(Jerusalem) - Israel should immediately end its arbitrary detention of Palestinians protesting the separation barrier, Human Rights Watch said today. Israel is building most of the barrier inside the West Bank rather than along the Green Line, in violation of international humanitarian law. In recent months, Israeli military authorities have arbitrarily arrested and denied due process rights to several dozen Palestinian anti-wall protesters.
Israel has detained Palestinians who advocate non-violent protests against the separation barrier and charged them based on questionable evidence, including allegedly coerced confessions. Israeli authorities have also denied detainees from villages that have staged protests against the barrier, including children, access to lawyers and family members. Many of the protests have been in villages that lost substantial amounts of land when the barrier was built.
"Israel is arresting people for peacefully protesting a barrier built illegally on their lands that harms their livelihoods," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Israeli authorities are effectively banning peaceful expression of political speech by bringing spurious charges against demonstrators, plus detaining children and adults without basic due process protections."
Demonstrations against the separation barrier often turn violent, with Palestinian youths throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. Israeli troops have regularly responded by using stun and tear gas grenades to disperse protesters, and the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has documented the Israeli military's use of live and rubber-coated bullets on several occasions. Violence at demonstrations may result in the arrest of those who participate in or incite violence, but it does not justify the arrest of activists who have simply called for or supported peaceful protests against the wall, Human Rights Watch said.
In December 2009, military prosecutors charged Abdallah Abu Rahme, a high-school teacher in the West Bank village of Bil'in who is a leading advocate of non-violent resistance, with illegal possession of weapons in connection with an art exhibit, in the shape of a peace sign, that he built out of used Israeli army bullets and tear gas canisters. The weapons charge states that Abu Rahme, a member of Bil'in's Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements, used "M16 bullets and gas and stun grenades" for "an exhibition [that] showed people what means the security forces employ."
A military court also charged him with throwing stones at soldiers and incitement for organizing demonstrations that included stone throwing. An Israeli protester, Jonathan Pollack, acknowledged Palestinian youths often have thrown stones but told Human Rights Watch that he had attended "dozens" of protests with Abu Rahme and had never seen him throw stones. Abu Rahme remains in detention.
The Israeli military in August detained Mohammed Khatib, a leader of the Bil'in Popular Committee and the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, which organize protests against the separation barrier, and charged him with "stone throwing" at a Bil'in demonstration in November 2008. Khatib's passport shows that he was on New Caledonia, a Pacific island, when the alleged incident occurred. He was released on August 9, 2009, on condition that he present himself at a police station at the time of weekly anti-wall protests, effectively barring him from participating, his lawyers said.
The military detained him again and charged Khatib with incitement on January 28, 2010, a day after the Israeli news website Ynet quoted him as saying: "We are on the eve of an intifada." His lawyer said that security services justified the detention on the grounds of "incitement materials" confiscated from his home, which proved to be records of his trial. He was released on February 3. Khatib has published articles calling for non-violent protests, including in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation magazine. Khatib has also been active in lobbying for divestment from companies whose operations support violations of international law by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Military authorities also detained Zeydoun Srour, a member of the Popular Committee against the Wall in Ni'lin, on January 12, charging him with throwing stones during a demonstration, despite a letter from his employer and stamped and dated forms signed by Srour showing that he was working his normal shift at the time of the alleged incident.
"Israel's security concerns do not justify detaining or prosecuting peaceful Palestinian activists," Whitson said. "The Israeli government should immediately order an end to ongoing harassment of Palestinians who peacefully protest the separation barrier."
Mohammad Srour, also a member of the Popular Committee in Ni'lin, was arrested on July 20 by the Israeli army while returning from Geneva, where he appeared before the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (the Goldstone Commission). Srour's testimony to the UN mission described the fatal shooting by Israeli forces of two Ni'lin residents on December 28, 2008, at a demonstration against Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip. Srour was taken to Ofer prison for interrogation and was released on bail three days later without having been charged. In its report to the Human Rights Council, the Goldstone Commission expressed its concern that Srour's detention "may have been a consequence of his appearance before the Mission."
Cases brought against Palestinians for throwing stones and cases under the military's overbroad incitement law frequently raise serious due process concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Prosecutions of anti-wall activists have been based on testimony from witnesses who say their statements were obtained under coercive threats. A16-year-old witness against Mohammed Khatib testified on January 4 that he signed a false statement claiming that Khatib was throwing stones at a demonstration only after his interrogator "cursed me and told me that I should either sign or he would beat me," according to a military-court transcript.
Another 16-year-old from Bil'in said he signed a false statement alleging that Bil'in's Popular Committee members incited others to throw stones because his interrogator threatened to accuse him of "many things that I did and they were not true, that I had gas grenades, Molotovs, that I threw stones, and I was afraid of that."
Other Palestinians detained in anti-wall demonstrations have also alleged coercion by Israeli interrogators. A man whom lawyers say is mentally challenged testified on January 21 that he had falsely confessed to throwing a Molotov bomb at an Israeli army jeep after soldiers placed him inside a cockroach-infested cell, threatened to throw boiling water on him, and burned him with lit cigarettes, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The Israeli military had no record of a jeep being attacked, Haaretz reported.
The detained activists are from Ni'lin, Bil'in, and several other Palestinian villages inside the West Bank that have been directly affected by Israel's separation barrier. The barrier - in some places a fence, in others an eight-meter-high concrete wall with guard towers - was ostensibly built to protect against suicide bombers. However, unlike a similar barrier between Israel and Gaza, it does not follow the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. Instead, 85 percent of the barrier's route lies inside the West Bank, separating Palestinian residents from their lands, restricting their movement, and in some places effectively confiscating occupied territory, all unlawful under international humanitarian law.
Lawyers for detained activists also told Human Rights Watch of cases in which Israeli security services raided several West Bank villages that have been the site of anti-wall demonstrations and detained and interrogated residents, including children, and denied them access to lawyers and family members. Israeli military orders require allowing detainees to contact lawyers before interrogation and allowing detained children to have family members present.
Nery Ramati, a lawyer representing several detainees, told Human Rights Watch of three cases in which Israeli authorities refused to allow him to speak to boys in detention, all ages 14 and 15, from the villages of Bil'in and Budrus, or to allow the boys' relatives to be present, before their interrogation at the Shaar Benyamin police station. Military courts authorized the detention of one boy for a month for allegedly throwing stones at the separation barrier. The court ruled that there was no alternative to detention, but ignored the fact that Israeli movement restrictions had prevented the boy's father and uncle from presenting evidence of an alternative to detention to the court. The boy was held in jail for an entire month, until his uncle was able to come from Ramallah.
In several cases, Israeli military authorities took children to a building operated by the Israeli Shin Bet security agency in the Ofer military camp to which lawyers and family members are denied access. Under international treaties to which Israel is a party, children may be detained only as a last resort and for the shortest possible period of time.
Under laws applicable in Israel and to Israeli settlers in the West Bank, a child is anyone under 18 years old, a standard consistent with international law. Military laws applicable to Palestinians in the West Bank, however, define anyone over 16 as an adult. Israeli law requires the prosecution to justify that the detention of an Israeli child is "necessary" to prevent the child from committing illegal acts until the trial is over, requires the court to consider documentation from a social worker about how detention will affect the child, and limits the period of pre-sentence detention to nine months. Israeli military laws provide none of these safeguards for Palestinian children and allow pre-sentence detention of up to two years.
Israeli military authorities in recent months placed two anti-wall activists in administrative detention, failing to charge them with any crime and detaining them on the basis of secret evidence they were not allowed to see or challenge in court. The military detained Mohammad Othman, 34, an activist with the "Stop the Wall" organization, on September 22, 2009 when he returned to the West Bank from a trip to Norway, where he spoke about the separation barrier and urged boycotting companies that support Israeli human rights violations. An Israeli military court barred Othman from seeing his lawyer and family for two weeks during his 113-day administrative detention, before his release on January 12.
The Israeli authorities also detained Jamal Juma'a, 47, the coordinator of the "Stop the Wall" campaign, on December 16, 2009 and denied him access to his lawyer for nine days, except for a brief visit at a court hearing during which Juma'a was blindfolded. Israel barred international observers from attending a court hearing before Juma'a's release on January 12. Both men publicly advocated non-violent protest, including an article Juma'a published on the Huffington Post website on October 28, 2009.
Israeli military authorities have also repeatedly raided the West Bank offices of organizations involved in non-violent advocacy against the separation barrier. In February, the military raided the offices of Stop the Wall and the International Solidarity Movement, both located in Ramallah. (Israel ostensibly ceded Ramallah and other areas of the West Bank to the control of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Agreements of 1995.)
Israeli military authorities have detained scores of Palestinians, including children, involved in protests against the wall. According to the Palestinian prisoners' rights group Addameer, 35 residents of Bil'in have been arrested since June 2009, most during nighttime raids; 113 have been arrested from the neighboring village of Ni'ilin in the last 18 months.
Israel applies military orders, issued by the commander of the occupied territory, as law in the West Bank. Article 7(a) of Military Order 101 of 1967 criminalizes as "incitement" any act of "attempting, whether verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order." Military Order 378 of 1970 imposes sentences of up to 20 years for throwing stones.
Both Israeli and international courts have found the route of the separation barrier in the West Bank to be illegal. The International Court of Justice ruled in a 2004 advisory opinion that the wall's route was illegal because its construction inside the West Bank was not justified by security concerns and contributed to violations of international humanitarian law applicable to occupied territory by impeding Palestinians' freedom of movement, destroying property, and contributing to unlawful Israeli settlement practices. Israel's High Court of Justice has ruled that the wall must be rerouted in several places, including near Bil'in and Jayyous, because the harm caused to Palestinians was disproportionate, although the rulings would allow the barrier to remain inside the West Bank in these and other areas.
The activists whom Israel has arrested in recent months organized protests in areas directly affected by Israel's separation barrier. In Jayyous, home to Mohammad Othman. the wall cut the village off from 75 percent of its farmland, with the aim of facilitating the expansion of a settlement, Zufim, on that land, the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem says. "Stop the Wall" supported marches by civilian protesters against the separation barrier in Jayyous. In response to a petition from the village, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the Israel Defense Forces to re-route the wall around Jayyous on the grounds that the prior route was due to Zufim's expansion plans. The Israeli military rerouted the wall in one area around Zufim after a court proceeding, but has not rerouted the barrier elsewhere.
Abdallah Abu Rahme is from Bil'in, a village where the wall cut off 50 percent of the land. The Israeli settlement of Mattityahu East is being built on the land to which the village no longer has access. In September 2007, after years of protests organized by Bil'in's Popular Committee, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the separation barrier in Bil'in must be rerouted to allow access to more of Bil'in's land, and the military recently began survey work preliminary to rerouting the barrier.