I put this question to my friend Said Amireh, a 19-year-old resident of the occupied West Bank town of Ni’lin. He said he’d like to see her perform in Tel Aviv, but he can’t. Why? Because his town is imprisoned behind the Israeli segregation wall. Meanwhile, the residents of the illegal Jews-only settlement of Hashmonaim who live just meters away, on the other side of the wall, travel to and from Tel Aviv on special bypass roads, and have annexed thousands of dunams of Ni’lin’s land.
Said is a participant in Ni’lin’s weekly unarmed demonstrations against the wall (see what it’s like here). Since the town rose up, the Israeli army has killed four of its residents, while injuring and jailing hundreds of others. Said was jailed for four and half months, then had to drop out of school and go to work when his father, Ibrahim, was imprisoned under specious charges of “incitement.” I attended one of Ibrahim’s trials in the Israeli military court at Ofer, and watched a military prosecutor and military judge railroad him despite scant evidence that he had committed any crime beyond organizing unarmed resistance against his dispossession.
“When I try to work my land,” Ibrahim Amireh said at the conclusion of the trial, “the Occupation comes and takes it away. When I try to resist them taking it away, the Occupation arrests me and puts me in jail. What else can I do?”
The South African Artists Against Apartheid has issued a letter to Macy Gray demanding that she take into account the voices of people living under occupation like Said and reconsider her trip to Tel Aviv:
We are writing to you to encourage you to reconsider performing in Israel. You might wonder what purpose refusing to perform in Israel (in line with the cultural boycott call) might serve? As a people whose parents and grandparents suffered under (and resisted) Apartheid in South Africa, our history is testament to the value and legitimacy that the international boycott had in bringing to an end the Apartheid regime in our country. When artists and sportspeople began refusing to perform in South Africa, the world’s eyes turned to the injustices that were happening here to people of colour. This then created a wave of pressure on politicians and world leaders representing their constituencies, to insist on a regime-change – this contributed to a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa.
Inspired by the boycott of Apartheid South Africa, Palestinians have called for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign of Israel. As you are aware, this call has been actively supported by some Israelis as well. The aim of the campaign is not to target Israeli civilians, but to draw attention to the unjust acts that the Israeli state commits on a daily basis in their name.
The belief that cultural activities are “apolitical” is simply a myth. Artists have greater followings than politicians do; millions of people admire them and look to them as role models. They have a moral obligation to stand up against injustice all over the world. By performing in a country whose government systematically makes life unbearable for a targeted group of people is to ignore all sense of justice and morality and creates the impression that “it’s none of my business, I’m just here to entertain”…
On December 27, Anarchists Against the Wall co-founder Jonathan Pollak was slapped with a three month prison sentence for illegal assembly. He was convicted by an Israeli magistrate judge for his participation in a January 2008 Critical Mass bike ride through the streets of Tel Aviv in protest of Israel’s brutal military assault on the Gaza Strip. Though Pollak was offered community service, he accepted prison time because he was convinced that he had done nothing wrong.
The day before Pollak was sentenced, an Israeli judge handed down a sentence of six months of community service to Michael Naky. Naky’s crime? He helped devise and detonate a pipe bomb in order to kill as many homosexuals as possible at the 2007 Jerusalem gay pride parade.
In a single day in Israel’s kangaroo courts, a right-wing terrorist was sentenced to a few months of street cleaning while a non-violent activist dedicated to stopping the occupation was jailed under the most specious charges. And while Pollak’s sentencing was reported with great fanfare in Israel’s major papers, Naky’s passed below the radar (Yedioth devoted just six lines). The contrast in punishments represented just another symptom of a sick society unwilling to face the Molock in the mirror.
The state has made little effort to disguise the political nature of Pollak’s prosecution. He was not a ringleader of the Critical Mass protest, nor did he behave in an unusual manner. He simply rode his bike slowly, disrupting the normal flow of traffic along with dozens of demonstrators. However, the police recognized him as a prominent organizer of unarmed protests against the Israeli military repression in the West Bank, singled him out and arrested him.
I have documented Pollak’s actions at protests across the West Bank, where he spends most of his weekends, and I witnessed the respect he has earned from the residents of besieged Palestinian villages who count on him as their liaison to the outside world — a realm that the state of Israel has largely forbidden them from interacting with. Last summer, Pollak helped me gain entry into Ofer Military Prison to witness the show trials of Palestinian popular committee members who organize the unarmed protests against the Israeli segregation wall. He has done the same for numerous European diplomats, including British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who declared after a harrowing tour of the Israeli Occupation that Pollak helped arrange: “Popular resistance to the Occupation is the sole remaining possible alternative for the Palestinians to achieve their rights and avoid armed struggle.”
It is clear why the Israeli justice system acted in such a draconian fashion against Pollak: His activism is making an impact against the Occupation.
Association for Civil Rights in Israel chief legal counsel Dan Yakir described the political nature of Pollak’s prosecution succinctly when he said, “The fact that Pollak was the only one arrested, even though he behaved just like the rest of the protesters, and the fact that bicycle demonstrations are usually held without police involvement raises a strong suspicion regarding personal persecution and a severe blow for freedom of expression, just because of his opinions. A prison sentence in the wake of a protest is an extreme and exaggerated punishment.”
Naky’s lenient sentencing appeared to have been influenced by politics as well, especially when viewed in light of the state’s treatment of other right-wing terrorists. Chaim Pearlman, a fanatical settler suspected of stabbing to death three Palestinians in cold blood, was set free after a month in Shin Bet custody. And Jack Teitel, another Jewish settler convicted of randomly murdering several Palestinians and attempting to kill the Israeli left-wing intellectual Zeev Sternhell (Teitel also planned to attack the 2006 Jerusalem gay pride parade), was allowed to plead insanity and ruled unfit to stand trial.
The Israeli justice system has extended no such privileges to Palestinians like Ibrahim Amireh or Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, who rot in Israeli military prisons for resisting their dispossession through unarmed protest. And the state is leveling every legal weapon at its disposal against activists like Pollak, who declared at his sentencing hearing: “I will go to prison wholeheartedly and with my head held high. It will be the justice system itself, I believe, that ought to lower its eyes in the face of the suffering inflicted on Gaza’s inhabitants, just like it lowers its eyes and averts its vision each and every day when faced with the realities of the occupation.”