Sentencing begins for convicted grassroots activist

Abdallah Abu Rahmah being arrested by Israeli soldiers at demonstration in Bilin in 2005. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

In a courtroom packed with foreign diplomats, Palestinian and Israeli human rights workers and political activists, the sentencing phase in the ongoing trial of Palestinian activist Abdallah Abu Rahme began at Israel’s Ofer Military Court on Wednesday, 15 September.

Thirty-nine-year-old Abu Rahme, who is the Popular Committee Coordinator in the the occupied West Bank village of Bilin, was arrested and imprisoned in December 2009 and subsequently convicted of incitement and organizing protests in August 2010. He was charged in December 2009 with stone throwing and arms possession after he collected used tear gas canisters fired by the Israeli army against protesters and displayed them at his house, but those charges were dropped.

Bilin’s residents have been organizing weekly unarmed protests against the building of Israel’s wall and the encroaching of Modi’in Illit settlement colony on their land since January 2005.

Yonatan Pollack of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC), who attended the hearings, told The Electronic Intifada that the military prosecutors demanded that Abu Rahme serve more than two years in prison. “The military openly said that the incarceration of Abdallah Abu Rahme should serve as a deterrent for future protests and actions,” Pollack said.

In a press release, the PSCC stated that “[t]he prosecution demanded Abu Rahme will be sent to prison for a period exceeding two years, saying that as an organizer, a harsh sentence is required to serve as a deterrence not only for Abu Rahme himself, but to others who may follow in his footsteps as well. This statement by the prosecution affirms the political motivation behind the indictment, and the concern raised by EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, that ‘the possible imprisonment of Mr. Abu Rahme is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest against the existence of the separation barriers in a nonviolent manner’ ” (“Military Prosecution Demands More than Two Years Imprisonment …, 16 September 2010).

In court on Wednesday, a military officer added that .22” live ammunition caliber bullets are being used in Bilin as “crowd control” measures, despite the Israeli military’s own orders against their usage in protests, according to the PSCC’s press release.

Abu Rahme’s brother, Basem, was killed instantly when Israeli forces fired a high-velocity tear gas canister at his chest during a protest in Bilin in April 2009. According to Pollack, 93 activists have been arrested in sweeping night raids since the protests began five years ago, including 43 in the last year alone. Numerous protesters have been wounded by Israeli-fired live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets, water cannons, chemical sprays and tear gas projectiles.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice at the Hague ruled that the Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank is illegal and must be dismantled. However, the Israeli government and its military have not followed the court’s ruling, and the military has even refused to implement an Israeli court’s ruling to reroute the wall in Bilin after the village’s popular committee filed a petition.

Along with Catherine Ashton of the EU, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Spanish Parliament and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire have condemned Abu Rahme’s conviction and have urged the Israeli government to release him.

Meanwhile, Pollack told The Electronic Intifada that the imprisonment of Abdallah Abu Rahme will not thwart the growing popular resistance struggle in Bilin and across the region.

“Whether the army continues killing people or jailing them, none of these things have worked,” he said. “There’s no reason to believe that the incarceration of a few people will lead to a crushing of the popular struggle as [Israel] hopes for. But this imprisonment has a price on the activists personally and on the movement, and it’s our role to use this obviously politically-motivated abuse of the legal process of the apartheid system to put pressure on Israel, and to not allow the state to suppress the popular struggle in the way they’ve done it during the past ten years.”

Abu Rahme’s sentencing will be finalized in the next couple of weeks, as the military judge has not yet set a firm date.

Tom Hurndall (Kay Fernandes)

Tom Hurndall killer released

In related news, the Israeli government released the soldier convicted of killing Tom Hurndall, the British activist working with the International Solidarity Movement who was shot in the head as he escorted Palestinian children across a live-fire zone in Rafah in the occupied Gaza Strip in April 2003. Hurndall was in a coma for nearly a year before succumbing to his injuries in 2004.

The soldier, Taysir Hayb, was found guilty of manslaughter and convicted in 2005. He was given an eight-year sentence, but was released after serving only six years and walked out of jail on Wednesday, 8 September. Israeli daily Haaretz reported that “a Southern Command military tribunal headed by Col. Erez Porat decided to release Hayb after all three panel members ruled that he had been sufficiently rehabilitated” (“IDF soldier convicted of killing UK activist in Gaza released from jail,” 8 September 2010).

Hayb’s release came days after the hearings resumed in the ongoing civil trial against the State of Israel lodged by the family of slain American activist Rachel Corrie. Also in Rafah, Corrie was killed three weeks before Tom Hurndall’s shooting.

Hayb, a Bedouin, was the first Israeli army soldier to be given a prolonged sentence for the killing of a civilian since the 1980s. Pollack told The Electronic Intifada that it was “extraordinary” that the soldier was incarcerated in the first place. “It only happened because he killed an international, and the British government intervened,” he said. “There is a culture of impunity in the army, and the soldiers are not held accountable for these types of killings. It’s no surprise that he was released early.”

Speaking to the UK Guardian’s Rachel Shabi, Hurndall’s mother, Jocelyn, said, “From the moment that Tom was shot, we said it wasn’t about the soldier, who is a small part of the machinery, but about the responsibility of the Israeli army and its lack of accountability over civilian killings. To say that the soldier has reformed is to miss the point — the British government needs to hold Israel accountable for its actions.” (“Israeli soldier jailed for killing British activist Tom Hurndall released early,” 8 September 2010).