My friend and fellow organizer Mohammad Othman, a 34-year-old Palestinian human rights advocate, was detained by Israel on September 22 while returning home from meetings with Norwegian government officials. I suspect he was not surprised. A few months earlier, Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint within the West Bank had taken him aside and threatened him with arrest. "We're going to arrest you," one said, "but it's difficult with you because all you do is talk."
As a grassroots leader, this chills me to the bone. Like Mohammad, my colleagues and I spend a great deal of time talking - talking and thinking about how nonviolent peace activists can halt Israel's relentless expansion into our agricultural land. If talking is a crime, if urging the international community to hold Israel accountable for theft of our land is a crime, then we all are vulnerable.
Law, which on paper protects the rights of the occupied, seems powerless to stop Israel in practice.
For the last month, Israel has inveighed against the UN's Goldstone report, which meticulously documents Israeli war crimes during its assault on Gaza. The "new" U.S. of Barack Obama has unfortunately reverted to looking very much like the Bush administration by backing down on demands that Israel freeze construction of its illegal settlements and its vigorous effort to kill the Goldstone report. Brutalized Palestinian civilians in Gaza would be forced to swallow a bitter pill in forgoing the protections offered by international law and the slim satisfaction of a measure of justice.
Israel, for its part, has with single-minded intensity sought to bury the message and attack the messenger, notwithstanding the fact that Judge Goldstone is Jewish and a committed Zionist.
But attacking a messenger like Goldstone is not new for Israel. Israeli authorities are increasingly imprisoning and abusing Palestinians - not just Mohammad Othman - for speaking out abroad about hardships faced by Palestinians.
Mohammad Omer, a journalist from Gaza, was severely beaten by Israeli intelligence officials on his return from Europe last year. Just prior to his return, he had received a prestigious award for his reporting. During a ferocious interrogation, Omer, like Mohammad Othman, was told that he was talking too much (to the outside world). He answered, "Well, it's my job to talk, and I want that, and it's my choice. I want to get the message out."
In June this year, Mohammad Srour, from Ni'lin, another village whose lands are confiscated by the illegal barrier, was arrested on his way back from Geneva, where he had testified before Goldstone.
Many anti-Wall activists with ties to the international community have been imprisoned by Israel on non-existent or trumped-up charges. It's the Jim Crow South in the wild West Bank. There are more than 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are held for months or years in administrative detention without charge or trial. Twenty-eight Palestinians from the West Bank village of Bil'in - also losing land to the apartheid barrier - have been arrested in night-time raids since June and 18 of them remain detained.
As for my friend, Mohammad Othman, he has spent much of his time since September 22 in solitary confinement. His detention has already been extended four times and an appeal rejected. Most recently, his detention was extended another 13 days on October 27 (with an appeal expected October 29). Mohammad spent his birthday enduring interrogation behind bars as a political prisoner charged with no crime and unable to see any "evidence" against him. Strikingly, Israeli authorities have yet to bring evidence or charges against him in the military court. Perhaps this is because, as the soldier at the checkpoint admitted, Mohammad is guilty only of talking; of speaking out against injustice.
Mohammad hails from the impoverished village of Jayyous. He speaks tirelessly about the high-tech fencing that steals his family's land. Nearly 20 years ago the world cheered the fall of the Berlin Wall yet today Israel constructs an even more massive wall to enclose tens of thousands of human beings in isolated enclaves. And rather than build its barrier on the Green Line, Israel has used the wall to seize more Palestinian property.
Mohammad has chosen against great odds to speak out because the life of his community is at stake. He has discovered he has a powerful voice. International visitors are riveted when Mohammad describes how Israeli diamond mogul, Lev Leviev, is building an illegal settlement on his village land. Our American colleagues tell us that The New York Times opinion page regularly runs Leviev's diamond advertisements; visitors who have discussed Leviev's expansionist politics with Mohammad, however, will likely not be buying his tarnished goods.
Mohammad, who is mostly self-educated and only recently started traveling to Europe, met last month in Norway with the Finance Minister and representatives of the Norwegian State Pension Fund to convince them to follow their own human rights guidelines for investment. Less than two weeks before Mohammad's arrest, the Finance Minister announced the Pension Fund's $5.4 million divestment from Elbit, an Israeli company that provides security equipment for the Wall and builds the drones that have killed innocents in Gaza.
To date, this was one of the greatest successes of the campaign to divest from Israel for failing to abide by international law. Mohammad was a national hero returning home, only to be intercepted by an Israeli government that while losing the moral battle abroad still exercises ultimate control over our lives.
If President Obama is to live up to his Nobel Peace Prize, then he should ensure that Israel releases political prisoners such as Mohammad and insist that trapping Palestine's emerging Gandhis and Mandelas behind walls, electrified fences, and segregated roadways is incompatible with a peaceful and just future.