Red Cross slammed for silence over arrest of Palestinian lawmaker

Palestinian politician Ahmad Attoun was arrested by undercover Israeli forces during a September raid on the Red Cross compound in Jerusalem, where he had taken refuge.

Fadi Arouri MaanImages

Undercover Israeli forces arrested Palestinian lawmaker Ahmad Attoun in late September from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) compound in occupied East Jerusalem, where he had taken refuge with two colleagues to avoid deportation from the city of his birth.

Palestinians and their supporters have largely condemned the arrest, viewing it as just another example of Israeli intransigence and of the country’s complete disregard for Palestinian rights and freedoms.

“This is one of the many crimes done by the Israeli occupation and one of the violations of international law,” said Mohammad Totah, one of Attoun’s colleagues who had also taken refuge at the ICRC headquarters since July 2010. “The video cameras in the Red Cross showed that they entered and stormed the headquarters of the Red Cross.”

Totah told The Electronic Intifada that at 11:30am on 26 September, Israeli occupation forces staged a commotion in front of the gate of the ICRC building. When people went into the street to see what was going on, the undercover Israeli forces grabbed Attoun from inside the entrance of the gated ICRC property, and took him into custody, he said.

“Now he’s in the Moskobiyya [Russian compound] prison [in West Jerusalem] and they charged him with entering into Jerusalem illegally,” Totah said.

He explained that an Israeli court agreed to release Attoun from prison on the condition that he pay 50,000 shekels ($13,600) bail, and that he sign a pledge not to enter Jerusalem without the permission of the Israeli authorities.

“[He] refused to do so because it means that he agrees to being deported from Jerusalem,” said Totah, adding that Attoun will therefore likely remain in detention until the end of his case.

More than one year at the Red Cross headquarters

Shortly after the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, three Jerusalem deputies and the former minister of Jerusalem affairs — Muhammad Abu Tir, Ahmad Attoun, Muhammad Totah and Khaled Abu Arafeh, respectively — were told by Israeli authorities that they must resign from the Hamas-led Palestinian government or have their East Jerusalem permanent resident status revoked.

Prosecuted before an Israeli military court, the four Hamas-affiliated lawmakers were sentenced to two to four years in Israeli prison when they refused to resign from their posts. Shortly after their release in the summer of 2010, the Israeli authorities again threatened to forcibly transfer the men and strip them of their East Jerusalem residency rights.

Muhammad Abu Tir was arrested on 30 June 2010 when he refused to leave the city. The next day, the three remaining deputies took refuge at the ICRC compound to avoid a similar fate.

“This means that Israelis are not respecting the Palestinians when they have a decision of deportation. It means that they are not respecting the Jerusalemites and all the Palestinians,” Totah told The Electronic Intifada, as he talked about being forced to take refuge at the Red Cross.

“It is our right to defend ourselves and resist the occupation by all means. [This right] has been given by international law and we will continue our struggle against the occupation until we get our freedom for our country and our land,” he added.

Unhappy with ICRC response

In an official statement released on 26 September, the ICRC stressed that Palestinian Jerusalemites are considered protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits Israel from forcibly transferring Palestinians out of the city. The ICRC also stated that it was “calling upon the Israeli authorities to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law” (“Jerusalem: Member of Palestinian legislative council arrested,” 26 September 2011).

In response, Mohammad Totah and Khalid Abu Arafeh sent a letter to Jakob Kellenberger, President of the ICRC in Geneva, Switzerland, denouncing the organization’s statement as one that “did not satisfactorily address the severity of the situation and would provoke the family and friends of abducted Mr Attoun, Jerusalem citizens and supporters” (“The letter that was sent to the ICRC,” 10 October 2011).

In their letter, the Palestinian lawmakers alleged that members of the ICRC administration in Jerusalem treated them impolitely following Attoun’s arrest, and unfairly held them responsible for the behavior of family members and supporters — who, at a demonstration on 1 October, denounced the ICRC for what they viewed as the organization’s lackluster response to the arrest.

The protesters were upset by “the Red Cross administration’s disregard to the feelings of the family, supporters, and their demands” and “the Red Cross’s silence on the Israeli security action which took place on Red Cross premises,” the letter stated.

In a phone interview with The Electronic Intifada, ICRC-Jerusalem representative Cecilia Goin said that the organization has focused on pressuring Israel to fulfill its international obligations under the law, rather than going into the details of Attoun’s arrest.

“We don’t discuss publicly the details of the arrests,” Goin said. “We call upon the Israeli authorities to meet their legal obligations under international humanitarian law. East Jerusalem is occupied territory and Palestinian residents are protected people. That’s important for the ICRC to highlight this message.”

When asked about the current relationship between ICRC-Jerusalem administrators and Mohammad Totah and Khalid Abu Arafeh, Goin said that she couldn’t comment.

Still, she said: “They are staying in the ICRC premises. We explained to them that we do not have diplomatic immunity. That’s important. At the same time, the ICRC is really concerned of the consequences of such acts [arrests], should they happen again in the future. Our premises is considered by many people as a safe place where they seek humanitarian aid and assistance.”

Ultimately, Totah and Abu Arafeh have urged the ICRC to directly denounce the kidnapping of Ahmad Attoun, directly denounce and condemn the raiding of the ICRC headquarters in East Jerusalem by Israeli undercover forces, and immediately and persistently call for Attoun’s release.

“We believe that the Red Cross should not be dragged into Israeli occupation behaviors that are contrary to all promises and humanitarian and international agreements. It must be ready to stand up to Israeli arrogance with the strength of its humanitarian principles and by the strength of the international and humanitarian laws that are enforced the world over,” they wrote in their letter.

Facing arrest and deportation if international efforts stall

Ultimately, Mohammad Totah told The Electronic Intifada that he sincerely believes that he and his colleague will also soon be arrested and potentially deported from Jerusalem.

“We expect that [we will also be arrested] because unfortunately the reaction to this kidnapping was very weak. We didn’t hear from any organizations working on human rights. This will encourage Israel to come again and kidnap both of us, because they have seen that the international community has done nothing to this crime,” Totah said.

The international community must step in, he added, to prevent their deportations and the very real possibility that more Palestinians will also be forcibly exiled from the city.

“If this kidnapping had been done anywhere else in the world, that a member of the parliament had been kidnapped by the occupation forces, then all the world would condemn it and put sanctions on the country that did this. But because it’s Israel, it’s all the time above the law. We ask the international community to respect human rights and the democracy that they want Palestinians to practice.”