Another Palestinian Gandhi Crushed by Israel

Commentators of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often complain that there has not yet been a legitimate Palestinian Gandhi or MLK to emerge from within Palestinian civil society. But the reality is that there are many.
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Few people other than Palestinians visit the Ofer Israeli military prison in the West Bank. Part military prison and part military courthouse, the Ofer prison complex feels like a desert version of Guantanamo Bay. Palestinians families wait for hours inside the prison walls while their loved ones stand trial in makeshift courthouses before military tribunals. The soul crushing layout of the courtrooms mimics the architecture of the occupation itself: intimidating, segregated and devoid of contact between Israelis and Palestinians. On the 7th of July 2010, five Palestinians from villages throughout the West Bank stood trial for the involvement in unarmed struggle against Israel's continued military occupation. Those on trial had been snatched from their beds in the middle of the night, accused of stone throwing or participation in an illegal protest and interrogated in unnamed Israeli military bases . They are the latest to be caught in Israel's recent wave of repression directed at the popular unarmed resistance in the West Bank.

The names of the Palestinian detainees never came up in the recent talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and President Obama. However, Palestinian society is intently focused on the fate of the most prominent figure on trial, Adeeb Abu Rahma. Abu Rahma is a resident of Bilin, a West Bank village that has been a nexus of unarmed resistance to the Israeli military occupation for over five years. Bilin's struggle began as reaction against the construction of Israel's separation wall, which will annex significant portions of the village's agricultural land if completed. Thousands of Israelis, Palestinians and international supporters including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Desmond Tutu and Naomi Klein have joined in Bilin's weekly demonstrations since they began. The village's struggle is the subject of a riveting documentary, "Bil'in, Habibti," by Israeli filmmaker/activist Shai Pollak.

The American media has largely ignored the widespread unarmed Palestinian campaign of resistance, preferring to cover continued Israeli defiance over the creation of new settlements throughout the West Bank. If it were to examine Abu Ramha's case, the mainstream American press would quickly discover a truly Kafkaesque system of laws governing the Palestinian population in the West Bank which contradict Israel's bluster about upholding democratic values in a sea of tyranny. Indeed, the creation of settlements is less of issue than the maintenance required to control the Palestinian population. Instead of focusing on the settlement issue as the main threat to the so-called peace process, the Obama administration should begin establishing some degree of justice for average Palestinians. The White House could start by denouncing the increasing repression of grassroots unarmed Palestinian resistance.

Adeeb Abu Rahma's story offers a stark view of the bureaucracy of occupation. A taxi driver and father of nine who has been active in the unarmed resistance in Bilin from its outset, he was arrested in Bilin on July 10, 2009 while taking part in one of the weekly Friday protests. The Israeli army accused him of participation in 'violent demonstrations' against the Israeli separation wall, presence in a 'closed Israeli military zone' and disturbing the public order. Abu Rahma's conviction relies heavily on coerced testimony gleaned from four teenagers arrested in a night raid in Bilin on charges of stone throwing. Following their arrest, the teens were interrogated late at night, under harsh conditions and without their parents or lawyers present. According to the Israeli army's version of events, they eventually declared that Abu Rahma told them to throw stones during a protest in Bilin.

The popular struggle committee of Bilin, of which Abu Rahma is a member, officially discourages stone throwing at protests, preferring to encourage non-violent demonstration. During Abu Rahma's trial, the teens insisted that their testimony was illegitimate and coerced. In addition to the coerced testimony, Israeli military prosecutors argued that they had videotape footage of Abu Rahma directing stone throwers at a protest but when asked to release the footage to the court, the tapes were mysteriously deleted. Despite the questionable legal application of all of the testimony presented by the prosecution, the court accepted the testimony and 'footage' as legitimate in the persecution of Abu Rahma.

On July 7, 2010 Abu Ramha was sentenced to one year in prison which he had already served. Israeli military prosecutors quickly filed an appeal against the verdict, calling it "too lenient" and asking that Abu Ramha remain in custody until the appeal process is finished. Their request was granted by a military judge named Lieutenant Colonel Benisho from the military court of appeals. Benisho argued that "this appeal fails to set the proper punishment in a unique case in which a general punishment level which has not yet been set." In other words, the judge argued that there was no legal precedent to help him decide whether Abu Ramha should remain in prison during his appeal period. However, the judge's statement was discredited by previous legal precedents in similar cases in which defendants received harsher punishments than Abu Ramha. Abu Ramha will have to remain in prison for an unknown amount of time while the appeal is filed despite already serving his sentence.

According to the Israeli lawyer Gaby Lasky, who represents many of popular struggle leaders in Bilin, Abu Rahma is the latest example of Israeli military efforts to completely repress any popular unarmed resistance to Israel's occupation and separation wall. The maintenance of occupation and continued settlement expansion have forced the Israeli military to target nonviolent Palestinian leaders and use occupation law to incarcerate them for long periods of time. Amnesty International has said in a recent statement regarding Abu Rahma's case that, "The broad scope of Israeli military orders mean that Adeeb Abu Rahma could be imprisoned solely for legitimately exercising his right to freedom of expression in opposing Israeli policies in the West Bank... If this is the case, we would regard him as a prisoner of conscience who should be released immediately and unconditionally"

Commentators of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often complain that there has not yet been a legitimate Palestinian Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. to emerge from within Palestinian civil society. The reality is that there are many Palestinians engaged in popular unarmed resistance to the Israeli occupation, preferring organized demonstrations in the West Bank to suicide bombs in Tel Aviv. Common people like Adeeb Abu Rahma could become the non-violent leader everyone claims to be waiting for. However, the Israeli government seems to recognize how much damage such a figure could do to their international image and to the occupation they will defend at any cost. And so hundreds of Palestinian Gandhis are brought before draconian Israeli military tribunals each year, only to face long sentences that nearly ensure that the world will never learn their names.