Recent Developments in the Situation of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders
Repression of Palestinian Free Speech by Israel
Amidst ongoing police violence and mass arrests in East Jerusalem during the last months, Israeli authorities have declared a “war” on Palestinian freedom of political expression as a means of deterrence against Palestinian activism. The message is clear: peaceful expression of Palestinian identity and nationality is illegitimate.
On June 22nd, 2021, three Palestinian high school students, one of whom is a minor, were arrested after waving the Palestine flag and raising pro-Sheikh Jarrah signs at their high-school graduation ceremony in Beit Safafa, in East Jerusalem. The ceremony was a closed event for only the students and their families. The three girls, who were represented by HRDF-funded lawyer, Adv. Nasser Odeh, were interrogated and later released on a 5,000 ILS bail.
HRDF collaborated with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), who sent a letter to the Israel police’s Head of Investigations Unit, demanding they close the girls’ criminal files for disturbing public peace. The letter contended that their arrest takes the police’s policy of harassment and restriction of the Palestinian minority’s freedom of speech and rights to a new level while abusing police authority and the criminal process. In its reply, the police dismissed all claims raised against its policies and reiterated that the arrestees were suspected of disturbing public peace and that these allegations will be investigated accordingly.
On June 11th, 2021, a Palestinian minor was returning from a protest in Sheikh Jarrah. She was on her way to board a bus when an officer detained her and confiscated her bag and sweatshirt because both had a print of the Palestine flag. She is also represented by HRDF-funded lawyer, Adv. Nasser Odeh.
In the same month in the city of Ashkelon, two Palestinian nursing students were suspended from college for one year after expressing their political views regarding the war in Gaza on the nursing students’ ‘WhatsApp’ group. They are represented by HRDF- funded lawyer, Adv. Shahda Ibn Bari , who filed an appeal on their behalf to the College Discipline Committee, claiming a severe violation of their freedom of speech and selective enforcement of the academic disciplinary rules (as none of the Jewish students who took part in the discussion were accused of discipline offences).
Infringement of the Freedom of Occupation and the Right to Engage in Work
Human rights defender, Salah Diab, is one of the leaders of the campaign against the home evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. As a result, he has been attacked by police and settlers numerous times and repeatedly falsely arrested. On July 11th, 2021, Diab was summoned to a termination of employment hearing from his work at Israel’s Mega Supermarket Chain. In the letter sent to Diab, he was accused of violating company values and policies and harming its reputation, due to his activism and participation in the Sheikh Jarrah protest.
The campaign for his dismissal was led by right-wing NGO Honenu, and extreme right-wing activists and politicians, Itamar Ben Gvir and Aryeh King (Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem), who are promoting the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and criminalization of Palestinian activists. Diab is represented by HRDF-funded lawyers, Adv. Leora Bechor and Adv. Didi Lupo, whose expertise is labor law.
Another human rights defender whose job is at risk is Said Awad, from South Hebron hills. On May 29th, 2021, he was out on his family’s land with Israeli human rights defender Amiel Vardi, when they were both arrested for entering a closed military zone. While Vardi was released upon condition of a 15-day ban from Awad’s land, Awad was released without any conditions. However, Awad later found out that he is still under investigation and that the police have revoked his work permit.
These are all clear cases of reprisals against human rights defenders who have been deprived of their rights to work, study, and make a living due to their peaceful activism or simply for expressing their political views. The individual harm caused to each of these HRDs accumulates to create a wide-spread chilling effect on all Palestinians in Israel and Palestine.
Continued Harassment, Violence and False Arrests Against Residents of Sheikh Jarrah and other Palestinian Activists
On June 27th, 2021, a young Palestinian activist from Umm al-Fahm was arrested in her home in Haifa and taken to be interrogated by the secret services. HRDF-funded lawyer, Adv. Riham Nassra, was denied access to her client by the police, who lied to her about her whereabouts. After her release, the activist said she was interrogated about her activism against forced home evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and that her interrogators intimidated and threatened her and her family. This is merely an example of a wider practice, whereby many Palestinian activists, citizens and residents of Israel, are summoned or arrested by the secret services only to be threatened to stop their peaceful protest and activism without any criminal charges filed against them.
On June 26th, 2021, two sisters from Sheikh Jarrah, who face imminent expulsion from their homes by settlers, were violently arrested and sexually harassed and assaulted by Israeli border police officers. The two were heading home when they were stopped by officers at one of the checkpoints entering the neighborhood and were asked harassing question such as “Do you have a boyfriend?” and “Do you want one?”. When they told the officers to stop harassing them, they were pushed to the ground and violently arrested. One of the sisters suffered physical and sexual assault in the police car when the officer touched her breasts and violently choked her while she was handcuffed. She was hospitalized and the next day she was summoned to the police station and released to a five-day house arrest. During her investigation for suspected assault of an officer, she asked to file a complaint against the officer who assaulted her. Her sister was also released to a five-day house arrest following an investigation for suspected assault of an officer. They are both represented by HRDF-funded lawyer, Adv. Nasser Odeh.
This is the latest attack against the two, who are well known activists in the campaign against the Sheikh Jarrah home expulsions. Over recent months the two have been attacked numerous times by police officers who also broke into their homes in order to intimidate, harass and deter them and others from protesting Israeli attempts to expel Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah.
Police barriers at the entrance to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah (June 2021, photograph by Oren Ziv).
Criminalization of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders in the Military Courts
Case of Imad Abu-Shamsia and Aref Jaber:
On June 22nd, 2021, two prominent Palestinian human rights defenders, Imad Abu-Shamsia and Aref Jaber, were falsely arrested and attacked by soldiers. Abu-Shamsia documented the execution of Abed el-Fattah el-Shrif, a Palestinian who tried to attack soldiers, by the soldier Elor Azarya back in 2016. He has been suffering harassment, false arrests and attacks by the IDF and settlers during the years since, in an attempt to take over his land and because of his human rights work.
Similarly, Aref Jaber, who also documented parts of the 2016 incident, has also been the victim of harassment and continued attacks due to his activism. The day of the arrest, the two were doing some cleaning work on Jaber’s private land in Hebron, during which they collected thorns and weeds and burned them to avoid snakes. The army quickly arrived (by that time the small fire was out). They were both arrested on suspicion of arson. Abu-Shamsia was severely attacked by both the soldiers and the police officers following his interrogation and was taken to the hospital. According to Abu-Shamsia, once the soldiers arrived and asked for his ID, they stated that they recognized him as the one who had documented the execution in 2016 and likely attacked him for this reason.
HRDF provided them with legal representation before the Military Court as the military prosecution requested to prolong their arrest and indict them. Their lawyer, Adv. Riham Nassra, claimed that there was documentation proving Jaber’s title over the land, that the State is aware of this fact, and as such had not charged him with trespass. Hence the elements of the offence of arson were not fulfilled. She also pointed out that in the video provided by the prosecution, Abu-Shamsia was nearby but did not take any part in the alleged “arson”. The judge ruled that there is no evidence that Abu-Shamsia burned anything and ordered his release on June 24th, 2021, on the condition that he would participate in and attend any future investigation or hearings, if needed. Regarding Jaber, the judge ruled that it cannot be established at this time who is the owner of the land, and also ordered his release on June 24th, 2021, pending a 1,000 ILS bail.
It is important to note that during the hearing, the prosecution itself agreed to release the two and withdrew its statement to indict them with arson. Had there been any evidence that the land was ‘state land’, they would not only have been charged with only arson, but also with trespass.
In addition, the judge observed that Abu-Shamsia was wounded and limping, and Adv. Nassra told the judge that he was brutally attacked by the army and police, but the judge ignored her claims and did not mention any of this in his decisions. In addition, Abu-Shamsia claimed that he had asked the officers at the police station to document his attack by the soldiers in his testimony, but they refused.
In an article that was published on June 28th, 2021, on “Mako”, one of Israel’s largest media outlets, extreme-right NGO ‘Im Tirtzu’ stated that the two HRDs are “terrorists who tried to burn state land”. The article, titled “B’Tselem activists arrested on suspicion of arson”, claimed that the source of the documentation of the “fire” was Im Tirtzu, as part of their project aimed to “document the activity of anti-Israeli activists and organizations”. Im Tirtzu’s Executive Director was also quoted saying: “This is not the first connection revealed between anti-Zionist activists funded by foreign governments and the New Israel Fund, and acts of terrorism […] The Israeli government must act immediately to shrink foreign funding to the de-legitimization organizations operating in Israel”.
This incident is yet another example of the ongoing persecution experienced by these prominent human rights defenders, in an attempt to criminalize and intimidate the two, who had a dominant role in the conviction of the soldier Elor Azarya of manslaughter over the 2016 killing. This is also an example of the deep involvement of anti-democratic NGOs in the criminalization and delegitimization of HRDs and HR organizations, as evidently their arrest was well orchestrated by Im Tirtzu who later utilized this incident to fuel a smear campaign in the media.
Imad Abu-Shamsia and Aref Jaber (photograph by Badee Dwaik).
Case of Wajdi Rabi’i:
In December 2020, Wajdi Rabi’i, a Palestinian human rights defender from the village of Khirbet Jenbah, was protesting his relatives’ home demolition in the village of Khaldiye, in South Hebron hills. During the demolitions, the army employed severe violence and large amounts of tear gas against the residents of the village, including women and children, some of whom needed medical care. Wajdi was detained with two others who were later released. He was the only one arrested on suspicion of attempted tire arson and disturbance of public peace. He was later indicted for arson, stone throwing, obstructing a soldier on duty, and entering a closed military zone.
HRDF- funded lawyer, Adv. Riham Nassra, succeeded in releasing him from arrest until the end of proceedings on a 5,000 ILS bail and a 20,000 ILS guarantee. Adv. Nassra later successfully persuaded the Prosecution to amend the indictment. Consequently, the offences of stone throwing, obstruction to a soldier, and entering a restricted area were removed from the indictment and the only charge left against Wajdi was attempted arson. Early this month, the Military Court approved the plea bargain and sentenced Wajdi to the number of days that he had already spent under arrest (and thus was released); a three-month suspended prison sentence for a probation period of two years, and a 2,000 ILS fine.
Although the sentence does not include de facto imprisonment, it severely restricts Wajdi’s ability to pursue activities aimed at protecting and promoting human rights in the oPt, and to exercise his freedom of expression because of the probation and suspended sentence. It also creates a chilling effect on other human rights defenders who might fear facing similar criminal proceedings.
HRDF stands in solidarity with all Palestinian human rights defenders who are targeted by Israel due to their work, and will keep supporting them, to guarantee that they are able to continue their legitimate human rights work without fear of persecution and reprisals.