Text size

For most Israelis, who have had little or no interaction with Palestinians for at least the past decade, the "Palestinian partner" remains an abstract concept. As a result, we spend a lot of time seeking a clear definition of what that ideal partner for ending the occupation would be: Who would be acceptable? What is the ideal profile? As a civil society worker, I have a face for the Palestinian partner that I want to see, in the abstract and in flesh and blood. I have met him. But my Palestinian partner is now in jail as a "security prisoner" - convicted of illegal acts and facing a harsh sentence to be determined by a military judge in the coming weeks.

I met Abdallah Abu Rahma in 2009 when I was handling media for Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. Among other activities, PHR provided first-aid training to Palestinian, Israeli and international activists after the death of Bassem Abu Rahma, who was killed in Bil'in that April after being shot in the chest with a tear-gas canister at one of the weekly protests that have been held in the village since February 2005. Abdallah, a 39-year-old high-school teacher and father of three, and a distant relative of Bassem's, was Bil'in's media coordinator, and thus my direct counterpart and partner in the project. We were in touch daily and met several times. Abdallah was always in his trademark suit and tie, an outfit that is a source of affectionate attention among the Israeli activist crowd.

One of the first things that struck me when I attended a pre-sentencing hearing at Ofer prison for him last week was that he was no longer in his suit. A brown prison outfit and ankle chains replaced the usual tie, starched shirt and handkerchief. Abdallah, a dignified, formal man, was now being tried and sentenced by a military court system that lumps legitimate and illegitimate protest together - that is, violent and nonviolent, legal and illegal. This system does not see the partner that I worked with - it sees only a threat. Palestinian activism - violent or not - is always perceived as threatening to Israeli security.

Israelis say they have been wondering for years when Palestinian leaders who preach nonviolence will emerge. But when Palestinians began a civil protest against the separation barrier that sliced through their lives, Israel resurrected Military Order 101. That deems any gathering of more than 10 people illegal unless they obtain a permit from the military commander of the West Bank. Abdallah and organizers like him - who have chosen, both in principle and through their actions, the route of nonviolence and civil disobedience - are the kind of partners we said we wanted. And now they are being arrested for doing just the thing we said we hoped they'd do.

And why did Israel start using 101? "Stone-throwing."

"Stone-throwing" is a term that categorizes all Palestinian civil disobedience as violent, makes protests impossible long before the first stone is thrown, and has given Israeli military officials carte blanche for implementing a range of policies that seem to be aimed at quashing any political organizing in the West Bank.

Like so many policies of the occupation - segregated roads, curfews, etc. - Israel has thus chosen a sweeping policy that limits the basic rights and liberties of all because of the perceived risk posed by a few - in this case, the stone-throwers. The sweeping nature of 101 a priori categorizes all demonstrations under the occupation as illegal. And while the military has the authority to arrest stone-throwers, it prefers to make legitimate, nonviolent protest impossible.

Abdallah organized protests because the separation barrier, which is built on his village's lands, and whose route the High Court ordered to be changed in its decision of September 2007, still stands where it was originally erected. He says that his political struggle has not ended and that, as a committed activist and human rights defender, he will not be deterred by arrests and jail time from carrying out the organizing work that still needs to be done. The prosecution has said it wants to make an example of him, and wants him to be sentenced to more than the usual two years that come with these charges.

I want him and other Palestinian grass-roots nonviolent organizers to be free to carry on their political struggle together with Israeli partners and supporters. For the past nine months, while he has been on trial for organizing illegal protests and incitement to violence, Abdallah Abu Rahma has been in detention, torn away from his wife, three children and the young students he could be teaching, because Israel has apparently decided that civic activism, nonviolent protest or any kind of dissidence in Palestine is illegal.

On my way into the pre-sentencing hearing last week, I braced myself, expecting to see a shell of the Abdallah that was imprisoned nine months ago. But the same upright person walked in. He was greeted by a room full of Israelis, foreign diplomats and family members - and insisted on speaking at the end of the hearing. He stood and said: "I was raised to believe in peace, coexistence and nonviolence. This is what I have passed on to my children and my students."

This is our Palestinian partner.

Libby Lenkinski Friedlander is the director of international relations for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.