‘Free Ahmad Qatamesh’

Accused of being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmad Qatamesh has been under administrative detention since March 2011, without trial or indictment. Now Qatamesh, who calls for one democratic state between the river and the sea, is having his detention extended under the premise that he is ‘a threat to the security of the area.’

By Noam Rotem (translated by Jordan Michaeli)

At the time of writing of these lines, Israel holds 5,069 security prisoners, of which 134 are held under administrative detention. The authority Israel assumed upon occupying the West Bank – to detain human beings without trial and without allowing them to defend themselves against the allegations made at them – is taken, allegedly, from international law, where this authority is limited to extreme cases only when clear and immediate danger that can’t be otherwise prevented exists. Administrative detention allows plucking any person from their daily life, including you and me, and to put us in cages, without having to tell us of what we are accused, and without needing to administer a trial where evidence is brought forward, giving us an opportunity to defend ourselves. The eyes of Lady Justice are covered, but Israel has also tied her hands, put her in a sack and hanged her upside down from the ceiling.

Israel’s lawmakers foresaw the future, apparently. They knew that kind of power, which allows to them skip over the justice system and lock a human being in prison without trial, can only corrupt. Therefore, they tried to install brakes to prevent the irresponsible use of this tool. They failed rather miserably. According to the law, military commanders may order the imprisonment of a person to a period of up to six months. It sounds exaggerated, since if assuming that an urgent need came up to arrest someone before they committed some act or another, why hold that person for six months without trial? Investigate a week, two weeks, a month even, and decide whether there is a basis to keep that person under arrest. Find something? Present it to the court according to general proceedings, and the court will decide whether you proved your claims or not.

So where did the lawmakers fail? With Order 1651 (“Order Concerning Security Provisions in Judea and Samaria”) and also with the Emergency Powers Act of 1979 (which, by the way, is in force only during a state of emergency. We are currently in a state of emergency. We are in a permanent state of emergency). The law allows up to six months of imprisonment, but does not say how many times a person may be sentenced those six months. Out of 134 Administrative detainees, more than half (69 people) are locked behind bars for half a year without having the chance to appear in court and defend themselves against this arbitrary decision. And we dare call ourselves a law-abiding state.     

One of those prisoners is the author Ahmad Qatamesh.

After the horrible murder in the settlement of Itamar in March 2011, when five Israeli family members were slaughtered, Israeli security forces arrested hundreds of Palestinians from the neighboring village and other areas of the West Bank. As they came to arrest Qatamesh in his home in El Bira he wasn’t there. The soldiers pointed their weapons toward his daughter and made her call him. He answered the phone and invited the soldiers to his brother’s residents where he was staying in order to arrest him. The soldiers didn’t even bother to search for weapons or any other incriminating evidence at his home or his brother’s home, where he was arrested. They were only after Qatamesh, who says that since his arrest he was investigated only once, for 10 minutes. 

Any person with eyes in their head can see that there is no “urgent need” to hold Qatamesh under arrest. Israel already had 858 days to find a solution to the “urgent need” that existed during Qatamesh’s arrest. 28 months have passed in which the mysterious security forces could have dealt with the clear and immediate danger that this Palestinian author was posing towards the safety of Israel’s residents. Two years and four months in which this person – who prior to his arrest tried to promote non-violent solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even published several books on the topics, as he still does today – was supposed to stop threatening the peaceful sleep of the population between the Jordan River and the sea.

But no. According to Captain Made-up-name from the Shin Bet, Qatamesh still poses a threat, it’s just that the Shin Bet can’t tell anyone what that threat is. The military prosecutor didn’t even consider alternatives to administrative detention, for example a trial in which Qatamesh could contend with the allegations and evidence against him, or even house arrest or release under restrictive conditions to which Qatamesh will commit himself in front of the court (conditions to which he agreed on his own by the way). Even the military judges, old rubber stamps as they are, have criticized the content of the “intelligence” that was presented to them and according to which Qatamesh is apparently a senior member of the PFLP, an organization that Qatamesh left already in the 1990’s. This last bit is actually the only accusation hanging against him. Qatamesh is accused of being a member of a political organization, and even if we forget for a moment the fact that he’s not a member of said organization or supports its goals, and that he never supported the organization’s violent actions, Qatamesh is a political prisoner.

This story is wrong in so many ways because even if Qatamesh was indeed a member of the PFLP (and he isn’t), then so what? The PFLP is a party that holds seats at the Palestinian Legislative Council, an extreme left party indeed, but a party nonetheless. Imagine what would have happened if members of the Jewish Home party were sent to prison without trial because someone that might happen to hold opinions identical to theirs committed a crime against Palestinians. The cause for the mass arrests of March-April of 2011 was the horrible murder in Itamar, which was attributed to the PFLP by the Shin Bet because it was committed by two adolescents from families known to support the organization and probably supported it also themselves. But even the Shin Bet itself says that a few days prior to the crime the murderers turned to a member of the PFLP asking for weapons, and he refused. Nimrod Aloni, who was Samaria Brigade Commander at the time, said in a briefing for journalists after catching the two terrorists that the crime wasn’t connected to any organization. Haaretz also reported that although the two supported the PFLP, the investigators couldn’t find any evidence that the attack was planned by the organization and their conclusion was that the attack was independent. The PFLP itself, which during the period of attacks in the early 2000s rushed to claim responsibility for any attack against Israelis, remained silent and did not assume responsibility. However it should be stated that I could not find a condemnation by the organization to the revolting murder in Itamar.

On the margins of this story remains the man, Ahmad Qatamesh, an intellectual, a leftist, a Marxist, a harsh critic of Israel on the one hand and of the Palestinian Authority on the other, who promotes the idea of one democratic state between the Jordan River and the sea, who calls loud and clear for non-violent solutions, who condemned and continues to condemn any harm done to civilians on both sides. Qatamesh is sitting in jail without trial or indictment. However Israel chooses to silence the voice of Qatamesh, who seeks brotherhood between Israelis and Palestinians, pursues equality and comes out against the corruption in the rotten system of the Palestinian Authority as well as the forces of occupation – a voice unaffiliated with any political organization. And this silencing is done in the most anti-democratic and blunt way available for the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ with the help of the “most moral army in the world.”

In the coming days, Qatamesh’s most recent term in prison under administrative detention will come to an end after which he will appear again in front of a military judge, who will decide whether to once again extend Qatamesh’s imprisonment without trial. We love calling ourselves a democracy and a law-abiding state, but the sad reality is that we stopped being that a long time ago. A state that allows the imprisonment of a man, who’s only sin is that 13 years ago he belonged to a political movement, is not a law-abiding state. A state holding a political prisoner in jail for over two years, relying on emergency regulations that were devised as a last resort before the apocalypse – is not a democracy. A state afraid to present even the smallest evidence or testimony, which is afraid to stand as an accuser in front of the man whose freedom it denies, is a rotten state. As citizens of this country, we can no longer be silent. We have to come forth and shout until the halls of justice in Jerusalem tremble. Release Ahmad Qatamesh.

Update: At the end of August, in Qatamesh’s umpteenth hearing in military court, his administrative detention was extended once again citing a claim that, “he is a threat to the security of the area.” No new evidence was presented and no explanation given for the decision to keep him in administrative detention.

I’d like to thank Amnesty International, B’Tselem and another person, for helping with the research for this post.

Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog o139.org, subtitled “Godwin doesn’t live here any more.” This piece was first published in Hebrew.