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Human Rights Watch calls for end to crackdown on anti-wall activists

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Jerusalem, March 5, 2010 - 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."

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