The Art of Solidarity With Palestinian Prisoners

To show their support for Mohammad Sabaneh, a Palestinian political cartoonist who has been in Israeli custody since February, 75 Israeli artists are exhibiting their work in an Israeli magazine.

When Israeli artist Rafram Chaddad was held without charge for 170 days in solitary confinement in a Libyan jail in 2010, he spent the long and lonely hours building a chess set from the cardboard boxes used to deliver his meals.

Now, in solidarity with a Palestinian political cartoonist in Israeli custody since February, the former prisoner is exhibiting his prison artwork in the Israeli online art magazine Erev Rav, together with the works of 75 other Israeli artists.

The artists initially protested cartoonist Mohammad Sabaneh’s being denied due process. The Israeli military later said it arrested Sabaneh because of contact with “enemy elements” in Jordan, but many of the artists continue to believe that the real reason for his arrest was his drawings about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners. His imprisonment coincides with growing Palestinian clashes and prisoner hunger strikes protesting Israel’s detention policies.

Sabaneh, 34, from the Jenin district in the West Bank, was arrested by Israel on February 16 and held for the first two weeks in solitary confinement. He was not given access to a lawyer and only saw a Shin Bet interrogator, according to Qaddoura Faris, president of the Palestinian Prisoner’s Association, whose lawyers oversee the case. After a March 28 sentence charged Sabaneh with five months in jail and a NIS 10,000 fine for meeting “enemy elements” during a four-day trip to Jordan in February, Faris said that Sabaneh is not connected with any political movement and “in a real court he would not have been found guilty, but because it was a military court, it is very easy to find anyone guilty.”

Sabaneh's attorney Jawad Bolous explained that when his client was in Jordan, he had agreed to pick up cash from a stranger who owed his brother money. Later, feeling uncomfortable about crossing the border with cash, Sabaneh called his brother and got an address of someone else whom his brother said he could leave the money with. Sabaneh did not know either man and “not having had access to a lawyer [after his arrest] was very damaging to the whole process,” Bolous said, calling the indictment, with no evidence presented, “ridiculous.”

IDF sources said that Sabaneh’s sentence was based on evidence. Asked what the evidence was, the sources said that such information could not be revealed. Evidence is often secret in sensitive cases, they said. They declined to comment further.

Sabaneh’s initial detention without access to a lawyer provoked outcries from the International Cartoonists Rights Network, the global Cartoon Movement, Reporters without Borders, and The Committee to Protect Journalists. The Palestinian Journalism Syndicate charged the IDF with explicitly targeting Palestinian journalists.

Sabaneh’s cartoons, published in the West Bank’s al-Hayat al-Jadida newspaper, have always been critical of Israeli policy and Palestinian civil issues. But lately, his wife Athar told Haaretz, his work about Palestinian prisoners has drawn broad attention. She believes that to be the real reason behind his arrest, saying that Israeli authorities “wouldn’t want to see this published widely."

Protests about prisoner rights have escalated in recent weeks. Palestinians blamed Israel for the deaths of two Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody, while Israeli officials say the prisoners were treated well by doctors and jailers. In the run-up to Palestinian national prisoner day, which this year falls on Wednesday, Palestinian protestors and prisoners on hunger strikers said they are protesting the broader issue of Israel’s detention policies. According to Addameer, a prisoner’s rights organization, Palestinians object to Israel’s practices of withholding charges or access to lawyers, secret evidence, torture and medical neglect, arrests of minors and elderly, and Palestinians being arrested, treated and tried under separate laws than Israelis in the West Bank and Israel.

According to the human rights group B’Tselem, Israeli military orders permit Israel to hold Palestinian detainees for 60 days without charge; Palestinians in “administrative detention” are never charged and can be held for up to six months; the six-month “sentence” can be repeated without limit. A Palestinian whose case is deemed security-related can also be prevented access to a lawyer for up to 90 days. Currently, Israel is holding approximately 169 Palestinians in administrative detention, with a total of 4700 Palestinian prisoners in IDF facilites, according to B’Tselem figures gathered from the Israel Prison Authority. There are no figures in the public domain on other Palestinians held without charge or legal counsel.

Yonatan Amir and Ronen Eidelman, co-editors of Erev Rav magazine, talked to other Israeli artists and, like the Palestinian and international community, had the impression, since no evidence was released and that the later sentence was so light, that Sabaneh was targeted because of his political cartoons.

“We are familiar with stories of Palestinian intellectuals and journalists taken into custody and threatened to keep them quiet,” Amir said.

Eidelman said that this particular case is symbolic of administrative detention and occupation regardless of the circumstances. “We heard that military courts have a 99% rate of charging Palestinians and that people admit [to crimes they didn’t do] to stop being interrogated, to do a few months and get out,” he said. “It is very important to show that Israeli artists and creative people show solidarity,” Eidelman said.

“The Israeli public in general, even people who are progressive, don’t know how much prisoners are such a big issue in Palestinian society and how people are convicted,” he added. “Hopefully through art, illustration and poetry, people can open up to this and [we can] reach people who would not have been reached.”

After Erev Rav joined with the Israeli art magazine Hadash v’Ra and the Israeli Guerilla Culture group of poets, “we published a call online [via artist networks and social media] and the work started coming in,” Amir said. While most artists contributed paintings or drawings, there is also a selection of photographs, videos and poems. The site attracted contributions from such well-known Israeli art figures as political cartoonist Mysh, the head of photography at Betzalel Miki Kratsman, art historian Guy Raz, and sculptor/installation artist Yochai Avrahami.

The page, written and captioned in Hebrew, except for the works from Palestinian youth which are captioned in English and Arabic, will remain online despite the sentence, because artists continue to push for freedom of expression and are against holding prisoners without rights, Amir said. At press time, the editors said that the magazine gets about 1,000-1,200 hits a day.

Israeli artist Shai Yehezkelli contributed an early drawing of a palm tree behind bars, because it connects to issues of orientalism and rights being denied, he said. “I don’t trust the military courts--I think [Sabaneh’s] arrest was because of his cartoons protesting prisoners,” he said.

“I have never seen anyone [of the approximately 35 Israeli cartoonists] arrested and taken to trial,” said cartoonist Michel Kichka, who served as director of Israel’s cartoon guild from 2004-2011. Of the sentence, he said, “I’m not sure any cartoonist in Israel would be arrested for meeting [with an “enemy entity”], adding that it was difficult to speculate without evidence.

Chaddad, whose chess board will always remind him those long months in a 2x2 meter solitary cell in Libya, submitted a photo of the work because he found Sabaneh’s story familiar and “quite touching and powerful,” he said.
Chaddad was photographing old Jewish neighborhoods in Libya at the time he was incarcerated without knowing why or having a lawyer.

“Inside [prison], I couldn’t believe that things like this really happen and that people are silent and it’s still happening all over the world and in Israel,” Chaddad said. “People need to know,” he said, “and it should be stopped.”

courtesy Mohammad Saba'aneh
courtesy Mohammad Saba'aneh
Rafram Chaddad