Saturday, February 9, 2013

Night life in the only democracy in the Middle East

It happens every night, summer and winter, on weekdays and Saturdays and also during the Jewish holidays. A quiet street in a town or village or refugee camp somewhere on the West Bank. Suddenly, the calm of the late night hour is disturbed by the arrival of a large force of Israeli soldiers. They surround a house which was marked out in advance.  Agents of the Shabak Security Service go in and after a few minutes they come out with  the tenant handcuffed and blindfolded. They enter an armored car and drive away quickly.

Sometimes the detainee's neighbors manage to wake up in time and go out into the street and try to block the soldiers' way. The soldiers sent on such missions are briefed and trained in advance for such contingencies, and they immediately open up with tear gas - sometimes with live ammunition as well – make their way through the crowd, and rush to get the fresh detainee directly to interrogation under "moderate physical pressure" at a basement somewhere.

That is repeated every night, sometimes at five homes in five different locations, sometimes in ten, sometimes more. The Oslo Accords established a division of the West Bank into three zones: "C" is under full Israeli control, "B" under partial control of the Palestinian Authority, and "A" under its full control. At least, in the agreements signed once upon a time by the Government of Israel and never officially repealed it is written "Full control by the Palestinian Authority." So, it is written. The Shabak agents and the soldiers accompanying and guarding them take little notice. They carry out detentions at any location they choose – sometimes also in the heart of Ramallah, the city which is supposed to be the capital of the Palestinian Authority, sometimes just around the corner from the government compound of Mahmoud Abbas and his ministers.

Usually, such arrests do not get published in the Israel media. To keep track of them, one needs to follow the Palestinian news websites, where there appears every morning an  accurate tally of the places where the soldiers arrived on the previous night and the number of Palestinians kidnapped there (Palestinians sites do not use in this context the verb "arrest"...)

This week there was an exception. For once, the nightly detentions of Palestinians got published in the Israeli media (though they did not make the headlines). On Tuesday morning the army reported "a widespread arrest operation against wanted Palestinians", carried out as part of what the Shabak and IDF call "The Lawn Mowing Policy". As published, "25 wanted Palestinians were arrested, mostly Hamas activists." Why exactly were they arrested? Why were they wanted? What are they accused of? As usual, army and security do not provide information. These people are ‘wanted’, and that is that. It was only stated that the decision to make the arrests at this time stems from "concern at Hamas's efforts to rebuild infrastructure in the West Bank, in the aftermath of Operation Cloud Pillar in the Gaza Strip".

What infrastructure? To judge by the identity of the detainees – who were involved in open political activity and in charity organizations - it does not seem to be an attempt to organize armed activity. Rather, they appear to have embarked on resuming the activities of Hamas as a political party, towards a possible reconciliation between the Palestinian factions and perhaps also new elections for the Palestinian Legislature. In recent months we have heard, for the first time in quite a long while, of open activity by Fatah in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and a mass rally held by its supporters in downtown Gaza.  Reciprocally, at the same time there are manifestations of political activity by the Hamas movement in the cities and villages of the West Bank, rallies and demonstrations and a growing presence in the streets. It seems that someone here in Israel does not care for this celebration of Palestinian democracy.

Among others, those arrested on the "Lawn Mowing Night" include three Members of the Palestinian Legislative Council,. As in the Israeli Knesset and most other parliaments around the world, Palestinian parliamentarians have parliamentary immunity - but the IDF and Shabak care little about that. Many members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, entrusted with representing their constituents at the elections held in 2006, have spent most of their term behind bars in Israeli prisons. This week, three more detained parliamentarians were added: Hatem Qafisha in Hebron, Mohammed al-Tal in Dhahiriyya, and Ahmed Attoun in al-Bireh. In all,  fifteen of the Legislative Council's  eighty-eight members are currently in detention.,7340,L-4340655,00.html

I met Ahmed Attoun a few years ago, at the East Jerusalem home of Muhammad Abu-Tir, who along with Attoun got elected in the Palestinian elections of 2006. At that meeting, the two Parliamentarians told us that "Yasser Arafat had signed all the papers with Israel, but did not get anything in return",  and added "we will only talk with Israel when it becomes clear that the Israeli government means to hold serious negotiations, negotiations  which will bear results within a short time." They then declared that Hamas is ready to stop all violent acts, in a truce to last twenty to thirty years - provided that for its own part, Israel also stops all acts of violence.

With the consent of the two of them, we sent immediately after the meeting an urgent  letter to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, stating that in our humble opinion what they said may serve as a basis for starting  negotiations. A short time later Attoun and Abu-Tir were arrested, as were many other members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and since then they are constantly going in and out of the prisons and detention facilities of the State of Israel.

On Tuesday morning this week – the same morning when Attoun, Qafisha and  al-Tal had their first breakfast in jail – newly elected members of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, gathered for festive inauguration following the recent Israeli elections. A celebration of democracy, at the only democratic state in the Middle East. Israel's President Shimon Peres arrived and was greeted with trumpets. One by one, dozens of new Members affirmed their oath of office in front of their admiring family members. They talked about the complicated negotiations to form a new government coalition and gossiped a bit the scandalous new dress of the Prime Minister's wife, and finally went blithely to their homes.

None of the Members of our Knesset had the slightest apprehension that in the wee hours of the night their homes might be surrounded by the Palestinian Security Forces, whose agents would rush in and lead them handcuffed and blindfolded to detention and interrogation. What a crazy idea!