By Benjamin Joffe-Walt, The Media Line, 8 October 2009
Palestinians claim detainee is the first political prisoner arrested solely for promoting a boycott of Israel. Israel has extended the detention of a West Bank campaigner said by activist groups to be the first Palestinian to be imprisoned solely for advocacy of international boycotts against Israel.
Mohammad Othman, a 33 year old resident of the West Bank village of Jayyous, had his detention extended by 12 days at a hearing at Salem military court in the north of Israel on Thursday. Israel”s internal security service had requested a 23-day extension.
Othman was first taken into Israeli custody by the Israel Security Agency, commonly known as the Shin Bet, on September 22 at an Israeli border-crossing terminal. The Shin Bet confirmed that Othman had been detained but refused to comment.”The man was picked up for questioning on security issues and is still being held,” an Israeli security source told The Media Line on the condition that their name not be published.
“The Israelis had four options,” Samer Sam”an, a lawyer representing Othman, told The Media Line. “They could let him go, extend his detention again for interrogation purposes, use secret evidence to put him into administrative detention indefinitely or actually charge him with something in a military court.”
While thousands of Palestinians supportive of the international boycott campaign have been arrested by Israel for various reasons, activist groups believe Othman to be the first Palestinian whose imprisonment can be credited solely to international boycott advocacy. Othman was attempting to return to the West Bank following a trip to Norway, where he had met with senior government officials in an effort to convince the country to boycott companies doing business with the Israeli military or involved in Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Othman took Norwegian officials on a tour of the West Bank, traveled to Norway and played a major role in convincing a Norwegian state pension fund to divest the $5.4 million from Elbit, one of Israel”s largest defense firms. Norwegian Finance Minister Kristen Halvorsen, whom Othman met, announced the decision early last month.
The Addameer Prisoners Support and Human Rights Organization, which is legally representing Othman, claims his arrest is retribution for his international promotion of a boycott. “There are no charges against him, but we believe that the arrest is related to his international advocacy work,” Magda Mughradi, an Addameer advocacy officer told The Media Line. “Just before he came back to the West Bank he was in Norway promoting the boycott movement.”
“They say he is a member of a terrorist organization, but they have not told us the name of the organization,” Mahmoud Hassan, an Addameer lawyer, told The Media Line. “They are not saying you are a Hamas member, you are a Fatah member, you are an Al Qaeda member, they are just saying he is the member of an unidentified “not good” organization. Basically they have no idea what to say and they don”t even have secret evidence to justify putting him in administrative detention.”
Othman was first taken into custody at Israel”s Allenby border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank and two days later taken to Kishon Detention Center in northern Israel. He was held for over a week pending an initial hearing, at which the Shin Bet requested that Othman”s detention be extended by 23 days to complete their investigation. Sam”an, who represented Othman at the initial hearing, requested access to the secret evidence the Shin Bet claimed to have against his client. This request was denied. “We argued that this is a political arrest and that Mr. Othman is well known to anyone involved in Palestinian human rights work,” Sam”an said. “We pointed out that he also advocates against many Palestinian Authority policies.”
The judge granted the Shin Bet 10 days of further detention, and on Thursday granted another 12 days. Hassan claimed his client is being held in solitary confinement and questioned daily. “They are interrogating him for five to ten hours a day about what he was doing abroad,” he said. “There were days when they interrogated him from 8am until midnight. They are insulting him, abusing him and threatening to hurt his sister.”
There are over 10,000 Palestinians currently held by Israel, many of whom, Palestinians claim, are being detained illegally and for exclusively political reasons. Palestinian groups decided to highlight Othman”s arrest as they felt it was the first case of a Palestinian they could prove had been arrested solely for advocacy of the boycott movement. “They don”t have any criminal act they can accuse him of committing,” Jamal Juma, the director of the Palestinian activist campaign Stop the Wall, told The Media Line. “There is absolutely nothing whatsoever that they can accuse him of aside from being active internationally in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. His work is very open and there is no law that prohibits him from being active in the boycott movement.”
“This is just to scare him,” Juma said. “He has traveled to Norway twice in the last two months. If he was doing something here which they considered to be illegal then why did they let him travel outside the country?”
“If they had any serious charges against him, they would have said what those charges were and they would not allow a lawyer to visit him,” Juma said. “Usually, when they have a serious charge against a Palestinian detainee, they don”t allow anyone to know where they are and don”t even allow a lawyer to see him.”
“Also, in the interrogations they have not asked Mohammad anything specific about his local activism,” Juma claimed. “They just asked where are you working, how do you get your money, who did you meet abroad, what did you say to them, who paid for your ticket, things like this.”
“If he had been involved in something violent locally, they would have arrested him long ago,” he said. “Many people from his village have been arrested for simply throwing stones. Mohammad has never been arrested.”
Juma and other Palestinian advocates who have worked intimately with Othman say he was spurred to activism by the affect of the West Bank separation barrier on his family. “Mohammad comes from a big and poor family in Jayyous village in the West Bank,” Juma said. “Lots of their land has been isolated behind the wall and he started his activism because of that, to show the threat the occupation presents to his family and his village.”
“He continued his activism both locally and internationally, calling on people, organizations and governments to boycott Israel for its crimes against the Palestinian people,” he said. “That”s why he became a target for the Israelis.”
Palestinian groups claim that Israel has arrested a number of activists in reprisal for their international advocacy efforts. The most notable among them, Mohammad Srour, was arrested and detained for three days in late July after he testified before the U.N. Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict in Geneva. Srour, a member of the Popular Committee Against the Wall in the West Bank village of Ni”lin, described the deaths of two Palestinians from the village during demonstrations against the separation barrier. In its report to the Human Rights Council, the U.N. mission questioned whether Srour”s detention “may have been a consequence of his appearance before the Mission”.
Officially, Israel has made no comment on Othman”s case and sources close to Shin Bet refused to discuss it beyond confirming Othman”s detention. But Daniel Seaman, Director of Israel”s Government Press Office, said it was far fetched to believe Israel would arrest someone for promoting the boycott movement.”Being involved in a boycott is not against the law in Israel,” Daniel Seaman told The Media Line. “This is a democracy and if someone wants to boycott knock yourself out, and anyone who tells you that this man was arrested for boycotting is as ridiculous as the claim itself.”
“The boycotts are a joke,” Seaman said. “If they”re going to boycott the State of Israel don”t come up with some asinine boycott, do it completely: stop using all the Western products Israel has helped invent: medicine, your mobile phone and fax machines… Instead of trying to find ways to resolve the situation, those putting pressure on Israel alone absolve the Palestinians of any responsibility and contribute to increased Palestinian rejectionism.”
“Boycotts are an old weapon used against Jews and the State of Israel for generations,” Seaman added. “So those invoking the boycott should not act so disingenuous as if they are doing this for some noble reason. It is as old as hatred for the Jews.”
“Israel has done everything for the peace process and taken risks for peace: relinquishing territory, giving up settlements,” Seaman stressed. “Instead of bringing us closer to peace it has resulted in more Israeli deaths. What have the Palestinians done to increase the prospects for peace? Palestinians have contributed nothing to the world except violence and terrorism.”
The international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel is viewed as a serious national threat by most Israelis, many of whom see boycott advocacy as paramount to sedition, and a number of Israeli analysts argue that the threat posed to Israel justifies the arrest of boycott leaders. “Israel needs to defend itself and should arrest people like this,” said Dr Ron Breiman, the former chairman of Professors for a Strong Israel one of the founders of the secular Hatikva faction of the National Union, a right wing nationalist political party in Israel. “In any normal country when someone is doing harm to his own state he would be punished for that. I don”t think a European country would allow such activities within her borders and we are too forgiving of it.”
“I want democracy and I want free speech,” Dr Breiman told The Media Line. “But there are limits to free speech and even in a democratic country you cannot say anything that you want, especially in a state of war.”
“We suffered for decades under the Arab boycott of Israel,” he continued. “But in a way this benefited Israel by forcing us to develop our relations and base our foreign trade with more developed countries rather than our own geographical region.”
“Now we are talking about boycotts by European countries,” Dr Breiman said. “This can harm us more, and if Israelis can”t travel to Europe, it”s a problem.”
“But if we have to defend ourselves we will,” he warned. “We cannot commit suicide and stop defending our citizens because of the threat of some Norwegian or Swedish boycott.”
Othman”s detention will be reviewed again by a military judge on October 20.