Political Prisoners and the Persecution of Palestinian Leaders Citizens of Israel: Outline of Talk to Guests of Baladna on the Occasion of the Educational World Forum

Political Prisoners and the Persecution of Palestinian Leaders Citizens of Israel: Outline of Talk to Guests of Baladna on the Occasion of the Educational World Forum
October 28, 2010
First of all allow me to introduce myself and to explain my special relationship to Ameer Makhoul: I am a Palestinian Citizen of Israel and a retired Public Health physician. In 1970 upon finishing my MD and MPH at Harvard I returned to my village of Arrabeh in Galilee where I have lived and worked till the present. Along the way I saw the need for a civil society arm in the field of Public Health in my community and founded The Galilee Society for Health Research and Services which remains an active lead NGO with focus on health and community development among the Arab population of Israel. In retirement I keep busy with writing, gardening, and travel.

Nearly thirty years ago I initiated a project under the auspices of the Galilee Society and with funding from the Ford Foundation to establish a union of community-based organizations working in Arab towns and villages in Israel. We called the project ITTIJAH. To lead the project we hired a young community activist from Haifa named Ameer Makhoul. Ameer took his task seriously leading it to become an independent NGO. In the process he has become a most outstanding human rights and civil society campaigner advocating for equality for us as citizens of Israel. As such he became a prominent spokesperson for our community in international circles with his organization attaining the rank of accreditation by the UN ECOSOC Council. Your presence here today is a testimony to that: It is one outcome of his international activism.

With the recent rightward shift in Israeli politics and the ascent of the likes of Avigdor Lieberman to power, plans for the transfer of the Arab minority out of Israel have gained legitimacy. Ameer’s role became a threat to such plans. He was arrested and accused of espionage with no shred of evidence that we know of beyond a statement he was forced to sign under duress and after days of torture. I firmly believe that this is what lies behind Ameer’s case and the cases of other lead activists in our community. Things have reached a point where the Israeli police practices in drills of how to implement our internment and transfer.

Recently I was called on to head the Public Committee for the Defense of  Ameer
Makhoul. I decided to accept and have come out of retirement to take this
challenging assignment. That is what brings me here today.

The General Atmosphere:
I am a physician, not a politician. Had I been a politician I probably would be in bed nursing my wounds. Here is a quote from the Associated Press from yesterday to explain why:

UMM EL-FAHM, Israel – Dozens of Jewish extremists hoisting Israeli flags defiantly marched through this Arab-Israeli town Wednesday, chanting “death to terrorists” and touching off clashes between rock-hurling residents and police who quelled them with tear gas.
As the unrest unfolded, an Israeli court convicted a prominent Arab-Israeli activist of spying for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in a plea bargain that will send him to prison for up to 10 years.

Several local Palestinian politicians, including two parliament members were injured by the police use of tear gas grenades and rubber coated bullets. In the AP account of this events two examples of the rising Fascism in Israeli are illustrated clearly: The first is that of the band of settlers who chose to confirm their commitment to implementing Meir Kahane’s racist teachings by marching in the heart of the Palestinian town of Umm El-Fahm, the largest of the Arab communities targeted by Israel’s foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, for transfer out of Israel. The Supreme Court, which formerly had ruled Kahane’s party illegal in Israel, now allowed the provocative march of his present-day followers at the cost of 1300 policemen deployed to enforce its decision. The second example is illustrated in the AP piece with a photo showing one Arab youth being wrestled to the ground by three armed security agents with their guns drawn. One of the three has a Palestinian checkered Kafeyah still wrapped around his head. Aljazeera has aired footage from its team on the scene showing these security agents, known in Israel as mista’arivi, camouflaged as Arab youth infiltrating the local crowd, throwing stones at the police to initiate a conflagration and then turning around and jumping the local stone throwers. This officially planned provocation assumes the Arab citizens of Israel a priori to be ‘the enemy’. Such tactics were once reserved for dealing with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
What I find of special significance is the fact that AP reporter, xxxxxxxx assumes that her readers will take it for granted that the two items, the violence in Umm El-Fahm and the indictment of Ameer Makhoul are related. I personally need no convincing on this matter. I do believe that Ameer’s abduction from his home, his rough handling and torture, and his indictment are signs of the times. When my daughter called to enquire about Ameer’s arrest and heard the details she was alarmed: “This could have been you, Dad!” My only explanation was that I was active in the civic arena before Israel had started its rapid slide down the slippery slope of Fascism.
My Special Professional Take:
Let me try and illustrate for you how pervasive is the effect of Israel’s rush into the lap of extremism and racist rightist politics. I will speak from my special point of view as a Public Health expert. I have distributed a sheet of comparative figures that I had selected few years back from the official publications of the Israeli Bureau of Statistics. I want today to focus just on one figure, the relative ratio of Infant Mortality Rates (IMR) of Arabs in Israel as compared to that of Jews over time. To emphasize the significance of this figure, let tell you how we in the field of Public Health see it: IMR is the number out of a thousand live births in a specific community in a specific year who die before their first birthday. This figure is not dependent so much on the numbers of doctors or nurses or the availability of hospitals in the community, as one may first guess. Rather, it is best correlated to three other independent factors: the level of the fathers’ income, the level of the mothers’ education and the cleanliness of the water supply. As such, the IMR is considered the most sensitive indicator of a community’s overall wellbeing.
Since Israel’s establishment, the IMR among its Palestinian minority of citizens had run at twice that of the Jewish majority. It is uncanny how close that relative ratio had remained to the exact figure of two, implying of course that our general welfare stood at close to half the level among our Jewish co-citizens. This went on till the 1990s when the two IMR figures started to diverge further apart. It now stands at xxxxxxx.
What does that have to do with Ameer Makhoul and political prisoners, you may ask? Much more than the casual observer may first think. The rising relative ratio of the IMR in the two communities is a true reflection of the increasing polarization in the two communities and the rising level of official and political discrimination against our community. Hardly a day goes by without a new law being proposed in the Israeli Knesset that specifically targets our community in Israel for disenfranchisement, though we are citizens of the state since day one of its establishment: There are the new and inventive variations and amendments on the citizenship law which annul our right to family unification; there are the manipulations and new twists on the Ordinance for the Prevention of Terror; there is the peculiar Loyalty Oath Law which in essence calls on us to deny our own identity by swearing loyalty to an entity that excludes us by definition; and there is the law banning us from commemorating our Nakbah, our catastrophe in 1948, to mention only a few.
In parallel with this march of the entire Israeli body politic towards extreme racism, with the exception of a few marginalized groups that seem to have lost momentum, the general atmosphere in the Israeli street is increasingly poisoned, with cries of ‘Death to Arabs’ an accepted slogan in sports Arenas and our political leaders hounded out of the country (Dr. Azmi Bishara,) in jail (Sheikh Raed Salah,) or subject to physical assault (Dr Afu Ighbarieyh and Haneen Zu’aby yesterday.)
Ameer Makhoul’s Case:
It is in this poisoned atmosphere that we have to look at Ameer’s abduction, incarceration and compulsion to admit to drummed-up charges. Here are the facts that the legal experts that advised us on the plea bargain on behalf of Ameer Makhoul took into account to reach their conclusion:
a. The poisoned atmosphere in the country with the rise of fascism in Israel including among leaders and law-makers. We believe this affects the court.

b. The rate of conviction in cases accused of security violations is near 100%. This is especially true if the accused is a Palestinian; the general attitude in all branches of the government seems to be that Arabs have to keep away from the topic of security, even in casual conversations.
c. Ameer’s prominence in civic activism at the the international level is unprecedented in our community. His extensive network of contacts in the international arena did not exclude human rights activists from all sectors of the Palestinian collective. On the contrary, we all share a common affinity to other Palestinians and Arabs the world over. The court is likely to react to that negatively and try to teach our other civic society leaders a lesson.
d. Ameer is accused of passing information to an enemy agent: The content of that information is available for any interested person on Google Earth and is common knowledge on the street in Israel. Still, the dry letter of the law in Israel considers that espionage and its punishment could be life imprisonment
The Challenge Following Ameer’s Case:
Let me end on an optimistic note, difficult as that is a day after our hand has been forced to accept defeat in the form of a plea bargain on behalf of Amer: I want to do that because I believe that at this stage we need your solidarity even more than before:
Despite his forced admission, we do not believe that Ameer committed any crime.  He is paying for his firm stand against racism. He is on record in published articles as calling on Palestinian youth in Israel to stand up to racism using all possible legal means. On that we all agree with Ameer. We challenge the justice system in Israel and the judges in Ameer’s case to rise above the racist street cacophony and the trickery of the security services and to sentence him to a minimal period of imprisonment.
I use this opportunity to make a personal appeal to all the member community-based organizations in Ittijah to continue Ameer’s struggle against racism and for the full development of our community. Likewise, I call on all Ittijah’s international partners to support us in this immediate challenge. We at the Public Committee for the Defense of Ameer Makhoul will strive to bring his case as a human right defender and as a political prisoner to the attention of the widest possible international audience including such forums as Amnesty International and Civicus.

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