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In Palestinian villages, non-violent protesters show the way

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Monday, 15 February, 2010

Jimmy Carter describes the courage of the activists involved in non-violent protests in the West Bank and argues that the response of the Israeli authorities contravenes international human rights law.

There has been a troubling increase in the detention of those involved in peaceful protests against the separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel. Since May 2008, over 140 activists have been arrested in Ni'ilin and Bil’in, two villages through which the wall is built. Most of the detainees are Palestinians, but Israeli and foreign demonstrators have also been subjected to Israeli reprisals.

We met some of the protest leaders in Bil’in last August, when we visited the West Bank and Israel with our fellow Elders Desmond Tutu, Ela Bhatt, Gro Brundtland and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. We were impressed by the protest leaders’ thoughtfulness and commitment to non-violent action. Bil’in in particular has become increasingly recognised for its creative political style.

Every Friday for the past five years, Palestinian, Israeli and international activists have marched peacefully from Bil’in to the separation fence which cuts off the village from more than half of its land and olive trees. Sometimes the demonstrators include young Israeli human rights lawyers who have helped the Palestinians take their cases through Israeli courts – with notable successes. The IDF has just started work to move the barrier after an order by Israel’s High Court of Justice in 2007. The wall affects over 170 villages throughout the West Bank. It annexes land and productive Palestinian fields beyond the 1967 borders, and has sparked civil resistance in multiple locations.

While the protests have become a focus for non-violent Palestinian activism, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) often respond with force, using tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, water cannons, and sometimes live rounds. Some protestors throw stones, and a handful of IDF soldiers have been injured but since 2004, the IDF have injured over 1,800 anti-wall demonstrators and killed nineteen.

We are especially concerned to hear that Abdallah Abu Rahma, the coordinator of the Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements in Bil'in, was detained in a night raid on 10 December last year and faces charges of incitement, stone throwing and organising and participating in illegal marches. He is also charged with the illegal possession of spent M16 rifle bullets, teargas and concussion grenades which, the indictment said, "the accused and his associates used for an exhibition that showed people the means used by the security forces."

Abu Rahma is a middle-aged school teacher who eschews violence including stone throwing. He has been refused bail and will remain in prison until his case is heard. When we visited Bil’in, he showed us a memorial to his friend Bassem Abu Rahma who was killed in April 2009 when an IDF tear gas projectile hit him in the chest.

Mohammed Khatib, a friend and colleague of Abu Rahma in Bil’in, was arrested on 28 January. He was previously brutally beaten by soldiers during a night raid in September and was also arrested and charged in August - charges that were subsequently dropped because his lawyers could prove that he was out of the country in New Caledonia at the time of the alleged offence.

Mohammed was released on bail on 3 February on condition that he does not participate in the weekly protests and presents himself at the nearest Israeli police station every Friday. The night of his release three further arrests were made in Bil’in – of resident and activist Ibrahim Burnat, local photojournalist Hamde Abu Rahmeh and a journalist from the United States. Both journalists were released after 12 hours – the U.S. journalist on condition that he does not return to the West Bank within 15 days (under threat of deportation). Ibrahim Burnat remains in jail.

Similar scenes have occurred in Ni’lin, another West Bank village that holds regular protests against the separation barrier. On 12 January, IDF troops again swept in before dawn and arrested the local coordinator of the Popular Committee, Ibrahim Amirah, as well as two other activists suspected of organising protests. They too are charged with incitement, stone throwing and organising and participating in illegal marches, and remain in custody.

And on 13 January Mohammad Othman, an advocate of non-violence and high profile member of the Stop the Wall campaign from the village of Jayyous was finally released after being held for four months without charge under ‘administrative detention’.

The methods being used against these activists are common in situations where a stronger force faces weaker, but persistent, political opponents. They include the disproportionate use of force; subjecting families and whole communities to searches and intimidating raids, especially at night; bringing serious criminal charges against activists for relatively minor offences; and the use of administrative powers to extend detention without charge.

International law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The United Nations and the International Court of Justice have declared that parts of the wall that extend into the West Bank beyond the 1967 border with Israel are in breach of international law. Israel’s own courts have ruled that some of the demands of the Palestinian villagers are not unreasonable.

As the demonstrations continue, efforts to stifle them will not serve the cause of peace. History has shown that those who are unjustly treated will eventually prevail. The risk is that until there is justice, Palestinians deprived of peaceful means of protest may again return to violence. Abu Rahma, Khatib, Amirah, Othman and their fellow activists are showing Palestinians and Israelis a different path. They and the residents of Bil’in, Ni’ilin and the other villages affected by the wall deserve full support for their peaceful struggle. 

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