Persecution of Palestinian citizens recalls S. Africa apartheid repression

A South African is carried away after being injured by police at an anti-apartheid demonstration in Cape Province, 1985. (UN Photo)

Two weeks after Israel imposed a travel ban on him, Ameer Makhoul, a well-respected Palestinian leader holding Israeli citizenship, was kidnapped from his home on 6 May in the middle of the night. The persecution of Makhoul brings back memories of the South Africa apartheid regime: he has been held incommunicado and was not allowed access to his lawyer for two weeks; a court order prohibited publication of any information on the case against Makhoul for 90 days; and the so-called evidence justifying the “security charges” against Makhoul remains secret. During the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, similar tactics were used against those advocating for freedom and equal rights, who were accused of terrorism and having links with the Soviet Union.

The detention of Ameer Makhoul follows a wave of repression of Palestinian leaders and activists resisting the occupation in the West Bank, and he is not the only Palestinian community leader in Israel to be receiving such treatment. Internationally-renowned pharmacologist Dr. Omar Said was detained two weeks before Makhoul and a gag order was used to silence the media. Detentions and gag orders are imposed by Israel to intimidate and harass those who speak out and campaign for freedom and equal rights.

The secrecy around the detention of Makhoul and Said is disturbing, because there is no way to determine if their rights are being respected, and human rights organizations have documented Israel’s systematic abuse of Palestinian political prisoners’ rights. Makhoul wasn’t even present for the closed-door hearing at the Petach Tikva court during which his detention was extended. Meanwhile, Said has been subjected to continuous interrogation and allowed a very limited amount of sleep since his arrest on 24 April. Makhoul’s attorneys suspect that Makhoul was subject to torture during the 12 days he was prevented from meeting with his legal defense team, and the lawyers’ request for the court to release Makhoul’s medical records was refused.

The gag order prevents the Israeli press from exposing the secret “evidence” behind Israel’s espionage allegations against Makhoul and Said. Similar accusations drove former Knesset member and community leader Azmi Bishara into self-imposed exile to avoid ending up in prison. Hussein Abu Hussein, a lawyer who has defended several Palestinians in Israel against charges of spying, told the Israeli daily Haaretz that espionage laws in Israel were so wide-ranging that an Internet chat or telephone conversation with anyone in an “enemy state” could lead to prosecution. However, Israel’s strategy of branding the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equal rights as “terrorist” is not new and the similarities between Israel’s behavior and apartheid South Africa’s oppression of anti-apartheid activists are striking.

South Africa’s Terrorism Act No. 83 of 1967 allowed for the indefinite detention of an individual for terrorism, which was very broadly defined to include anyone they suspected of being engaged or involved in any act against the state. Persons could be held indefinitely since the act allowed detention until all questions were satisfactorily answered or until no further useful purpose would be achieved by keeping the person in detention. The act gave the state the authority to interrogate and to extract information while the public and the families of detainees were not entitled to any information including even the identity or whereabouts of persons detained. Detainees could literally and effectively disappear.

This legislation effectively gave the state license to take away activists’ human rights and avoid accountability. Many were kidnapped and imprisoned under this legislation; this law was invoked in the kidnapping and sentencing of Eric Ngeleza and some of his comrades in 1977 for their membership with the banned African National Congress (ANC) and for facilitating the safe passage of freedom fighters into ANC camps outside South Africa. They were branded as terrorists, interrogated and sentenced to long prison terms on Robben Island. In Ngeleza’s case, it would be ten years before he was reunited with his family. This fate should not be allowed to befall Makhoul, Said and many other activists whose only “crime” is demanding equal rights in the land of their birth.

The new Israeli military order — order 1650, for the “Prevention of Infiltration” — also parallels apartheid South Africa’s racist pass laws. The military order defines anyone who enters the West Bank illegally as an infiltrator, as well as a person who is present in the area and does not lawfully hold a permit. The current South African government protested the order as “a gross violation of an individual’s human rights,” comparing it the notoriously oppressive policy of the apartheid era.

Israel’s treatment of Makhoul and Said, so similar to the application of the Terrorism Act in South Africa and other oppressive measures, confirm that Israel is an apartheid state that has no regard for the rights of its own citizens. It is long overdue for Israel, like apartheid South Africa in its time, to be declared a pariah state and isolated until it agrees to respect human rights.

Adri Nieuwhof and Bangani Ngeleza are independent consultants from Switzerland and South Africa, respectively. Nieuwhof supported the South African anti-apartheid struggle as a member of the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Ngeleza participated in the liberation struggle as an activist with the African National Congress. When he was 11, his father Eric Ngeleza was sentenced to ten years on Robben Island.