Ramallah: Abdullah Abu Rahma has been arrested by Israeli soldiers eight times in the last 15 years, spending weeks or months in prison and paying tens of thousands of dollars in fines for organizing protests.
He’s among a growing number of Palestinians who have embraced non-violent means of protesting Israel’s military rule and expanding colonies, and who are increasingly finding those avenues of dissent blocked.
More than 50 years after occupying the West Bank, Israel is still systematically denying Palestinians civil rights, including the right to gather, Human Rights Watch said in a report released last month.
Israel has also stepped up its campaign against the Palestinian-led international boycott movement, and the United States and other countries have adopted legislation to suppress it.
Israel has also come down hard on Palestinian attempts to seek redress at the International Criminal Court.
Last month, after a five-year preliminary investigation, the court said it was ready to open a full investigation pending a ruling on territorial jurisdiction.
Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, said Israel has “all but declared Palestinian opposition to the systematic discrimination they face illegitimate.”
Shakir himself was deported from Israel in November over his alleged support for the boycott movement.
'Submission to repression'
If it succeeds in banning forms of peaceful advocacy, he says, Israel will have “effectively left Palestinians no choice but submission to a regime of systematic repression, or violence.”
For decades, the Palestinians were branded terrorists because of their armed struggle against Israel, which included suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians.
At the height of the Second Intifada, the violent uprising in the early 2000s, and for years afterward, observerswonderedwhy there was no “Palestinian Gandhi.”
One candidate for such a title might be Abu Rahma, who for several years organized weekly protests outside his West Bank village of Bilin against Israel’s illegal separation barrier.
The barrier cuts off village residents from their land.
The protesters eventually forced authorities to reroute the barrier following a court order.
Rocks vs bullets
The protests often saw Palestinian youths hurl rocks at Israeli occupation forces, who responded with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.
But Abu Rahma says he never threw stones and told others not to do so, partly out of concern they would hurt other protesters.
That didn’t keep him from being arrested.
Over the years he was charged with entering a closed military zone — referring to land outside the village — and hindering the work of soldiers, who were overseeing the construction of the fence.
“I don’t go to them, they come to us,” he said.
In 2009 he was charged with stockpiling weapons after he collected spent tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers and put them on display.
He later served a 16-month prison term after a military court convicted him of incitement and participation in illegal protests.
“There have been various, multiple charges of this kind, but not once have they accused me of striking a soldier or throwing a stone,” he told The Associated Press.
In 2009, he was acquitted on the weapons possession charge and a charge of throwing stones.
Issa Amro, another prominent activist who has organized protests against Israeli colonies in the West Bank city of Hebron, faces 16 charges, including calling for disobedience and disrupting Israeli life — the lives of colonists.
He says he has been detained on 10 occasions this year alone, usually after being beaten by colonists.
“The soldiers never did anything to stop the attackers, but they arrested me every time a colonist said I attacked him,” he said.
As a Palestinian, he is governed by Israeli military law, while the Jewish colonists in Hebron enjoy full rights as Israeli citizens.
“Israeli authorities ban any political expression in the Palestinian territories,” Amro said.
“They want us basically to accept the occupation, the discrimination, the land grab, the restrictions, and not to speak up against it.”