordinator of the grassroots Palestine Solidarity Project (PSP) in the occupied West Bank village of Beit Ommar, was used to the sound of boots running on the ground and surrounding his home in the middle of the night. Awakened once again at 2:00am on Tuesday, 6 April, Abu Maria told an international volunteer with PSP who was sleeping in his house not to worry but that they should start moving the computers out of the rooms. Weeks earlier, PSP’s office was raided by Israeli forces; computer hard drives and printers were confiscated as Abu Maria’s entire family was forced to stand outside in the freezing cold. But when Abu Maria looked outside the window this time, it wasn’t Israeli forces shouting at him to come outside. It was a squadron of heavily-armed Palestinian Authority (PA) police.

“They told me that they needed to talk with me for just one hour,” Abu Maria told EI on the phone from Beit Ommar. “But they kidnapped me, forced me into a jeep, and took me to the Hebron police station where they held me until the next afternoon. They acted exactly like Israeli soldiers, accusing me of hitting a police officer during a demonstration — a totally fabricated claim.”

PSP has been instrumental in coordinating weekly demonstrations in front of Route 60, the “settler road” that runs alongside Beit Ommar and connects Jerusalem to the settlement colonies in the Bethlehem/Hebron area, and Abu Maria has borne the brunt of Israeli backlash for his involvement in the group’s nonviolent direct actions. He was abducted by Israeli forces in April 2008 and held in administrative detention — without charges or conviction — for an entire year. “In total, I’ve spent seven years in Israeli prisons on three separate occasions because of my work to challenge the illegal Israeli occupation,” Abu Maria said. Members of his family, including his brother, Youssef, have also faced harsh Israeli prison sentences because of their organizing and involvement with civil disobedience actions in the village.

But on 6 April, Abu Maria said that he was made to wait in the Hebron PA police’s detention facility overnight. Phone calls from Palestinian community leaders, Israeli activists and internationals poured into the PA government offices headquartered in Ramallah demanding a reason for the arrest and calling for Abu Maria’s immediate release. The following afternoon, still held at the police station, Abu Maria said he began to receive a deluge of apologies from police officials, including the head of the Palestinian police department in Hebron who reportedly kissed Abu Maria on the head as he left the station. “They said they made a mistake, and didn’t need me for questioning,” Abu Maria told EI. “I told them that they should be ashamed for acting like Israeli soldiers, and that if they needed to talk to me, they can meet me in a normal way — there is no reason to arrest their own people in the middle of the night and terrify Palestinians like this.”

Local Palestinian media jumped on the story, since it directly highlights the narrowing differences between the actions of Israeli and PA forces operating in the West Bank. As the PA continues to solidify its militarized presence on the ground in the West Bank — sending its forces to train with US General Keith Dayton in Amman, Jordan, for internal “counter-insurgency” techniques that are consequentially used against leaders and activists within opposing political parties — many Palestinians are growing increasingly cynical of the ability of the administration of PA president Mahmoud Abbas to represent all elements of Palestinian civil society in a fair and just way. “They should represent Palestine and its people. I’d respect them if they were working for the Palestinian cause, for the justice that we all deserve,” Abu Maria remarked. “But they made me respect the PA even less after what happened to me.”

The PA, meanwhile, has recently announced that it has started a campaign to target Israeli settlement products sold within the occupied West Bank. Appointed PA Prime Minister, and former World Bank official, Salam Fayyad launched the campaign with a public bonfire of one million dollars worth of products made in settlements on 5 January 2010. Days later, Fayyad set up a “National Dignity Fund” aimed at supporting locally-grown produce available for distribution in the local and global market. The PA has also started showing up at anti-occupation demonstrations, notably in Bilin, in a campaign marketed as a show of support and solidarity with local grassroots organizers.

However, many Palestinian organizers are skeptical of the PA’s show of interest in grassroots initiatives like the burgeoning boycott campaigns and regular demonstrations around the West Bank. Jamal Juma’, co-coordinator of the Stop the Wall campaign, told EI that these actions by the PA are marked by hypocrisy, especially in light of the parallel, violent crackdowns by PA forces against other Palestinian parties like Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and independent organizers like Mousa Abu Maria. Additionally, the PA enjoys the continued flow of money and political cooperation from the US, the EU and Israel.

“It’s confusing,” Juma’ said. “The PA is talking about supporting the popular resistance struggle, and they’ve started a campaign to boycott the products from settlements in the West Bank. These are things we totally support as a people and as a movement. On the other hand, the PA has its own limits. They obviously don’t want certain demonstrations and actions to go beyond their control.”

Juma’ told EI that the PA’s move to boycott settlement products, for instance, still doesn’t address the underlying need to stop the settlements themselves. “This is a part of the PA’s entrenched program of normalization [with the Israeli occupation],” he said. “We as Palestinian civil society cannot afford normalization by the Authority. We won’t accept it. The PA should complement the activities of the grassroots movements that are working very hard to expand the popular resistance, not limit them.”

At the same time, a new Israeli military law aimed at arresting and deporting tens of thousands of Palestinians, internationals who have married Palestinians and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who live with their spouses inside the West Bank, may go into effect soon. Veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass wrote last weekend in the Israeli daily Haaretz: “The new order is the latest step by the Israeli government in recent years to require permits that limit the freedom of movement and residency previously conferred by Palestinian ID cards. The new regulations are particularly sweeping, allowing for criminal measures and the mass expulsion of people from their homes.”

Juma’ says that this could be a perfect time for the PA to support direct confrontation against this extremely racist military order, as Palestinian committees are gearing up to do. “The PA has condemned the law, but we don’t need condemnation,” Juma’ stressed. “We need them to take practical actions on the ground. They should freeze coordination with the Israelis. They have to do something. The PA should understand and remember that they are not exempt from Israel’s target.”

On Saturday, 10 April, Mousa Abu Maria was arrested once again — this time by Israeli occupation forces — during a regular, pre-planned demonstration in Beit Ommar. Along with nine other Palestinian and Israeli protesters, he was taken to the military compound inside Gush Etzion, the nearby Israeli settlement colony, and held in jail until yesterday. The Israeli protesters were released on the condition that they not enter Beit Ommar for two weeks, and the Palestinians were bailed out by local Palestinian committees, Israeli human rights groups and their families. Undeterred, Abu Maria told EI that the demonstrations will continue as long as Israel’s occupation and its apartheid regime continue to uproot peoples’ lives all over Palestine.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is the co-host and Senior Producer of Flashpoints, a daily investigative newsmagazine on Pacifica Radio. She is also a correspondent for Inter Press Service. She regularly reports from Palestine, where she also runs media workshops for youth in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.