Why Israel imprisoned my best friend

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

When I was a boy I was still allowed to travel in Israel. I went to the beach and swam in the sea, something that most Palestinian children living in the West Bank today can only dream of. Israel has been restricting movement more and more over the years. We Palestinians were banned from traveling to Israel, the land where many of our parents were born. And now I find I cannot leave the West Bank. I was stopped from leaving the country on 4 August when I tried to cross the Allenby Bridge and reach Jordan in order to fly to Europe.

And just as Israel has gradually increased restrictions of where we can go, the boundaries of what is permissible to do as a Palestinian have narrowed markedly. We have reached a point where peaceful protest is unacceptable to the Israeli state and military legislation has been constructed to criminalize and throw in jail anyone who dares to publicly voice dissent.

Abdallah Abu Rahmah, coordinator of the Bilin Popular Committee and my best friend, is one such man. He made the international news after the EU’s foreign policy chief issued a statement condemning his conviction in an Israeli military court on 24 August. He was convicted of “incitement” — an intentionally vague charge that criminalizes freedom of speech — and of organizing “illegal” demonstrations. Direct negotiation between Israel and Palestinians may be restarting, but on the ground, Israel’s military occupation continues: oppression as usual.

Abdallah, a school teacher and father of three, has been imprisoned at the Ofer military prison since 10 December 2009 — International Human Rights Day, no less. Israeli soldiers raided his occupied West Bank home in the middle of the night, and dragged him from his bed in front of his wife, Majida, and their three children, Luma (7), Lian (5) and eight-month-old baby Laith.

The protests that Abdallah was convicted of organizing began on 16 December 2004, the day Israeli military bulldozers first came to uproot olive trees on our village’s lands and plant a wall in their stead. Since that day we have held hundreds of demonstrations in which Israelis and internationals joined Palestinians to say no to Israeli apartheid and yes to partnership and peace based on justice. In Bilin we believe that creativity and hope are our most effective tools to break the shackles of occupation and realize our rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed to us by international law.

In July 2004, months before the construction of Israel’s barrier on Bilin’s lands began, the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that the wall Israel is constructing in the occupied Palestinian territory is illegal and must be dismantled. The ruling also reiterated that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are also illegal under international law.

Israel however continued constructing the wall and the settlements unabated. The impunity Israel enjoys regarding these violations erodes our people’s faith that international law and human rights are relevant to our lives. Many of us feel that human rights are something the West enjoys speaking of, but are reserved for others. We believe that for things to change there must be a price for Israel’s flouting of international law and that this price can best be drawn through nonviolent means.

Every day, more and more Palestinians choose to oppose injustice and occupation with grassroots unarmed resistance, challenging Israeli hegemony. Threatened by our movement’s growth, Israel has launched a campaign of repression, targeting activists and members of popular committees — the bodies mobilizing protesters — across the West Bank with arrests and violence.

Last March, in another draconian attack on free speech, the lands of Bilin and the neighboring village of Nilin, where regular weekly protests against the theft of their land are also held, were declared a permanent closed military zones for a period of six months.

Between February 2004 and June 2009, twenty unarmed demonstrators have been killed, hundreds imprisoned and thousands injured. The soldiers and settlers who regularly violate international law do so with almost complete impunity. Meanwhile, Palestinian civilians who organize protest are charged with incitement and organizing illegal demonstrations.

In fact, it is only by coincidence that I myself am not imprisoned in Ofer prison together with Abdallah. Like Abdallah, I have been arrested by soldiers who broke into my home at the middle of the night. I too was charged with incitement and organizing demonstrations. Like they did with Abdallah, the military also claimed that I had been throwing stones.

Their mistake was, that unlike in Abdallah’s case, they tried to use not only unlawfully extracted testimonies of minors, but they also provided a falsified picture of me with a stone in my hand. But I was lucky. I was abroad on the date that the picture was taken and could prove that I was not the man in the picture. When the fraud became evident, the judge had no choice but to order my release. Otherwise, like Abdallah and many other Palestinian organizers and activists, I would have been considered dangerous and held at least until the end of my trial, which is still ongoing.

If what Abdallah has done is illegal, then we are all proud offenders. Israel better round us up and throw us to its jails and prisons by the hundreds, as the perverse reality Israel has created on the ground means that we must defy Israeli military law in order to uphold international law and achieve our human rights.

The EU’s statement denouncing Abdallah’s conviction is an important first step. But it must be followed by serious action to ensure that Israel does not use the resumption of negotiations as a smokescreen to hide behind while entrenching the occupation. Until such steps are taken, no one who dares to protest and challenge Israel’s occupation is safe.

Mohammed Khatib is the secretary of the Bilin village council and the coordinator of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.