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The Forgotten Palestinian Political Prisoners

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Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily.

by Ashley Bates

Demonstrators in Haifa, Israel protest Ittijah Director Ameer Makhoul's detention without access to a lawyer in May 2010. Makhoul is serving a nine-year sentence for spying and likely will not be released as part of the prisoner swap. / Oren Ziv

Reading about the suicide bombings and other massacres committed by many of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners being exchanged for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, it's easy to feel convinced of Israel's singular victimhood.

Mainstream news reports of the prisoner swap have focused overwhelmingly on the humanity of Gilad Shalit (who suffered a horrific and harrowing ordeal, to be sure). Implicitly, however, these reports deny the humanity of Palestinian prisoners and leave Western audiences with the mistaken impression that Palestinians are imprisoned only for egregious crimes.

Since 1967, about 20 percent of the Palestinian population have served time in jail. According to Israeli prison statistics published by B'tselem, in August of this year, 272 of the 5,206 Palestinian prisoners were held without trial, 176 were children under 18, and 31 were 16 years old or younger. The majority of these people were not murderers or would-be murderers. Rather, it has become a norm in the Israeli security forces to make politically-charged arrests with questionable evidence.

One possible victim of this tactic is Ameer Makhoul, a 53-year-old human rights advocate and former director of the non-profit Ittijah, which fights discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. This year, Makhoul began serving a nine-year prison sentence for allegedly conspiring with Hezbollah. Amnesty International has called him a "prisoner of conscience" and described his conviction as a "very disturbing development."

Supporters of Ameer Makhoul say that he is one of many "political prisoners" framed by Israeli agents. The circumstances of his conviction are indeed troubling: Makhoul says that interrogators coerced a false confession extracted during two weeks in which he was tortured, kept in an isolation cell, and denied a lawyer. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz accidentally published (and then retracted) the name of the "secret" Hezbollah agent with whom Makhoul met - it turns out he was a Lebanese environmental activist with no apparent connection to Hezbollah.

Over the past three weeks, about 2,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails - including Ameer Makhoul - have waged a part or full-time hunger strike to protest inhumane treatment such as the use of solitary confinement, the arbitrary denials of family visits, and the separation of Palestinian Israelis from West Bank and Gazan Palestinians. Makhoul was recently transferred from Gilboa prison to another facility, presumably because of his role in organizing the hunger strike. Per usual, his lawyers are not allowed to visit him.

Makhoul has played a leading role in promoting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and other non-violent protest measures. Such measures are increasingly under attack in the Israeli legal system; an Israeli law passed this year makes it illegal for Israelis to call for a boycott against Israel, even if the boycott targets Israeli settlement products only. Are right-wing Israeli leaders making an example of an outspoken and non-violent anti-Zionist activist as part of a larger campaign against the BDS movement?

While Israel has not yet announced the names of the 580 prisoners to be released in the second phase of the swap, neither Hamas nor Israel have a strong incentive to put Makhoul on the list. Hamas doesn't gain much political capital from helping out secular, non-violent Palestinian Israelis (although six Palestinian Israelis were freed in the first phase).

And Israel isn't eager to draw attention to prisoners like Makhoul - prisoners whose plights expose Israel as both a victim and a victimizer.

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