Protest Arbitrary Imprisonment

Haytham with two of his daughters

Last week, armed Israeli policemen burst into the East Jerusalem YMCA offices and arrested Haytham Hammouri, a YMCA staff member. He was handcuffed and taken into police custody. No charges were made, and he was kept incommunicado for three days. Finally, he was able to see a lawyer, taken in front of an Israeli court, and sentenced to six months “administrative detention” in an Israeli prison. No charges were made against him, and there has been no trial. Haytham joins more than 12,000 Palestinians in a similar situation, and he may be the only Palestinian resident of Jerusalem held under this arbitrary pretext.

Haytham Hammouri is a YMCA staff member who oversees and develops community projects. The YMCA has played an increasingly important role in providing basic services to the community under the current harsh conditions in Occupied Palestine. Particularly crucial are the YMCA’s rehabilitation centers, where the tens of thousands of Palestinians wounded during the previous and current intifada are treated, given support, and physically and emotionally rehabilitated.

Rehabilitation isn’t just a matter of teaching youngsters to walk with crutches, or fitting people with prosthetic limbs; it is also an economic issue. Most of those wounded are manual laborers. The loss of one of their limbs or their mobility strikes a major blow to their chances of attaining and sustaining economic independence and thus the support of their families. YMCA rehabilitation staff members teach the wounded new skills that allow them to rejoin society as productive members, with their dignity intact.

The YMCA has a different profile in Palestine than elsewhere in the world. In most countries, the YMCA is synonymous with a fitness club or a cheap hotel. In the Occupied Territories—as in Lebanon during the long civil war—the organization has taken on additional roles as a provider of essential services and a bastion of community morale. Haytham was involved in the organization of such services and the encouragement of such morale.

Thousands of Palestinians depend on key services organized by the YMCA, and therefore Haytham’s imprisonment without charges, for an undetermined duration (initially six months, but this period can be extended arbitrarily repeatedly), and without trial or appeal, in a prison far away from his family is a grotesque violation of human rights standards and practices upheld in civilized countries.

We in the “West” only hear about the bloody aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, reporting from the region usually stops as soon as the blood (particularly Israeli blood) stops flowing. Yet the pernicious, wearying, daily aspects of occupation - Israel’s relentless efforts to make life unbearable for the vast majority of Palestinian civilians - continue unabated even when there is “a period of calm.”

Israel’s latest tactic is to atomize Palestinian society even further. After Israel’s crippling of the official Palestinian “authority,” we are now witnessing further attempts to imprison all actual and potential leaders working effectively at the grassroots level. This is the only reason that Haytham, who provides essential services to the population and is in no way involved in violence, has been arrested. His crucial leadership is thwarted, thus making life more difficult for many.

This is the intended effect of the perniciously named “administrative detention.” In reality, this is arbitrary imprisonment without charges or trial, for arbitrary terms that can be extended at will by the Israeli “judge,” of an individual with limited access to legal representation, who must serve his or her time in prisons far away from family and friends. Although this disturbing practice abrogates all the rules that we take for granted in the “West,” daily news reports from the area rarely mention the Kafkaesque situation Palestinian leaders confront.

If President George W. Bush were really committed to democratizing Palestinian society, he would ask his frequent visitor, Ariel (“Man of Peace”) Sharon why a person of Haytham Hammouri’s caliber is being unjustly imprisoned.

Despite the terrible situation in which Haytham finds himself, he is “lucky” on two counts. First, he hasn’t been tortured (yet) - a common practice, and something that isn’t legally prohibited in Israel. Second, he is in a relatively decent prison in Netanya.

Other prisoners aren’t so lucky; they often end up in what can only be called a concentration camp: the new Ansar camp in the Negev desert. This detention “facility” is a jungle of barbed wire behind which prisoners sleep in tents atop an asphalt tarmac. Prisoners are rotated and moved between jails often to prevent the formation of social bonds and to break the spirits of the prisoners.

Despite American proclamations about a deep love of democracy, justice, and a dignified way of life, it is astonishing to see how US officials and journalists so easily overlook the denial of those very principles elsewhere. Democracy and justice are daily crushed under an Israeli boot subsidized to the tune of untold billions of US money without a peep of protest from the “lovers of freedom.”

The US bears direct responsibility for the brutalization of Palestinian society. You, my American friends, have a lot to answer for.

What you can do:

Please print out a poster about Haytham Hammouri’s situation, and please post it everywhere you can. Please encourage every YMCA throughout the world to campaign for Haytham’s release.

To access the poster (PDF format) click here.

Haytham Hammouri is married to Malak Masri and has three daughters aged 4, 8, and 14; they live in Jerusalem. One of the consequences of Haytham’s imprisonment is the havoc caused to his family - the main breadwinner has been imprisoned, and his close relationship with his children has been cut. The YMCA also has been denied one of its most effective and committed community organizers. After learning of his six-month sentence, his 8-year-old daughter wrote her dad a letter that the Israeli prison authorities haven’t allowed to be delivered.