The January 1st death of Palestinian protester Jawaher Abu Rahmah from Israeli tear gas, and efforts to imprison people like us illustrate the Israeli government's intensifying crackdown on the unarmed Palestinian protest movement. Though threatened, this movement of Palestinian men, women and children, along with Israeli and international supporters, has grown too much to be easily stopped.
Over the last eight years a Palestinian-led movement using a strategy of nonviolence has coalesced around marches by unarmed civilians in a number of West Bank villages to reclaim land Israel is seizing for its wall and settlements. As one example, six years ago the village of Bil'in began weekly protests opposing Israel's seizure of 60 percent of the village's land. Even Israel's own Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the wall must be rerouted to return some of Bil'in's land. Yet the decision remains unimplemented.
These protest marches by unarmed civilians are generally met by heavily armed Israeli soldiers with arrests and violence -- tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and live ammunition. The Israeli army has killed 21 unarmed Palestinians in these protests since 2004, the majority with live ammunition -- not to mention hundreds of other innocents in Gaza and the West Bank.
Eyewitnesses and medical records show that Jawaher Abu Rahmah was overcome with tear gas at a protest in Bil'in, leading to her death. Jawaher's brother Bassem was killed in April 2009 when he was shot directly in the chest with a tear gas canister during a peaceful protest. In 1988 during the first Palestinian intifada, Amnesty International documented 40 tear gas related deaths over seven months. However, judging from the mainstream media and Israeli military justice system's response, one would think that the rocks sometimes thrown on the margins of these protests are the deadly weapons and the soldiers the victims of the people whose land they occupy.
When Jonathan and his friends first came to Bil'in, we Palestinians were surprised to meet Israelis who believed in our rights. But after we saw these Israelis injured and arrested, the people of Bil'in opened homes and hearts to them. We became partners in a joint struggle against Israel's occupation.
Though Palestinians are primarily targeted, Israel's crackdown reaches even Jewish Israelis who enjoy significantly more rights. I, Jonathan, started three months in prison on January 11th of this year for riding my bicycle along with many others in a 2008 protest in Tel Aviv against Israel's siege of Gaza.
I, Mohammed, barely avoided a prison sentence. I was acquitted this month following my arrest a year ago, my release on bail and subsequent hearings. The case was flimsy. Upon arrest I was charged with throwing stones, but I proved that I was overseas the day I was accused of doing so.
However, many other Palestinians, including our friend Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a teacher from Bil'in, have been imprisoned. Abdallah was sentenced to one year in prison for "incitement" and organizing "illegal protests," charges denounced by Jimmy Carter, European governments, and human rights organizations. On January 11th, after Abdallah served 13 months, an Israeli military judge extended his sentence by three more months.
Hundreds of West Bank protesters have been jailed in recent years. Also this month, Israel expelled prominent activist Adnan Gheith from his Silwan home in East Jerusalem to the West Bank. An Israeli military judge ordered this without charges, and based solely on secret evidence that Adnan and his lawyer were not allowed to see. This fundamentally undemocratic persecution is the sort most commonly associated with police states.
Still, our movement is growing and in many ways embodies the principles of equal rights and freedom that have historically galvanized action worldwide. Palestinians from all parties and from throughout the West Bank now come to participate in our protests. And Israelis and people from around the world are joining us.
Yet if Israel is allowed to continue arrests and violence against unarmed protesters without strong criticisms and sanctions from the international community, some Palestinians may conclude that nonviolence is an ineffective path to freedom.
European governments have condemned the arrests of protest organizers. However, the US government, Israel's closest ally, remains terribly reticent, cautiously acknowledging the issue only after repeated questions. President Obama called on Palestinians to employ only nonviolence in his 2009 Cairo speech, but we and our colleagues have since faced death, maiming and prison without a public word of concern from him.
Nonetheless, we are building a movement for Palestinian rights that is part of the global movement for justice and peace for people of all races and religions. To succeed, we need the support of civil society and governments worldwide.