It Will Take More Than a Wall To Silence Us

If President Obama is to live up to his Nobel, then he should insist that trapping Palestine's emerging Gandhis and Mandelas behind walls is incompatible with a peaceful and just future.
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My friend and fellow organizer Mohammad Othman, a 34-year-oldPalestinian human rights advocate, was detained by Israel on September22 while returning home from meetings with Norwegian governmentofficials. I suspect he was not surprised. A few months earlier,Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint within the West Bank had taken himaside and threatened him with arrest. "We're going to arrest you," onesaid, "but it's difficult with you because all you do is talk."

As a grassroots leader, this chills me to the bone. Like Mohammad, mycolleagues and I spend a great deal of time talking - talking andthinking about how nonviolent peace activists can halt Israel'srelentless expansion into our agricultural land. If talking is acrime, if urging the international community to hold Israelaccountable for theft of our land is a crime, then we all arevulnerable.

Law, which on paper protects the rights of the occupied, seemspowerless to stop Israel in practice.

For the last month, Israel has inveighed against the UN's Goldstonereport, which meticulously documents Israeli war crimes during itsassault on Gaza. The "new" U.S. of Barack Obama has unfortunatelyreverted to looking very much like the Bush administration by backingdown on demands that Israel freeze construction of its illegalsettlements and its vigorous effort to kill the Goldstone report.Brutalized Palestinian civilians in Gaza would be forced to swallow abitter pill in forgoing the protections offered by international lawand the slim satisfaction of a measure of justice.

Israel, for its part, has with single-minded intensity sought to burythe message and attack the messenger, notwithstanding the fact thatJudge Goldstone is Jewish and a committed Zionist.

But attacking a messenger like Goldstone is not new for Israel.Israeli authorities are increasingly imprisoning and abusingPalestinians - not just Mohammad Othman - for speaking out abroadabout hardships faced by Palestinians.

Mohammad Omer, a journalist from Gaza, was severely beaten by Israeliintelligence officials on his return from Europe last year. Justprior to his return, he had received a prestigious award for hisreporting. During a ferocious interrogation, Omer, like MohammadOthman, 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 mychoice. I want to get the message out."

In June this year, Mohammad Srour, from Ni'lin, another village whoselands are confiscated by the illegal barrier, was arrested on his wayback from Geneva, where he had testified before Goldstone.

Many anti-Wall activists with ties to the international community havebeen imprisoned by Israel on non-existent or trumped-up charges. It'sthe Jim Crow South in the wild West Bank. There are more than 11,000Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are held for months or years inadministrative detention without charge or trial. Twenty-eightPalestinians from the West Bank village of Bil'in - also losing landto the apartheid barrier - have been arrested in night-time raidssince June and 18 of them remain detained.

As for my friend, Mohammad Othman, he has spent much of his time sinceSeptember 22 in solitary confinement. His detention has already beenextended four times and an appeal rejected. Most recently, hisdetention was extended another 13 days on October 27 (with anappeal expected October 29). Mohammad spenthis birthday enduring interrogationbehind bars as a political prisoner charged with no crime and unableto see any "evidence" against him. Strikingly, Israeli authoritieshave yet to bring evidence or charges against him in the militarycourt. Perhaps this is because, as the soldier at the checkpointadmitted, Mohammad is guilty only of talking; of speaking out againstinjustice.

Mohammad hails from the impoverished village of Jayyous. He speakstirelessly about the high-tech fencing that steals his family's land.Nearly 20 years ago the world cheered the fall of the Berlin Wall yettoday Israel constructs an even more massive wall to enclose tens ofthousands of human beings in isolated enclaves. And rather than buildits barrier on the Green Line, Israel has used the wall to seize morePalestinian property.

Mohammad has chosen against great odds to speak out because the lifeof his community is at stake. He has discovered he has a powerfulvoice. International visitors are riveted when Mohammad describes howIsraeli diamond mogul, Lev Leviev, is building an illegal settlementon his village land. Our American colleagues tell us that The NewYork Times opinion page regularly runs Leviev's diamondadvertisements; visitors who have discussed Leviev's expansionistpolitics with Mohammad, however, will likely not be buying histarnished goods.

Mohammad, who is mostly self-educated and only recently startedtraveling to Europe, met last month in Norway with the FinanceMinister and representatives of the Norwegian State Pension Fund toconvince them to follow their own human rights guidelines forinvestment. Less than two weeks before Mohammad's arrest, the FinanceMinister announced the Pension Fund's $5.4 million divestment fromElbit, an Israeli company that provides security equipment for theWall and builds the drones that have killed innocents in Gaza.

To date, this was one of the greatest successes of the campaign todivest from Israel for failing to abide by international law. Mohammadwas a national hero returning home, only to be intercepted by anIsraeli government that while losing the moral battle abroad stillexercises ultimate control over our lives.

If President Obama is to live up to his Nobel Peace Prize, then heshould ensure that Israel releases political prisoners such as Mohammadand insist that trapping Palestine's emerging Gandhis and Mandelasbehind walls, electrified fences, and segregated roadways isincompatible with a peaceful and just future.

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