Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 October 2009
Issue No. 966
Focus
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Resistance denied

A recent report has detailed the extent of Israel's repression of protests against the construction of its annexation wall in the occupied territories and the abuses of the Israeli justice system, writes Stephen Lendman*


Established in 1992, the Addameer (Arabic for conscience) Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association helps Palestinian prisoners, and works to end torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, other forms of abuse, and unjust, unequal treatment in Israel's criminal justice system, which handles Jews in one way and Palestinians in another.

In July 2009, in cooperation with the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (Stop the Wall) and the Palestinian Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association, Addameer published a report entitled Repression Allowed, Resistance Denied that documented resistance to Israel's apartheid wall and the "staggering level of repression, arrests and violence" carried out by Israeli authorities.

On 9 July 2004 in a unanimous decision, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that "the construction of the Wall being built by Israel, and its associated regime, are contrary to international law...." It said construction work on the wall must cease. Built sections must be dismantled, Palestinian land returned and compensation paid for property destroyed. While the UN General Assembly endorsed the decision, Israel rejected it out of hand and has continued seizing Palestinian land, advancing the wall's construction, and ruthlessly suppressing efforts to halt it.

In defiance of international law, Israel's High Court ruled that the erection of a "barrier" may continue for security reasons even though its purpose is solely to steal resources and land that will include over 12 per cent of the West Bank when completed.

The consequences for Palestinians have been devastating. Communities have been divided, isolated and ghettoized. Farmers have been separated from their land and water resources. Militarised control is everywhere, and free movement is more restricted than ever.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also called the wall contrary to international humanitarian law and has repeatedly urged Israel to halt it. Article 2(c) of the Apartheid Convention says the wall and associated checkpoints are the keys to maintaining apartheid in the West Bank. Article 2(d) adds that "the Wall and its infrastructure of gates and permanent checkpoints suggest a [permanent] policy... to divide the West Bank into racial cantons."

Popular Palestinian non-violent resistance has emerged in self-defence, as well as lobbying through the courts and national and international media campaigns, though this has been blacked out in the international media.

Most visible are weekly demonstrations, protests and marches involving Palestinians, Israelis, other Jews, and international human rights activists, all taking place in defiance of Israeli military orders that call these activities and all organised resistance "criminal offenses," punishable by arbitrary arrests, targeted killings, brutal repression, disproportionate violence, and collective punishment that is in violation of international law, including Fourth Geneva Convention protections.

For its part, Addameer "provide[s documented] evidence to show that injuries and deaths inflicted by the Israeli military at protests and activity surrounding them are intentional, not accidental." Indiscriminate arrests have been made, family members threatened, including children, and many have been tried, convicted, imprisoned and fined for defending their rights.

Israel is now waging low-intensity warfare against a popular resistance in an effort to break an indomitable spirit, at a cost that includes premeditated, systematic punitive attacks and collective punishment. Entire communities have been targeted by state-sponsored terror; there have been mass arrests, killings, beatings, torture and other abuses; and children have been imprisoned or shot for throwing stones or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Palestinians have been victimised by decades of systemic violence and repression. In Gaza, under siege and attack, things are even worse.

Addameer's report is described as a "preliminary summary of [its] findings, based on [extensive interviews, other primary research, and] the experiences of a few protagonist villages in the struggle against the Wall." Follow-up reports are planned to continue documenting effects on "a wider number of villages affected." When completed, the wall will span over 760km and be more than five times longer than the Berlin Wall and far more imposing, with its sensors, trenches, security roads, mine fields, checkpoints, terminals, watchtowers, surveillance cameras, electronic sensory devices and military patrols using dogs.

Around 20 per cent of the wall follows the "Green Line". The rest expropriates over 12 per cent of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and with the settlements, military zones and Jews-only infrastructure in the area, amounts to about 46 per cent of the territories. It is displacing thousands of Palestinian families and entrapping all Palestinians in the West Bank, stealing their land and resources in a way that has nothing to do with security.

The wall is a land-grab, collective-punishment scheme to enclose an entire people inside disconnected cantons in violation of international law and the ICJ ruling.

***

After Israel began construction of the wall in June 2002, spontaneous Palestinian demonstrations, community actions and meetings followed. The first public statement read that the wall represents "the Occupation's ugliest face. [It's] stealing... land and water, and... changing... the historical and demographic status of these areas. [It's] uprooting... trees and [destroying] nature. [It's] in opposition to all that is human and civilised."

In October 2002, opposition groups were formed, including the Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (Stop the Wall) in response to a need for coordinated resistance and to offer advocacy, research, legal challenges and support for the communities affected. Efforts thereafter grew, and from September 2003 became a national and international priority. Israel responded with permit restrictions to bar free movement and prevent people from accessing their lands.

Since then, many anti-wall Palestinian farmers have lost their livelihoods when denied permits to cultivate their own land. Demonstrations, protests and strikes have continued in targeted West Bank communities and villages. Campaigns not to recognise the permit system have been organised, and Israeli forces have responded harshly. Yet, villagers have resisted despite the collective punishments imposed on them. Eight West Bank popular committees have been represented in the campaign's General Assembly, for example, and five of the 11 members of the campaign's coordinating committee are representatives from local groups.

In 2004, anti-wall resistance became more widespread. The first martyrs were killed in defending their rights. Increased land theft and human fallout also drew international attention and encouraged mass protests and solidarity against state-sponsored terror.

Direct action blocked bulldozers and breached sections of fences and razor wire separating villagers from their lands, slowing construction and forcing constant rebuilding. Media strategies were also developed through international contacts. In addition, committees held rallies, demonstrations and sit-ins to pressure the Palestinian Authority (PA) to support the affected communities, raise the wall issue at an international level and act to implement the ICJ decision.

However, when the then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan came to Palestine in March 2005, he refused to speak out or visit the wall. Around 5,000 Palestinians demonstrated in protest. Moreover, since late 2005, popular resistance has had to reorganise. So much of the wall had been completed that actions to stop the bulldozers ceased. Since international support had failed to materialise, new forms of protest were needed to sustain long-term struggle. Friday demonstrations replaced daily ones to make a semblance of daily life possible.

Frustration with the Palestinian leadership also grew as campaigning for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) began in late 2005. This heightened the split between Fatah and Hamas because popular resistance was thought to be futile without the leadership's sustaining it.

National actions like Land Day, the Week Against the Apartheid Wall, and other events gained prominence. In March 2007, Land Day activities took place in over 20 locations with popular committees and students participating. Thereafter, Stop the Wall and popular committees have been key players in national action days. Resistance also solidified and expanded southwards in the form of new campaigns against the wall's construction. People in the Jordan Valley protested against being isolated from the rest of the West Bank. Media and civil society organisations finally took notice, and political and material support began to arrive.

Since mid-2008, weekly protests have gained strength in villages such as Bilin, Al-Maasara, Irtas, Nilin, Jayyus, Nahalin, and elsewhere, with hundreds of people facing down soldiers and risking arrest, injury or death. In addition, popular committees have been focussing on the settlements and renaming themselves "Committees Against the Wall and the Settlements" since both represent occupation.

The villages of Burqa, Bizzariya, Silat, Al-Dhahr, Sabastiya, and Beit Imrin led protests against the resettlement of Homesh, a settlement evacuated during the "disengagement," for example. After a month, Homesh settlers left. Other actions have included boycotting Israeli products and legally challenging companies that support the wall and occupation.

***

However, the violent repression of Palestinian anti- wall protests is still ongoing in dozens of villages. In Bilin, Nilin, Al-Maasara and Jayyus, for example, over 1,566 people have been wounded and six killed during protests. Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) actions have been vicious and beyond the bounds of crowd control, security or self-defence, involving threats to inflict individual and collective punishment, premeditated shooting with intent to injure, disable, or kill, aimed at sending a message to other protesters, and night terror raids, curfews, closures, the use of tear-gar and the destruction of property. Entire villages have been targeted with collective punishment, including mass arrests.

Israeli policy has focussed on ruthless deterrence to break popular resistance by inflicting serious harm. Threats are made collectively and against village officials, and violence is systemically employed. Activists are threatened, killed or arrested. Live fire has also been used against peaceful demonstrators.

Home demolitions are also threatened. Farmers are told their land and crops will be destroyed. Force follows, including beatings, the use of live rounds or tear gas, willful killings, including of children.

All these actions are grossly excessive against activists and peaceful demonstrations. At an early 2004 Biddu protest, for example, Israeli soldiers unleashed a massive attack, killing two and injuring 70 others. Numerous other demonstrations have been disproportionately attacked by massive retaliatory violence, with dozens killed and thousands more injured throughout the West Bank. Prominent activists have been targeted for removal, willful disabling, or death.

Illegal weapons have been used, including bullets that fragment on contact leaving shrapnel slivers inside the body that are very hard or impossible to remove. The legs of demonstrators have been targeted to inflict disabling injuries, including of children. Rubber bullets and tear gas canisters dangerous enough to cause cranial fractures and permanent memory problems have been used. Ambushes and other surprise attacks are employed, using indiscriminate fire with lethal weapons unrelated to crowd or riot control.

Collective punishment is systemic and longstanding in the form of night raids to intimidate entire communities and villages. Children have been especially affected by shooting, explosions and shouting through loudspeakers, and curfews have been declared on entire villages, prohibiting anyone from leaving their homes on threat of being shot or arrested. While such curfews are in force, Israeli soldiers break into homes, search them, and arrest occupants for interrogations that include beatings, humiliation and torture.

Village closures and sieges are imposed, allowing no one and nothing in or out. Homes are raided, people tear-gassed, arrested and shot, and property is destroyed. Tear-gas canisters are fired into homes without pretext, damaging property, human health and causing fires.

Such incidents indicate a consistent pattern of repressive violence, with individual and collective punishment being complementary parts of a single strategy aiming to weaken solidarity, create divisions and crush the Palestinian will to resist. Yet, such repressive tactics, carried out on pretexts such as stone-throwing; interfering with military activities, resisting arrest, being in a closed military zone, or threatening the security of Israel, have been carried out in response to peaceful protest and assembly, protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Since 1967, over 750,000 Palestinians (as much as 40 per cent of the total male population) have been victimised by systematic arrest, detention and brutalising treatment in custody, with the Addameer report commenting that "over the years, thousands of Palestinians have been detained and charged with maintaining ties to an organisation, institute, office, movement, branch, centre, committee, faction, group, or whatever the law defines as 'a body of persons' branded 'hostile' or 'terrorist' and included in an ever-expanding list of unlawful associations."

Once detained, Palestinians, unlike Israelis, are tried and sentenced in military courts located inside Israeli military bases, and they have little chance against a system that is rigged to convict. Fewer than one per cent are acquitted, and individual rights are denied. Institutionalised racism prevails in such a system, despite the fact that according to the UN Human Rights Committee a state of emergency never justifies deviation from the fundamental principles of a fair trial. Military courts should never be used, except in cases where civil courts are not able to function. When used, military tribunals must afford full protections.

Israel's military courts are not in line with these requirements, and they offer Palestinians little possibility of justice. Children as young as 16 are tried as adults, and secret evidence is used, with the right to appeal flawed verdicts and sentences severely compromised.

Palestinian youths are frequently targeted by this system because they are among the most proactive demonstrators. However, they are also more vulnerable and less aware of their rights, and their arrest can be used as a way to intimidate parents. According to the Defence for Children International Palestine Section 2009 Annual Report on Palestinian Child Prisoners, when Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian youths, they go after "any child in the vicinity, regardless of whether that child was actually involved in the unrest or not." During interrogation, children and youths are then subjected to psychological and physical abuse, just like adults, to extract confessions of whatever the authorities want.

During arrests, violence is standard practice, and those in detention face intimidation, humiliation, threats of recriminations against family members, long interrogations, physical and psychological torture and abuse, demands to sign confessions and provide information on other protesters, denial of medical care, poor sanitary and hygiene conditions, inadequate quantity and poor quality of food and water, and exposure to the elements.

At times, treatment is severe enough to leave permanent psychological and/or physical scars. Detainees are forced to sign confessions in Hebrew that they do not understand, as well as confess to crimes and deny they were tortured. Palestinian human rights activists are generally treated the harshest of all, frequently receiving severe treatment and longer sentences for resisting repression and standing up for their rights.

***

Israeli and international activists face far different treatments under Israel's judicial rules. In detention, they are generally treated humanely, not enduring lengthy interrogation, and they are most often released in a few hours. Such activists may or may not face charges, but if they do they are tried in civil courts under a completely different system of justice. Acquittals are more common, fines lower and first offences forgiven. If sentences are imposed, these are for much shorter periods, and the right of appeal is assured.

In the first seven months of 2009, 129 Israeli activists were indicted, 15 convicted, and the majority got suspended sentences or convictions reversed on appeal. Deportation was how most international activists were handled. "To date, there have been no reported cases of an Israeli or international activist serving more than a week in prison, or being placed in administrative detention," says Addameer's report, and most are rarely sentenced.

Currently, no international activists are in prison for having participated in an anti-wall protest. In contrast, Palestinians charged with throwing stones face up to 20 years in prison, although generally they are released within a year.

According to Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, fair, impartial trials are guaranteed, and similarly under the UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, access to competent counsel must be granted within 48 hours. Adequate time and facilities must be available to communicate privately, and if detainees cannot afford to pay, proper representation must be provided.

However, Palestinians in Israeli custody are affected by factors such as the counsel's citizenship and residency status, as well as military orders and Israeli laws and prison procedures that violate international standards, with their right to fair, impartial justice being impossible as a result. Inflated and multiple charges also assure convictions on at least one offence, regardless of the validity of evidence. The result is less than one per cent acquittals, and 97 per cent of trials are resolved by plea bargaining.

Justice at Israeli military tribunals is near impossible to obtain when charges of throwing stones or owning a gun are inflated to "trying to kill" and prosecutors rely solely on soldiers' testimonies for corroboration. Lawyer Lymore Goldstein, who has represented a number of Palestinian and Israeli activists, gives evidence of Israel's apartheid justice system, with Jews treated one way and Palestinians another.

"The evidence used against people is never verified. For instance, all the [Palestinians] who touched the microphone [at a specific protest] were charged with incitement -- there was no mention of what they said," he comments. "This is a very typical example," but for Jews the experience of Israeli justice is quite different. From their time of arrest, Palestinians have almost no chance of prevailing against a system of kangaroo court justice, which is why up to 12,000 languish in Israeli prisons at any given time, often enduring torture and other dehumanising treatment.

Mohamed Brijiah, for example, from Al-Maasara describes his arrest and trial ordeal as follows: "Three times during the night, they came and attacked my house, took out my brothers and nieces... and my children, including my one-year-old daughter. They made my family stand outside for 3-4 hours. They damaged the furniture, told me to get dressed and that they would take me to prison. I was arrested twice [in November 2007 and December 2008]. They brought me to a court and then released me... I stayed one week, but the arrest was because of the demonstration. [Another] accusation was that I beat a soldier, but [video evidence] clearly showed that I did nothing like this."

Israeli prosecutors did all they could to extend Brijiah's detention and brought up old charges to delay his trial hearing. However, even so Brijiah was luckier than others who disappear for months or years in Israel's criminal justice system. No bail, long sentences, high fines, and brutalising treatment are common, nearly always in violation of international law.

Former Israeli soldier and now writer and journalist Seth Freedman says that it is common for the Israeli military to select targets for arrest, regardless of whether these are committing the act in question. Then it is the military's word against that of the defendants. The military nearly always prevails, and many innocent Palestinian youths are imprisoned for offences they have not committed. Nor can they defend themselves against threats that serve as "a powerful coercive means of intimidating -- and harassing -- protesters." In detention, threats of death or physical harm are made, and such threats are also made against family members as a way to induce cooperation.

Such forms of collective punishment, mass arrests, and various forms of intimidation are repeated throughout the West Bank. They comprise ways "to punish anyone exercising their right to self- determination and resistance. Their impact will be manifold, affecting families' livelihoods, freedom of movement, as well as their rights to express themselves and assemble freely."

***

As the Addameer report makes clear, in the occupied territories, the Israeli authorities are acting in violation of the fundamental right to assemble, demonstrate and protest peacefully. Violent and aggressive measures are used in violation of international law. Palestinian activists risk arrest, interrogation, long detention, kangaroo trials, imprisonment, torture and other forms of abuse.

Nonetheless, they persist in their protests. According to one interviewee, the Israeli army "has created a lot of obstacles, but it hasn't prevented the protests." Those arrested protest again, at times more cautiously, but still with a determination to prevail.

The Israeli judicial process is racially biased and blatantly discriminatory. Indiscriminate arrests are made. Demonstrators are intimidated and targeted, with popular committee leaders and youths the most vulnerable. State terror is common practice, and in detention humiliation, torture and other abuses are employed for extended periods -- to break the spirit, crush the will to resist, make people docile and submissive, or simply induce them to give up and leave their land. For over four decades under the Israeli occupation, Palestinians have continued their struggle to live freely on their own land and in their own country, as international law guarantees.

Such international legal recommendations include that of the ICJ on 20 July, 2004, which ruled the annexation wall illegal and called for its demolition. The UN General Assembly then endorsed the decision, saying that it was time for the UN "to follow through on its mandate to develop relevant measures to ensure the implementation of the ICJ decision." Israel, it said, should be pressured by targeted sanctions, including an arms embargo.

Furthermore, the General Assembly said, the UN Human Rights Council and Special Rapporteur for Human Rights should address the issues, with the international community "taking real action to ensure that Israel complies with the" ICJ's decision, protecting the lawful right of Palestinians to protest against the wall and land confiscation to build it, affirming the Palestinians' right to resist Israeli repression, and holding Israel accountable under international law and pressuring it to halt arbitrary arrests.

Moreover, the Assembly said, Israel should cease its indiscriminate violence, mass arrests, torture, and other human rights violations, and ensure international standards and legal guarantees to protect Palestinians brought to trial. Until and unless Israel fully complies, "cooperation, free trade, research and development" with Israel should be suspended, and companies that "aid or assist the construction or maintenance of the Wall" should be sanctioned, as should companies that construct, invest or operate in the settlements.

Finally, Palestinian, international, and other NGOs should continue their active support for "the popular committees on the ground through their services and capacities."

Like people everywhere, Palestinians yearn to live freely on their own land as international law affirms. They deserve universal support for this most fundamental of all rights, without which all others are compromised.

* The writer is a research associate of the Centre for Research on Globalisation.

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