My friend and fellow organizer Mohammad Othman, a 34-year-old
Palestinian human rights advocate, was detained by Israel on September
22 while returning home from meetings with Norwegian government
officials. I suspect he was not surprised. A few months earlier,
Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint within the West Bank had taken him
aside and threatened him with arrest. "We're going to arrest you," one
said, "but it's difficult with you because all you do is talk."
As a grassroots leader, this chills me to the bone. Like Mohammad, my
colleagues and I spend a great deal of time talking - talking and
thinking about how nonviolent peace activists can halt Israel's
relentless expansion into our agricultural land. If talking is a
crime, if urging the international community to hold Israel
accountable for theft of our land is a crime, then we all are
Law, which on paper protects the rights of the occupied, seems
powerless to stop Israel in practice.
For the last month, Israel has inveighed against the UN's Goldstone
report, which meticulously documents Israeli war crimes during its
assault on Gaza. The "new" U.S. of Barack Obama has unfortunately
reverted to looking very much like the Bush administration by backing
down on demands that Israel freeze construction of its illegal
settlements and its vigorous effort to kill the Goldstone report.
Brutalized Palestinian civilians in Gaza would be forced to swallow a
bitter pill in forgoing the protections offered by international law
and the slim satisfaction of a measure of justice.
Israel, for its part, has with single-minded intensity sought to bury
the message and attack the messenger, notwithstanding the fact that
Judge Goldstone is Jewish and a committed Zionist.
But attacking a messenger like Goldstone is not new for Israel.
Israeli authorities are increasingly imprisoning and abusing
Palestinians - not just Mohammad Othman - for speaking out abroad
about hardships faced by Palestinians.
Mohammad Omer, a journalist from Gaza, was severely beaten by Israeli
intelligence officials on his return from Europe last year. Just
prior to his return, he had received a prestigious award for his
reporting. During a ferocious interrogation, Omer, like Mohammad
Othman, was told that he was talking too much (to the outside world).
He answered, "Well, it's my job to talk, and I want that, and it's my
choice. I want to get the message out."
In June this year, Mohammad Srour, from Ni'lin, another village whose
lands are confiscated by the illegal barrier, was arrested on his way
back from Geneva, where he had testified before Goldstone.
Many anti-Wall activists with ties to the international community have
been imprisoned by Israel on non-existent or trumped-up charges. It's
the Jim Crow South in the wild West Bank. There are more than 11,000
Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are held for months or years in
administrative detention without charge or trial. Twenty-eight
Palestinians from the West Bank village of Bil'in - also losing land
to the apartheid barrier - have been arrested in night-time raids
since June and 18 of them remain detained.
As for my friend, Mohammad Othman, he has spent much of his time since
September 22 in solitary confinement. His detention has already been
extended four times and an appeal rejected. Most recently, his
detention was extended another 13 days on October 27 (with an
appeal expected October 29). Mohammad spent
his birthday enduring interrogation
behind bars as a political prisoner charged with no crime and unable
to see any "evidence" against him. Strikingly, Israeli authorities
have yet to bring evidence or charges against him in the military
court. Perhaps this is because, as the soldier at the checkpoint
admitted, Mohammad is guilty only of talking; of speaking out against
Mohammad hails from the impoverished village of Jayyous. He speaks
tirelessly about the high-tech fencing that steals his family's land.
Nearly 20 years ago the world cheered the fall of the Berlin Wall yet
today Israel constructs an even more massive wall to enclose tens of
thousands of human beings in isolated enclaves. And rather than build
its barrier on the Green Line, Israel has used the wall to seize more
Mohammad has chosen against great odds to speak out because the life
of his community is at stake. He has discovered he has a powerful
voice. International visitors are riveted when Mohammad describes how
Israeli diamond mogul, Lev Leviev, is building an illegal settlement
on his village land. Our American colleagues tell us that The New
York Times opinion page regularly runs Leviev's diamond
advertisements; visitors who have discussed Leviev's expansionist
politics with Mohammad, however, will likely not be buying his
Mohammad, who is mostly self-educated and only recently started
traveling to Europe, met last month in Norway with the Finance
Minister and representatives of the Norwegian State Pension Fund to
convince them to follow their own human rights guidelines for
investment. Less than two weeks before Mohammad's arrest, the Finance
Minister announced the Pension Fund's $5.4 million divestment from
Elbit, an Israeli company that provides security equipment for the
Wall and builds the drones that have killed innocents in Gaza.
To date, this was one of the greatest successes of the campaign to
divest from Israel for failing to abide by international law. Mohammad
was a national hero returning home, only to be intercepted by an
Israeli government that while losing the moral battle abroad still
exercises ultimate control over our lives.
If President Obama is to live up to his Nobel Peace Prize, then he
should ensure that Israel releases political prisoners such as Mohammad
and insist that trapping Palestine's emerging Gandhis and Mandelas
behind walls, electrified fences, and segregated roadways is
incompatible with a peaceful and just future.