Up against the Wall: Can Palestinian grassroots challenge Israel’s impunity?
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Up against the Wall: Can Palestinian grassroots challenge Israel’s impunity?

Six years ago, we were busy preparing for the start of the hearings of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The world’s highest court was to decide about the legal consequences of the Wall, which together with the network of settlements, military zones and Jewish-only roads annexes around 46% percent of the West Bank. Its decision, months later, was clear: the Wall is illegal, it needs to be torn down and the international community has an obligation to ensure that it is dismantled.

A victory? Not quite. Until today, neither foreign governments nor the UN have joined the Palestinian communities who have been destroyed by the Wall in their efforts to dismantle it . Still, Palestinian villages show incredible perseverance and creativity in protesting the theft of their land and tearing down pieces of the cement blocks or iron fencing. They do so in the face of overwhelming repression.

The year 2004, when the Court was deliberating the Wall case, marked the first wave of repression aimed at the grassroots movement against the Wall. The key features of the Israeli attacks consisted of killings, mass injuries, arrests and collective punishment measures such as curfews, the closing of access to the villages protesting the Wall and the denial of permits for farmers and workers to reach their jobs and lands beyond the Wall or the Green Line. The villages in northwest Jerusalem bore the brunt of Israeli violence.

Today the movement against the apartheid wall is once again in the crosshairs of Israeli repression.

A wave of serial arrests of well-known grassroots human rights defenders began this past summer and escalated in September 2009. A vocal advocate of Palestinian rights, Mohammed Othman, youth coordinator of Stop the Wall, was arrested in September when he returned from a speaking tour in Norway.  At the beginning of December, Abdullah Abu Rahmah, a key figure in organizing the weekly protests against the Wall in Bil’in, was arrested during a night raid at his home. In mid-December, I was arrested from my home by Israeli forces and taken to an interrogation center where I was kept for one month and then released without charge – a reprisal for my public outcry against Israel’s policies that have reduced Palestine to a number of isolated Bantustans behind cement walls. We were all interrogated, threatened and intimidated while held in the deplorable conditions of Israeli jails. Othman was released just a day after me, but  Abu Rahmah remains in detention.  

Similar scenes are playing out in all villages protesting against the Wall across the West Bank. In Ni’lin, to date, Israeli soldiers have shot five people dead, including a 10-year-old boy, and severely injured almost 500 people. Since the beginning of 2010 over twenty people have been arrested.

The arrests do not just focus on active members of the popular committees. Children and minors are particularly targeted because their arrest puts pressure on their families and the community at large. Further, being more vulnerable, Israeli intelligence officers often arrests children to recruit them as collaborators. Lately, in a number of cases, family members of wanted activists have been arrested to pressure those activists to turn themselves in.

Neither I nor other activists in the Stop the Wall Campaign have ever attempted to hide our longtime work as critical voices against Israeli apartheid and the architecture of its occupation. The Campaign, based on the efforts of the popular committees in the villages, has been a public and central force of research, analysis and regular news dispatches from our “front line”: our bodies, our voices and our villages up against the Wall.

Popular committees have been the basic structure of Palestinian social and political organizing for generations. The creeping criminalization of this social organizing structure therefore not only infringes our right to freedom of expression and association but risks creating a ‘politicide’ and would, if successful, destabilize society at its core.

Over the last six months, this has become an essential bid for Israel.

In September 2009, at the time when the Goldstone Report was to be officially adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, Palestinian civil society showed its strength in front of Israel and an all too compliant Palestinian National Authority. PNA president Mahmoud Abbas made a mistake by attempting to suppress the findings of the Goldstone Report, which corroborates Palestinian and international eyewitness testimonies of war crimes committed by Israel during its 2008/9 assault on Gaza. The Report also contains a chapter describing the sharp increase in Israeli use of force against Palestinians in the West Bank – especially at Wall demonstrations – during and after the Gaza assault. In addition, the Report describes the brutal tactics with which the PNA attempted to beat down Palestinian internal dissent at the time. After the PNA’s action at the Human Rights Council in September 2009, Abbas was met by a hefty uproar within Palestinian society and, eventually, pressured by its own constituents, the PNA redacted its position on Goldstone.

Especially now that the President’s mandate is expired (since January 26th), the PNA is keenly aware that it is not strong enough to challenge a united Palestinian society, calling for Israel to be held accountable for its crimes. It is clear that Israel also understands this balance of power and has concluded that Palestinian civil society is a force to be reckoned with and therefore should be weakened, if not eliminated.

In a situation where our top leadership is both de jure out of office and de facto too weak to stand up to Israeli and international pressure and defend our interests, such a weakening of civil society would allow Israel even more room to continue its crimes with impunity.

From the bombs dropped in Gaza on an entrapped civilian population, the repression against human rights defenders and the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to the broad-daylight theft of land and construction of the Wall, Israel remains a state that is not held accountable to international law.
Yet there is a window of opportunity opening up in defense of law and Palestinian human rights. In the coming months, the European Union and its member states will negotiate a new Action Plan to implement the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

The fact that this agreement is enacted at all sheds doubts over the acumen of the EU decision-makers: an agreement with Israel seems a contradiction in terms, as article two renders the agreement conditional upon compliance with human rights law and democratic principles. However, to keep a veneer of respect for its own rules and regulations, the EU has started up a ‘political dialogue’ with Israel on its violations of human rights. The result of over 5 years of discussions is not only disheartening for Palestinians but embarrassing for the European Union: the only result ever recorded for this ‘dialogue’ is the ‘willingness’ of Israel to talk about the issues.

At last, there seems to be some discontent within EU diplomatic circles about the fact that Israel not only disrespects all human rights and international legal obligations but even imprisons those who try to defend these rights, at a national level and through international advocacy. Yet, without sustained civil society pressure, this change in perception will be absorbed into meaningless expressions of ‘concern’, and no action will be taken.

Member states of the EU have given valuable support to the campaign to release Mohammed Othman and myself. Yet, far more decisive pressure from Europe needs to be forthcoming, not just from governments but also from European civil society, to force Israel to its change policies . As long as the member states uphold their cooperation agreements with Israel, hide the decision of the International Court of Justice against the Wall under the carpet, and are unwilling to implement the recommendations of the Goldstone report – even at risk of losing their own credibility – more Palestinian human rights activists will be arrested, detained, tortured, or killed.

An active civil society is a key component of any democratic society and without it justice in the Middle East will remain as elusive as ever.


For more on the repression of the anti-wall movement see: Report Repression Allowed, Resistance Denied  -<a hrefhttps://stopthewall.org/activistresources/2019.shtm