Sunday, March 27, 2016

"I am in prison and you are with me on the outside"

The murderous attack in Brussels once again aroused the kind of Israeli responses to which we've gotten used in earlier cases, from 9/11 to the attacks in Paris. Once again we heard the wild hope that the Europeans will at last "start understanding us", that they would cease badgering Israel about Palestinian statehood and settlement construction. This was followed by a call upon the Belgians - and the Europeans in general – to "stop eating chocolate," drop the democracy and human rights nonsense and join with Israel in an all-out war on Islam. And all that is quite tame compared with some of the people who fill the net with very wild "talkbacks". Having given up on the Europeans ever changing their tune, they resort to crude gloating: "The Europeans deserve it", "They are Anti-Semites", "This is a retribution for the Holocaust."

The Channel One TV commentators were a bit more subtle. Still, they too discussed at length the question of whether the European security services will now begin to "work seriously" and take up the methods of the Israeli Shabak, and whether European courts would stop splitting hairs over Human Rights and start emulating the Israeli Supreme Court in facilitating "the intensive interrogation of terrorist suspects." After half an hour of discussion, the experts in the TV studio reached a conclusion: "No, the Europeans are not really going to change. They take Human Rights seriously, and will not give up on them. Maybe they will undertake some emergency measures, but if there are no further attacks in Belgium for a year they'll be go back to normal."

Only towards the end of the discussion did one commentator venture to say with an apologetic smile: "Actually, maybe it's for the better that Europe will remain Europe. Better that there will remain somewhere in the world a lighthouse to which people could look with hope. After all, the number of people who come from the Middle East to Europe in the expectation of getting there the rights that they are denied in their own countries is greater by far than the number of people who come from the Middle East in order to kill Europeans". The other commentators looked at him with amazement, but it was the end of the panel discussion.

Meanwhile Purim has come around, the Holiday which Jewish tradition had set to commemorate events which happened (or perhaps did not actually happen) in the Persian Empire some 2,500 years ago. As with many of the stories in the Bible, one can find in the Book of Esther whatever one wants to find there. It can well be read as the story of a religious and ethnic minority, subject to hatred, prejudice and persecution, and faced with a very concrete threat of genocide includes - which was saved at the last moment thanks to the courage and resourcefulness of a young woman. It is also possible to read the Book of Esther as the story of aggressive and vengeful Jews, transformed from persecuted into persecutors. Jews who were not satisfied with hanging the one who plotted to kill them but also hanged on a high tree all ten of his sons - including the youngest who (as Jewish tradition tells) was a young innocent child – and who then went on to commit acts of mass, indiscriminate massacre.

It is the second interpretation which is current at the settler enclave in Hebron. Annually, they hold their Adloyada (Purim Carnival) on the city streets under heavy military guard, while Palestinian residents are required to stay indoors and wait until the settlers have finished their celebration. Quite often, in these processions, settlers commemorate Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who in the Purim of 1994 murdered 29 Muslim worshipers during prayers. And this year, during the holiday of Purim at the nationalist-religious settler enclave in Hebron, it happened that a soldier pointed his gun at a Palestinian lying on the ground, who no longer posed any threat, and shot a fatal bullet at his head. What this soldier posted on his personal Facebook page clearly indicates that he fully shared the views of the settlers which he was guarding.

On Thursday morning I did not yet know what happened in Hebron when I went to see the Purim Adloyada in Holon. Actually, the large crowd gathered there did not dwell too much on the Book of Esther and whether it is the humanist or the nationalist interpretations which should be preferred. For the inhabitants of Holon, a predominantly lower middle class city south of Tel Aviv, Purim is primarily an occasion for holding a carnival and walk the street in a great variety of colorful costumes and masks. One by one, dinosaurs and scary monsters paraded through the main street. When a monster bent down towards the bystanders, revealing rows of sharp fangs, the children screamed in fear – only to burst into laughter when a child riding on the back of the tyrannosaur waved to them.

"We welcome the Israel Police who came here in great numbers to defend us and allow us to celebrate, safe from all threats. We especially welcome Police Commissioner Ronnie Alsheich who honors the Adloyada with his presence" boomed the speaker. I looked at the kids dressed up along the sidewalk. Among the superheroes and their friends the kings, fairies and pirates, I saw a significant number of children in blue or black police uniforms. On the other hand, unlike previous years there were hardly any young soldiers. Only one girl aged three or four was wearing a military uniform, her shoulder badges declaring her to be a Lieutenant General...

On the sidewalk, a makeshift stall offered toys for sale. The vendor was moving to the music from the speakers and displaying his wares - a large, black, menacing submachine gun in one hand and a soap bubble tank in the other. From what I could see during the quarter of an hour that I stood there, it was mainly the soap bubbles which interested the customers...

From there I went to Tel Aviv, to a Protest Adloyada held in solidarity with CO Ta’ir Kaminer, who had been going into the military prison and out and in again and again ever since declaring her refusal to join an army of occupation charged with oppressing the Palestinians. She had already gone through this process three times. This weekend she is supposed to be released from prison, to spend two days with her parents and Sunday to return to the Induction Center – there once again get the order to let herself be inducted and mobilized, again inform the officer in charge of her refusal and again go to prison for another month. Until the army gets tired of this...

In the call for this action which circulated on the Internet, the organizers said: "This Purim we are going to hold an Adloyada to cheer Ta’ir up and support her – all the way! You are invited, please come in costume. You can dress up as your favorite Chief of Staff of the World’s Most Moral Army! Bring with you masks, rattles, funny hats, glitter and a holiday spirit". To tell the truth, not all participants followed this script, many of them in plain clothes without Purim costumes. Some activists, though, painted their faces very bright white and stood behind symbolic prison bars. For their part, members of the Anarchist Drumming Band, firmly opposed to any state authority, wrapped their drums with bright red police ribbons bearing the inscription "Police! Passage Absolutely Forbidden! ".

Micah Kaminer, father of Ta’ir, spoke from an improvised podium, followed by artistic performances of a Palestinian rapper from East Jerusalem and an Israeli youth who sang protest songs and played the guitar. 

"We came here to pay homage to a brave young woman, who conducts a struggle there, alone within the prison wall, in order to continue following the dictates of her conscience," said MK Dov Hanin. "Contrary to what all kinds of politicians and commentators try to tell us, those who follow their conscience do not constitute a threat to the fabric of Israeli society. The true danger of that comes from blind obedience to immoral orders!

"Occupation, that occupation which we were told can be 'managed' and made tolerable, is now exploding in our faces. There can be no security with occupation, there is no hope with occupation, no future with occupation! [Applause]. We have seen the face of the occupation in the horrible footage which today came out of Hebron. This video is not about one heinous act by one single soldier. The true culprit can be found much higher, among the politicians openly calling for lynching, calling for people to be killed even when they no longer pose a threat. Israeli society must do a thorough soul-searching, to realize the terrible direction in which we are moving without paying notice. Ta’ir is in jail for all our sakes, she does it in order to give a warning sign to the society in which we live."

At the last moment, organizers managed to establish direct contact with Ta’ir Kaminer herself, speaking from the public phone in the prison yard and her words broadcast over the loudspeaker: "Thank you very much! The last time I went through the army’s Disciplinary Proceeding, the officer told me 'It is very nice of your friends to accompany you to our gate, but now they are going back home and you are going to jail, you are going all alone in jail. But it is not true. I know we're all together in this. We all stand together, I am in prison and you are with me on the outside. Thank you very much! "

Purim or not Purim - the Palestinian clown and circus artist Mohammed Abu Sakha continues to languish in Israeli prison, under Administrative Detention without trial. Nine years ago, when he was 14, Mohammed Abu Sakha enrolled at "Circus Palestine". Four years later he was already a proficient circus artist and became a teacher in the same school; a bachelor, he lives in a house adjacent to the circus school, and he works day and night.. He performed in the West Bank and abroad and worked to help people with special needs – adults and especially children. He wrote a book describing how circus arts can be used in teaching children with special needs. This he put into practice with hundreds of children who regularly come to the circus in order to have a bit of respite from a harsh reality and enter – even if only for a few hours - a magical wonderful world. His friends say that children who were unable to walk made their first steps with his help.

Today, Abu Sakha can no longer reach the circus, and the special children's program was closed down in the absence of a replacement. In December 2015, Abu Sakha went to visit his parents in the Jenin area. When the taxi passed through the Za'atara Checkpoint, he was detained by soldiers who made a random search, taken off the car and into custody. Shortly afterwards, a warrant was issued for his Administrative Detention without trial, and since then he is held in the Megiddo prison. The Shabak Security Service’a spokesperson asserted that Abu Sha had been detained due to "recently updated information regarding his being active in the Popular Front organization" and because of "the danger he poses to security in the region" - but did not produce any evidence to substantiate these allegations, or any specific charges as to any acts which Abu Sakha allegedly committed or planned.

In the court session where his Administrative Detention was approved, Abu Sakha said: "I am an artist in a circus. I'm a clown. I've traveled a lot in Europe and I have seen many people, Palestinians, Israelis, Americans. I have no intention to commit any violent acts. Even on Facebook I have a lot of friends from different cultures . I work in Ramallah as a circus clown, and with the circus we travel around Europe. I am also a social worker in a voluntary organization". The Shabak representative in the hearing refused to hand over to Abu Sakha, or to his attorney Mahmoud Halabi, any details of charges against him, which remain completely secret. The Administrative Detention was approved by the judge, in force until June 2016 (and subject to indefinite extension at the Shabak’s discretion).

There was a worldwide wave of protests by circus people – "a snowball" as one of his friends put it. "We contacted circuses where he had been invited to perform, and they sprung into action. For example, Abu Sakha had undergone circus training at Toulouse in South France, and they took up his case immediately after hearing what happened." Among other things, a special Facebook page was set up, where circus performers from around the world posted their creative protests. Making street performances, jumping on a pole or doing other acrobatic exercises – all while carrying the sign "Free Abu Sakha!". Some uploaded videos of the protest in their own circus, and American indie singer David Rovics wrote a song about him ( "He could have been a fighter, like many of his friends... but he chose to become a circus artist, work hard and delight children!"). Amnesty International called his immediate release. The protest organizers are planning a big demonstration of circus artists in London, to be followed in other capitals as long as his Administrative Detention continues.

Also in Israel, some circus artists organized to demonstrate and protest. "We already held two demonstrations on Abu Sakha’s behalf, one in front of Megiddo Prison where he is held, the other at the Ofer Detention Center which is focus of the wholesale detentions carried out by the occupation authorities," says Hanita Handelman. For many years already, she is running multicultural social projects at the Kfar Yehoshua Circus School, in order to bring Jews and Arabs closer together. 
"We conducted a spontaneous performance at the prison parking lot" she told. "It was a bit amusing to see the artists toss circus rods back and forth, in the air above the cops’ heads. Of course, in the demonstration call we made a reference to Purim, and once there we tried to create a bit of a Purim atmosphere - though the case is far from funny."

As of now, the Supreme Court of the State of Israel only agrees to release Palestinian Administrative Detainees in cases where they go on prolonged hunger strikes and bring themselves to the verge of death or of irreversible brain damage. And so far, Mohammed Abu Sakha has not taken such measures.

In a message from prison, Abu Sakha says: "I'm holding on, and I try to amuse my fellow prisoners."