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The real delegitimisation: Apartheid Israel targets Palestinian citizens’ political activism

Last week, Palestinian activist Muhammad Kanaaneh was due to address Tel Aviv University students at an event marking Land Day, a commemoration of the bloody state repression of anti-land expropriation protests in 1976. However, following pressure by right-wing Zionist activists, university authorities stepped in to ban Kanaanehfrom delivering his speech on campus.

The opposition to Kanaaneh’s lecture, including from Members of the Knesset, was on the basis that he was a so-called “convicted terrorist”, apparently jailed for “involvement with” or “passing on information to” Hezbolllah. But few bothered to examine the claims being made about Kanaaneh, or look beyond the shouts of ‘terrorist’. To do so would be to reveal another side to this affair, beyond the repression of Palestinian political activism at Israeli academic institutions.

When Kanaaneh was arrested in February 2004, he was the then-General Secretary of Abnaa al-Balad (‘Sons of the Land’), a political movement mainly operating within the pre-1967 borders amongst Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. It rejects participation in the Knesset and supports a single, democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

Abnaa al-Balad’s activists have frequently been targeted by the state, something which should come as no surprise to those familiar with the State of Israel’s decades-long history of cracking down on those challenging its settler-colonial system of privilege and exclusion.

Kanaaneh and three others were prevented from meeting with family or lawyers for three weeks, a Shin Bet-imposed gag order maintained for a month after the arrests. Interrogation methods included “tying them to their chairs; depriving them of sleep…[and] providing them with inaccurate, misleading information about their basic legal rights.” Denied, as leading legal rights group Adalah put it, “their most basic rights”, Kanaaneh and his comrades experienced conditions in pre-trial detention harsh enough to prompt a hunger strike.

Despite public noise from security officials about ties to Hezbollah, Kanaaneh was ultimately indicted and convicted on the basis of a single charge of ‘contact with a foreign agent‘ – a reference to a meeting with a Palestinian activist in Jordan. The Haifa district court sentenced him to two and a half years, later successfully appealed by the prosecution and raised to four and a half years. He was duly released in 2008 and welcomed home with much celebration from friends and activists.

Now by coincidence, on the same day Tel Aviv University banned Kanaaneh’s lecture, Nazareth District Court convicted former MK Said Naffaa of “visiting an enemy state and meeting with a foreign agent”. Naffaa had been charged in relation to a 2007 trip by a Druze delegation to Syria that he helped organise. The visit had not received Israeli Interior Ministry approval despite Naffaa’s initial application for travel permits.

Naffaa represented Balad in the Knesset 2007-2013, but in 2010 was stripped of his parliamentary immunity by committee vote, in order to facilitate the state’s charges against him. Naffaa pointed out that after his delegation to Syria, “a delegation of Christians went, and no one was prosecuted”, also citing “a number of visits by Jews to rabbis’ graves in Iraq, religious visits by Muslims to Saudi Arabia and religious trips by Christians and Circassians”.

An editorial in Haaretz at the time described the targeting of Naffaa as “an attempt…to warn off others”, with “the law barring MKs from visiting Arab countries…imped[ing] their efforts to engage in public activity on behalf of their voters”. The then-chair of the committee that removed Naffaa’s immunity had previously urged a “serious decision” about whether Arab parties “can continue to sit in the Israeli parliament, even while they operate against the country”.

The common thread in these and other cases is the politically-motivated targeting of Palestinian citizens by the state, under the framework of ‘security’ offences. One of the most serious examples is Ameer Makhoul, currently serving a nine-year sentence after being convicted of spying for Hezbollah. 18 months before his arrest, and as Palestinians in Israel protested the Gaza massacre, Israeli security officers told Makhoul that “next time” the community leader would “have to say goodbye to his family since he will leave them for a long time”.

More broadly, these examples are part of a picture of harassment that affects every level of political activism: from a Member of Knesset taken to court after participating in a West Bank protest, to a 23-year-old student in Haifa placed under house arrest for his social media updates. Palestinian activists under military rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, of course, are detained without trial, tortured, and killed. A picture of repression that undermines Israel’s ‘democratic’ propaganda, and shows the extent to which an apartheid regime will go in order to protect an unjust system.

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