Detained B'Tselem Activist Released After Two Weeks in Jails

Nasser Nawaja, a Palestinian, was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to murder a land dealer who sought to sell West Bank properties to Israelis; police failed to appeal release in 24 hours given by court.

 Nasser Nawaja at the Ofer Military Court, January 24, 2016.
Emil Salman

Palestinian human-rights activist Nasser Nawaja was released from military jail on Monday, after the 24 hours given to the police to appeal his release expired. 

Nawaja, a field researcher for B'Tselem,  was arrested last week on suspicion of conspiring to murder a land dealer who sought to sell West Bank properties to Israelis. Nawaja was also suspected of contacting a foreign agent – a member of the Palestinian Authority's security services. 

In his decision to release Nawaja on Sunday, the judge at the military court in Ofer Camp – were Nawaja was held - ruled that the police investigation showed no progress, and that it wasn't clear at all that Nawaja posed any danger to the safety of the land dealer in question, an Israeli resident. The court gave the police 24 hours to appeal the release. As no appeal was filed, Nawaja was released. 

Nawaja was initially held in a Jerusalem jail. On Thursday, the Jerusalem District Court ordered Nawaja released, after granting his lawyers' petition that an Israeli court does not have the authority to rule in his case as the offense was neither committed in Israel nor security related.

According to the district court's decision, the police should have released him immediately. However, instead of releasing him, the police transferred him to a military court in the West Bank, which extended his remand by four days, to be spent at the Ofer Camp.

In the court hearing on Sunday, Judge Rani Amar rejected the police's request to extend Nawaja's remand by a further six days. "In my opinion, in the time given to investigators no significant progress was made, contrary to the police's claims," the judge said, adding that police failed to show how Nawaja's actions endangered the safety of the land dealer, an Israeli resident.

"On this matter, I've taken under consideration the fact that the suspicions pertained to events which allegedly transpired a year ago. I've also taken under consideration the remarks by the Israeli resident regarding the so-called threat to his safety," the judge said, adding that he doesn’t see that further investigation requires to extend Nawaja's remand.

Nawaja's lawyer, Attorney Gabi Lasky, said the proceedings have proved the affair to be "much ado about nothing." "In the hearing today it became apparent that there's no evidence to show the Palestinian Authority was harming land dealers, and that the arrest was only meant to satisfy public opinion. The investigation is falling like a house of cards, and the police have nothing to show."

Nawaja is also suspected of contact with a foreign agent, which raises some questions, since he is a resident of the Palestinian Authority and the foreign agent he allegedly approached were members of the Palestinian security services. In addition, Israeli defense officials are in contact with members of the PA security services on a regular basis, so it’s not clear what legal grounds there could be for such a charge. 

The investigation into Nawaja was sparked by a report on the investigative television program “Uvda,” which purported to show Israeli activist Ezra Nawi admitting to causing the death of several Palestinians who wanted to sell lands to Israelis. Nawaja was also seen on the report. 

Nawi, along with fellow activist Guy Butavia, were also arrested in the wake of the report in relation to a separate but related case. Both were released to house arrest on Sunday after a Jerusalem court severely criticized police for failing to clarify the circumstances surrounding the death of Abu Khalil, their supposed Palestinian victim. 

The police investigation against Nawi and Butavia found that about 18 months ago, Nawi disclosed information about a land swap between a Palestinian resident of the South Hebron Hills, referred to in court documents as Abu Khalil, and a settler referred to as Yonatan. The information was given to a relative of Abu Khalil’s who was liable to be harmed by the deal, but as far as is known, it was never given to the Palestinian Authority. Shortly thereafter, Abu Khalil died. 

Over two weeks after the beginning of the investigation and Nawi's arrest, the police still haven't managed to discover the cause of death.

The charges the police have presented in court against Nawi include a number of offenses, including accessory to manslaughter, conspiracy in attempted murder in the deaths of Palestinians who sold land to Jews, contact with and passing information to a foreign agent, transporting an individual in Israel without a permit, conspiracy to commit a crime, possession of a knife or brass knuckles, and drug possession for personal use. The fraud charge was added to the list last week.

On Monday, it was revealed that Nawi and Butavia have filed a lawsuit against the Israel Police two weeks before they were arrested, claiming they were harassed by officers. Their lawyer said the incident is part of a "deliberate policy" of persecuting human rights activists.