Thursday, January 14, 2010

Congratulations to Berlanty! Welcome out, Mohammad and Jamal!

IT is not often we have good news to report from Palestine, so here is some.

First, let's hear it for Berlanty Azzam, who has got her degree in Business Studies from the University of Bethlehem. "What's special about that?", you might think, if you didn't read about her case in the news - I wrote about it back in November. If you did, you will understand why, instead of Berlanty going to the uni to receive her degree, the university's Vice Chancellor and other senior figures travelled to present it to her in Gaza. Here's the report from the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency:

BETHLEHEM/GAZA - Ma'an - “I never imagined that my graduation ceremony would be held in a Church in Gaza with no one from my classmates attending,” said fresh BU graduate Berlanty Azzam on Sunday. Bethlehem University officials traveled to Gaza to confer Berlanty's degree at the Holy Family Church in Gaza. Berlanty completed her degree online after she was pulled from a car at a Bethlehem checkpoint by Israeli soldiers, was blindfolded, handcuffed and deported to Gaza on 28 October 2009. BU Vice Chancellor Brother Peter Bray, Papal Nuncio H E Archbishop Antonio Franco, Chancellor Brother Joe, Vice Chancellor Emeritus, and Trappist Abbott Thomas traveled to Gaza for the 10am Mass at the Holy Family Church where they met Berlanty, her family and friends as well as some other BU students awaiting permission from the Israeli military authorities to come to Bethlehem to pursue their education at the Vatican-sponsored Bethlehem University. “But I am so happy and grateful to my teachers and all of the friends of Bethlehem University who came forward to help me. I really worked hard and prayed for this moment and will do my best to help others who seek to study at my university!” Berlanty was forced to finish classes over the phone and e-mail after the Israeli High Court issued a ruling on 9 December declaring that she could not return to Bethlehem to complete her studies. A court battle saw Israeli rights group Gisha defend the young woman. The appeal was rejected despite the Israeli army's admission that Berlanty posed no security threat to Israel, that she had no record to speak of, that she was targeted only because her ID card indicated she was a Gaza resident and that she was removed from the West Bank without having the opportunity to consult a lawyer. The military rationale for her forcible deportation was that as a Gaza resident, family and friends in the Strip could use their influence over her for the purpose of attacks against Israel. Arriving in Gaza to present Berlanty with her certificate, Vice-Chancellor of the Bethlehem University Brother Peter Bray said “the University has a commitment to help Berlanty – and all our students in good academic standing – to graduate and succeed in life.” HE Archbishop Antonio Franco, Papal Nuncio and the highest ranking representative of the Pope to Israeli and occupied Palestinian territories, also traveled to Gaza to award Berlanty her degree in Business Administration and to celebrate Mass at Holy Family Church in Gaza. Brother Joe, Vice-Chancellor Emeritus and Trappist Abbott Thomas Davis accompanied Brother Peter to Gaza for meetings with some of the more than 400 graduates of BU from Gaza as well as some of the current students who continue to await for permission from the Israeli military to study at the university. “I really wanted to be among my colleagues on such a day ... I still don't know why I was taken from Bethlehem and moved to Gaza while being handcuffed and blindfolded,” she said. "I am sad because I was not able to graduate with my colleagues in Bethlehem, but I was able to challenge the occupation and today I am graduating from Bethlehem University."
Gaza students accepted to the BU

Though upon the conference of her degree all appeals to get Berlanty back to Bethlehem for the completion of her studies will be dropped, an additonal 12 Palestinians living in Gaza, who were accepted to BU in the fall, are stuck in the Strip awaiting permits to travel to Bethlehem for study.

BU spokesman Brother Jack Curran said the fight over the issue of freedom of education for Palestinians would not end with the conference of the degree.


So good luck to Berlanty, who deserves an extra award surely for persevering with her work under such testing circumstances - an example of Palestinian steadfastness. Well done, too, to the University of Bethlehem authorities for not letting either unusual circumstances or routine procedures prevent them responding fittingly to their student's needs and determination. In this human act, and in affirming the right of students from Gaza to study in Bethlehem, they have set an example for other officialdom -and affirmed the unity of Palestinians.

No marks, of course, to the Israeli authorities, who once again showed what utter mamsers they can be, by their brutal treatment of a young woman who simply wanted to complete her university education.

But then, maintaining a military occupation for more than forty years, and telling yourself and anyone you think will listen, that ruling over another people, if not expelling them, is right and normal, is bound to produce a certain type of mentality, and a certain type of official.

Welcome back, Mohammed and Jamal!

OUR second piece of good news is that two leading West Bank campaigners against Israeli occupation and the so-called security wall have been released, one of them particularly associated with the international movement to bring pressure on Israel by means of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Mohammad Othman, 34, from the West Bank village of Jayyous, was released Wednesday after 113 days in Israeli custody. Mohammad had been detained by Israeli security police on September 22 as he crossed Allenby Bridge on his return from a speaking tour.

Well-known for showing visitors the effects of the Wall, which cuts across land belonging to his village, Othman took Norwegian officials on a tour of the West Bank, travelled to Norway and helped convince a Norwegian state pension fund to divest the $5.4 million it had invested in Elbit, the mushrooming Israeli military electronics firm whose exports include drones used in Afghanistan and other wars. Minister Halvorsen announced the decision early last month.

Though held without charges, Mohammad Othman was thought to be the first person locked up for advocating boycotts and divestment.

"I was interrogated every single day for 75 days from 8am until 6.30pm and sometimes until midnight," Othman told reporters. "The entire time I was held in isolation. Physically they did not touch me, but it really damages a person to be in isolation. They also played all kinds of games, telling me they will arrest my brother, my friends and the journalists writing about me."

"They are trying to put a lot of pressure on the boycott movement," Othman said. "They realized how much pressure it is putting on them."

"I was interrogated by ten different commanders, nine from the Shin Bet and one from the Mossad," he said, referring to the Israel Security Agency and Israel's national intelligence agency, respectively. "They asked me about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, my work, why I'm traveling around the world and why I have the contacts of ministers, prime ministers and embassies."

Othman was held for interrogation for two months, after which he was put into administrative detention.

"After about 50 days they came up with this charge that I'm in contact with Hezbollah," Othman said. "It's crazy. I told them I am involved in a peaceful fight and dealing with international human rights organizations."

"They had nothing against me but I was really worried when I was put into administrative detention," he said. "It can be a few months or up to seven years."

"I was often put in court without a lawyer and had to represent myself," Othman said. "Two days ago I was sent to court again and I got the papers that I was going to be freed."

"I couldn't believe it," he continued. "The judge said 'Why aren't you reacting?' I said 'Because it's administrative detention so you can arrest me two minutes after releasing me'."

While he was released without charge, Othman was required to pay 10,000 shekels ($2,716) bail for his release, an administrative technicality related to his initial detention for interrogation prior to his placement in administrative detention.

Othman's release came one day after that of Jamal Juma, a leader of the Stop the Wall campaign, who had been detained by the Israel Security Agency for 27 days without charge. Juma was arrested on December 16 . Despite being a legal resident of Jerusalem entitled to legal rights similar to those afforded to Israeli citizens, he was processed in Israel's military court system in the same legal procedures used against West Bank Palestinians like Mohammad Othman.

"This experience made it much clearer to me how much the non-violent Palestinian movement freaks them out," Juma told reporters. "They see how our movement is opening the eyes of the world to the oppression of the Palestinians and they are determined to stop it but they don't know what to do. They can't call us terrorists so they bring people like me into jail without any real legal way to charge us."

"They accused me of incitement and contact with terrorist organizations," he said. "It's so silly they even accused me of contact with the Zapatistas [laughing]. I told them 'Do you think that when I meet 60,000 people at conferences I ask everyone there 'Do you have a problem with Israel? Are you part of a terrorist organization?' In the end they dropped it of course and didn't charge me with anything at all because none of it made any sense."

"I am only out of prison today because of international pressure, both official pressure from consulates and official bodies, as well as organizations around the world that don't understand why Israel would arrest someone like me," Juma said of the massive campaign launched by Palestinian activists for his release. "I really appreciate this level of solidarity."

"You can't imagine how much dehumanization there is in these jails," he said of his detention. "I was interrogated constantly, put into isolation, put in a cell in which my head was in the door and my feet in the toilet. I was handcuffed for many hours, the cells are lit up 24 hours a day and the food is so bad you wouldn't even give it to dogs."

"They didn't beat me or anyone I saw," Juma added. "But this is a form of torture and the worst face of the occupation. Many prisoners almost lose their minds and all of this is done in shadow and nobody knows about it."

Abdullah Abu Rahma, a leader of the Popular Committees Against the Wall, involved in dismantling part of it in Bil'in last year on the anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down, is still being detained. He was one of a number of Bil'in activists whose homes were raided. Abdullah is a cousin of Bassam Abu Rahma, killed last year by a tear gas grenade fired ar his chest. Bassam's brother Ashraf was the man seen on TV, having a rubber bullet fired at his leg point blank, while he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and held by an Israeli officer. Ashraf had been taking food and medical suplies to a neighbouring village. The attack on him was filmed by a young Palestinian girl using one of the handheld webcams which an Israeli women's group has distributed so that incidents like this can be recorded.

Undeterred by such attacks on his own family, Abdullah Abu Rahma has carried on campaigning, and went to Canada to meet supporters and ask two Canadian companies to pull out of contracts for the settlements and the wall. He says the Israeli authorities do not know what to do about non-violent resistance which is winning international support.

Israeli policy may have fenced off Palestinians from their land, but it has also walled off some Israeli minds from reality. Dr Gerald Steinberg, Chair of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University, has called for stronger measures. "Whether it's through this so called boycott and sanctions campaign, or attempts to have Israeli leaders like Former Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni arrested in Britain, or International Criminal Court related activites, this kind of incitement is political warfare on par with military warfare in that the goal is to destroy the state of Israel. As Prime Minister Netanyahu recently stated, demonization is as dangerous to the State of Israel as the Iranian nuclear threat," he added. "That's the broad view of the majority of Israelis."

Dr Ron Breiman, the former chairman of Professors for a Strong Israel, "Israel needs to defend itself and should arrest people like this," he said at the time of Othman's arrest. "In any normal country when someone is doing harm to his own state he would be punished for that. I don't think a European country would allow such activities within her borders and we are too forgiving of it. I want democracy and I want free speech," Dr Breiman said. "But there are limits to free speech and even in a democratic country you cannot say anything that you want, especially in a state of war."

It may have escaped Dr. Breiman's attention, but whatever Mohammad Othman was saying, and whatever "harm" he was doing, it was not to "his own state". As a Palestinian living under occupation Mohammad Othman does not have a state. But if we follow where arguments like those of Breiman and Dr. Steinberg are leading, it is that Israelis too - like those who have joined the demonstrations at Bil'in, or those who have helped seek the arrest of their country's war criminals - must also be repressed as enemies of the state.

Recent raids on the premises of some organisations, and demands to stop their funds, suggest the authorities may be heading down that road. If this brings Palestinians and left-wing Israelis closer to declaring common cause it will mean the non-violent resistance has achieved a major success. And because the Israeli state has taken their support for granted, it may face another revolt, from Diaspora Jews. "State of war", Dr.Breiman? You aint seen nothing yet.

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