Israeli Security Shifts Focus from Armed Palestinian Resistance to Suppressing Non-Violent Activists
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Entering his home in the West Bank village of Bi'lin for the first time in 16 months, after being released from an Israeli military prison, Palestinian popular struggle leader Abdullah Abu Rahmah was enthusiastically welcomed as a hero by family, villagers and supporters.
In a house now draped in banners featuring his image alongside that of Yasser Arafat and jailed Second Intifada resistance leader, Marwan Baraghouti, Abu Rahmah expressed mixed emotions about returning from prison into regular life under occupation.
“I'm very happy to be with my family and friends but at the same time I'm very sad about the people still in jail, all the people denied their friends and family. This makes me very angry and all Palestinians must be released," he said between embraces.
It was the first public appearance for the leading figure of the village's six-year struggle since he appeared on a cold January morning in a packed military courtroom to hear that his sentence had been extended, after more than a year in prison.
Sentenced in December 2010 to 12 months in prison for his role in organizing demonstrations against Israel's wall and land annexation in his West Bank border village, Abu Rahmah's imprisonment was extended by four months on appeal by the military prosecution. European diplomats present at the hearing responded by issuing statements calling him a prisoner of conscience and condemning his jailing.
Abu Rahmah's completed incarceration is the most high-profile example of what appears to be a shift in Israel's security priorities -- from targeting the armed Palestinian resistance to primarily focusing on Palestinian and Israeli activists involved in popular protest and building international pressure abroad. It was a point made clear during the verdict on the prosecution's appeal. When I approached the Palestinian grassroots activist in the prisoner's box for comment before the proceedings began, the military prison security became visibly nervous, intervening immediately and silencing Abu Rahmah before he could get a sentence out.
The first signs of this new focus could be seen as early as 2007 when Shin Bet head, Yuval Diskin, sent a letter to organizations that defend the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. In the letter, Diskin stated that the intent of Israel's General Security Services was to "thwart the subversive activity of entities seeking to harm the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, even if their activity is conducted through democratic means."
The target of this rhetoric was then expanded in December 2010 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would “use all the resources at its disposal" to “delegitimize the delegitimizers." The statement was directed at Palestinian and Israeli activists bringing international attention to Israeli abuses of Palestinians, particularly the growing international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The BDS movement seeks to help achieve equal rights for Palestinians, such as the right to self determination and the right of return for refugees, through building international pressure on Israel and its supporters.
"With BDS so widely spread and rooted globally, non-violent resistance leaders are seen by Israel as even more dangerous, as their struggle is far more likely today to inspire and mobilize even more boycotts against Israel," says Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC), about Abu Rahmah.
Meeting in Ramallah, he said that attempts to silence West Bank popular struggle leaders is in part a product of boycotts becoming a tool of international support for Palestinians' popular struggles, rather than a direct result of their leaders endorsing BDS.
Discussing the progress of BDS in 2010, Barghouti says the movement has been pushed into the Western mainstream following series of successful initiatives in Europe. He discusses the loss of billions of dollars in contracts for Veolia, which he attributes to its participation in a Jerusalem light rail project that runs through the Occupied East of the city connecting illegal Jewish settlements; and the divestment of Scandinavian pension funds from Israeli companies.
"After Israel's Gaza massacre, after the flotilla [raid], after the cancellations of top artists' gigs, after corporations complicit in Israel's war crimes started paying a heavy price, Israel began to view BDS as a strategic threat that, if unchecked, may develop into an existential threat," he said between sips of orange juice.
The shift in Israel's view of a "strategic" or "existential" threat emanating from armed to popular struggle has been further marked by a shift in the way Israel's security forces are seeking to quell or contain opposition. While Israel has traditionally preferred to disperse Palestinian opposition through the exile or deportation of resistance figures, it is now seeking to prevent or discourage Palestinians with the ear of Western audiences from leaving the Occupied Territories.
This is clearly the case for Mohammad Othman, a former youth coordinator for the Stop the Wall Campaign who was arrested by Israel at the West Bank-Jordan border in September 2009 upon his return from Norway. Interrogated for two months without charge and then placed in administrative detention for an additional three months without formal charges, Othman is still barred from leaving the West Bank, despite a pending scholarship from an Irish University.
While in Norway, Othman says he was meeting with Norwegian socialist movements and BDS activists, as well as members of the national Parliament, including the Norwegian finance minister. Meeting with the finance minister, less than a year before Norway announced the divestment of its pension fund from Israeli companies. He described focusing on how European countries could pressure Israel over human rights abuses through BDS.
In his first interview about the conditions of his detention, Othman told AlterNet that he was psychologically and physically tortured by Shin Bet interrogators. He highlighted how interrogators pressed him for details about his activities in the BDS campaign abroad, asked about the the grassroots Stop the Wall movement, and probed his meetings with Norwegian parliamentarians and activists.
In Israeli military court, the military prosecution tried unsuccessfully to prove that he was acting as an agent for Hezbollah. But Othman said that attempts to force him to confess to working with Hezbollah were merely a pretext to jail him and not what actually interested the Shin Bet.
"They spent over 25 days focused on trying to find out about my boycott contacts and activist contacts in Norway. They were particularly interested in talking about my work with a Jewish American woman in drafting a boycott call," said Othman, who detailed the brutal methods his interrogators used to try to extract information and confessions from him. "I was told by an interrogator that if I'm released before their investigation is complete, that they would kill me, that they would shoot me in the head," he recalled.
Kept in a tiny cell that could only fit a small mattress and subjected to extreme hot and cold temperatures, Othman says psychological terror gave way to physical torture. "At one point they tied me in stress positions for five hours. They showed pictures of my sisters and told me they would rape them. They threatened me with rape.”
Unable to gather any evidence to prove illegal activity on Othman's part, he was eventually released from Israeli custody in January 2010. However, he remains barred from leaving the West bank for unspecified security reasons and says the Shin Bet regularly calls him up for questioning.
"They want me to feel like I can't be active in the country out of fear of arrest and they are worried that outside of the country I will be more of a pain for them," he says.
But, while he is no longer involved with Stop the Wall, Othman said he remains connected to boycott activists in Europe "working from the ground.”
As Israel's security establishment has shifted its main Palestinian target, it has also broadened its scope to include Jewish-Israeli citizens calling for international sanctions in support of Palestinian popular struggles. In a context where the Israeli parliament is launching an investigation into Israeli human rights organizations and tabling legislation to make BDS activities illegal, Israeli pro-boycott activists are catching the ire of the Shin Bet.
While their ethnicity and citizenship has protected them from the same reprisals Palestinians in the Occupied Territories face, these Israelis now face regular arrest by police, as well as surveillance and intimidation by the Shin Bet because of their international activism.
A clear example of the broader net now being cast is Israeli boycott activist and participant on the 2010 International Jewish boat to Gaza, Yonatan Shapira. A former Israeli Air Force pilot who initiated a pilots letter of refusal to fly missions over the Occupied Territories during the second Intifada, Shapira says he was called in by the Shin Bet for questioning about the boycott movement and his international connections in the summer of 2010. He says he was directly warned about the pending anti-boycott law before the parliament and that its passage would make his activities illegal.
"I think they already know that the radical left aren't a violent threat to them so they are not afraid of this. They are afraid of the joint struggle and international pressure," he said, sitting on a sunny Tel Aviv rooftop on a January afternoon.