Last Friday, Palestinians in the West Bank town of Beita, near Nablus, held their weekly demonstration against an Israeli settler outpost built on their land nearly two years ago. In stormy weather, while several protesters burned tires, others held up photos of a political detainee — a common sight at Palestinian protests. But this time, the image on the posters was not of a Palestinian, but of Jonathan Pollak, a Jewish-Israeli anti-Zionist activist who was arrested by Israeli soldiers at the previous week’s protest.
Pollak has been active in the Palestinian struggle for much of his life, and is one of the few Israelis who consistently joins Palestinian-led popular demonstrations across the occupied West Bank and in Israel every week. The 40-year-old has been arrested dozens of times in the past and convicted four times; he usually refuses to cooperate with legal proceedings over criminal complaints and charges against him, viewing them as illegitimate.
Now, Pollak has been in Israeli custody for nearly two weeks. Four days after his arrest on Jan. 27, he was indicted on charges of throwing stones at a Border Police jeep. Apart from a small number of activists who support Pollak, and right-wing groups that jumped on the opportunity to bolster their campaign against Israeli anti-apartheid activists, his arrest did not cause much of a sensation — even despite the fact that the police, in an extremely rare move when it comes to Jewish activists, requested his detention until the end of the proceedings.
But Pollak’s recent arrest should matter to every activist, including those who have taken to the streets every Saturday night for the past month to protest the far-right government. The chance that those protesters will find themselves in perpetual detention and facing false accusations may be small, but there is still much to learn from his story.
Palestinians have been protesting regularly in the town of Beita since May 2021, when settlers established the outpost of Eviatar on Mount Sabih with state backing, taking over lands belonging to Palestinians in Beita, Qabalan, and Yatma. Beita became the hub for the resistance to the outpost, with residents and activists camping out on Mount Sabih for over 100 consecutive days, before the demonstrations became weekly. Since the protests began, 10 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army, and over a thousand more have been wounded by rubber-coated metal bullets, sponge rounds, “two-two” bullets, and live ammunition. Thousands have also suffered from tear gas inhalation.
On Jan. 27, the day Pollak was arrested, the protest in Beita took place not only in front of Eviatar, but also at the entrance to the town near Highway 60. At noon, a Border Police jeep charged toward the protesters, and the officers arrested Pollak. In court, his lawyer, Riham Nasra, said that Pollak had overheard two of the police officers coordinating their versions of the story of his arrest.
Pollak was also interrogated on the basis of a complaint filed against him by the right-wing organization Ad Kan, which has previously taken legal action against Pollak; the complaint accused him of interfering with a police officer during the performance of his duties, and reckless use of fire (burning tires) in a demonstration in the village of Burqa, also near Nablus, in 2019. On Jan. 30, Ad Kan bragged on Twitter that the police had contacted them after Pollak’s arrest, apparently to request incriminating materials.
The police didn’t deny this, and told +972: “The Israel Police conducted an investigation against a number of suspects following incidents of public disorder that took place in the Samaria [northern West Bank] area. At the end of the investigation, it was decided by the prosecutor’s office to file a prosecutor’s statement against one of the suspects.” This legal tool enables police to keep a suspect in custody for several days after the end of an investigation and before an indictment is filed. Only Pollak was arrested in the incident.
Later, Liran Baruch from the IDF Disabled Forum for Israel’s Security (connected to the right-wing group Im Tirtzu) filed another complaint with the police against Pollak for a speech he gave when he received the Yeshayahu Leibowitz Award in 2021 — a prize given out each year by the Yesh Gvul army refusal movement to an Israeli activist for their anti-occupation work. In his acceptance speech, Pollak repeated the words he wrote in an article in Haaretz after his 2020 arrest, calling on Israelis to “march alongside the children of the stones and Molotov cocktails.” Pollak was already interrogated about this when he was arrested in 2021, and it is not clear yet whether an indictment will be filed on the matter.
Last Thursday, about 24 hours after Baruch filed his complaint, Pollak was taken to a detention cell and interrogated by the Tel Aviv District Police. “The police assured me that he will remain in custody until the end of the proceedings,” Baruch stated afterward on Twitter, adding: “The charges indicated attacking and throwing stones at security forces, including last Friday, and inciting the murder of Jews in his famous speech [to] ‘join the children of the generation of stones and Molotov cocktails.’ Let every anarchist who raises his hand against the security forces and the State of Israel know that we will settle accounts with him sooner or later.” The police also didn’t deny Baruch’s account.
“This is political persecution,” said Nasra, Pollak’s lawyer. “Indictments were filed against Pollak in the past, but to request detention until the end of the proceedings is a new escalation. We don’t see many requests like this [in cases relating to] Jewish left-wing activists.
“The authorities know [that he protests there every week], and he has no convictions for violent incidents,” Nasra continued. “When they arrested Pollak, one of the police officers said to him: ‘I know you, you’re here to make provocations.’ The indictment is scant and based on three testimonies from police officers, which, from the beginning of the investigation, Pollak said were coordinated.” Apart from this, Pollak has maintained his right to silence.
‘A true supporter of the Palestinian struggle’
A veteran anti-Zionist activist, Pollak co-founded One Struggle in the early 2000s, an anarchist group that emphasized the connections between animal rights and other forms of oppression, including the occupation. He was also a founding member of Anarchists Against the Wall, whose activists joined the popular struggle in Palestinian villages against the construction of Israel’s separation barrier on their lands for nearly a decade, including Mas’ha, Budrus, Bil’in, Nil’in, and dozens of others in the West Bank. In 2005, he was hospitalized after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier during a protest in Bil’in.
After Israel’s completion of the wall in rural Palestinian areas of the West Bank, Pollak was among a small number of Israeli activists to join the protests in the village of Nabi Saleh, where Palestinians have been demonstrating since 2009 against the takeover of a spring in the village by Israeli settlers. He also regularly participates in demonstrations against settler takeovers in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and against gentrification pushing Palestinian residents out of their homes in Jaffa. And for the past year and a half, he has been coming almost every week to Beita.
Pollak, who does not hide his face at the protests he attends, became a target of right-wing Israeli organizations several years ago. These groups published footage of him participating in demonstrations, helping to block roads to prevent army incursions, and carrying tires to be burned by Palestinians — but they never produced any evidence of him resorting to any kind of violence. In 2019, he was attacked by two Israeli men as he was leaving the offices of the Haaretz newspaper where he works. One of them tried to stab Pollak with a knife and wounded him in the face; one of them also shouted that he was a “leftist lunatic.”
In 2018, Ad Kan filed a criminal complaint against Pollak and two other Israeli activists, Kobi Snitz and Ilan Shalif, for their part in demonstrations against the wall in the West Bank. In the lawsuit, the first of its kind against anti-occupation activists, Ad Kan claimed that “together with other rioters, [they] unlawfully attacked IDF soldiers and Border Police officers.” The various authorities did not see fit to file an indictment against the three activists.
Pollak refused to attend the legal proceedings, and was later issued with an arrest warrant. After managing to evade several attempts, he was arrested in January 2020 and held in custody for a month and a half, until the attorney general announced he was delaying the proceedings in the criminal complaint procedure. In doing so, the case against Pollak and the two other activists was effectively closed.
Pollak’s latest conviction was in 2021; he was accused of interfering with a police officer in the performance of his duties during a demonstration near the wall in Bethlehem in 2017. He was sentenced to 30 days in prison, and a further two months of probation over the next two years. As with the proceedings for the complaint filed by Ad Kan, Pollak again chose not to cooperate. The judge, Eitan Cohen, wrote in his verdict that Pollak’s refusal to cooperate was a factor in the decision to convict him. The judge ruled that Pollak’s response during the hearings regarding the accusation of interfering with a police officer — “I didn’t interfere with them enough” — amounted to “preliminary acknowledgment.”
Khaled Abu-Qare, an activist who took part in last Friday’s protest in Beita, told +972: “Palestinians in Beita proudly raised the photo of Jonathan Pollak last week to express their support for his cause, which is directly linked to the Palestinian cause. His case was mentioned by the Imam during Friday prayers in front of hundreds, because he is a true supporter of the Palestinian struggle for decolonization from the river to the sea. Jonathan’s presence in the field is what makes him close to the hearts of the Palestinians. He addresses things as they are: apartheid. He was loyal to the Palestinian struggle, so his comrades are loyal to him, and we demand his immediate release.”
Paying the price
From the moment police arrested Pollak, multiple Israeli institutions — including the police, the prosecutor’s office, and right-wing organizations — mobilized to make him pay a heavy price for his political activities. It is no mystery why it is easy for them to do so: along with his open political views and his record of protesting, (which the army and the right wing like to call “popular terrorism”), his arrest will not provoke protests in the Knesset, as in the case of the arrests of “hilltop youth” settlers who attack Palestinians.
The speed and efficiency with which the indictments, which include serious accusations, were filed against him less than a week after his arrest, and the cooperation of the police with right-wing groups, should alarm anyone who goes out to the streets to protest — even if their views are the opposite of Pollak’s. Apart from the testimonies of the three officers and a secret report, the police have not presented any real evidence until now. But in court, it is their word against Pollak’s. And at their request, barring any new decision, he will not be released until his next hearing on Feb. 13.
Arbitrary arrests during protests and the quick filing of indictments based on little evidence, while an anomaly for Israelis, are the reality of life for thousands of Palestinians every year, in addition to the hundreds held in administrative detention without charge. The few Israeli activists who joined West Bank protests in recent years were usually protected from these policies because they were Jews; even when they were arrested, they were released within a day, and usually no indictments were filed against them. But under the new far-right government and the current political climate, this too may change — and not just for the few who go to protest in Masafer Yatta, Sheikh Jarrah, or the Jordan Valley, who have faced violence and harassment from soldiers and settlers for years.
During the “Balfour” demonstrations against Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous government, which took place for much of 2020 and into 2021, Israeli police arrested hundreds of protesters and later filed charges against several of them. It was also there, for the first time, that the police used measures that had until then been largely reserved for Palestinian, Haredi, and Ethiopian Jewish protesters. If the mass demonstrations against the current government and its proposed judicial reform escalate to the “civil disobedience” that protest leaders are calling for, the center-left protesters may too find themselves facing arbitrary arrests and indictments like Pollak’s.
In his acceptance speech upon receiving the 2021 Yeshayahu Leibowitz Award, Pollak said: “Between the river and the sea there is one colonialist regime that is entirely illegitimate. And when the regime is illegitimate, what is the role of the members of the settler society who reject it? What is our role?
“The struggle for liberation must be led by those who are seeking to be liberated, not by us,” he continued. “When white South Africans opposed apartheid … they joined as a minority to the ANC — some of them even took up arms — in the struggle to overthrow the apartheid regime and colonialism. It is the same here in Palestine: in order to truly join the struggle to overthrow apartheid, the few Jewish settlers who are interested in it will have to come out against the essence of the colonial regime, not against this or that symptom of it.”
He concluded: “We must seek and find our way within the Palestinian liberation movement, with the understanding that Jews must be a minority [in it], and that only in this way … through a constitutive reversal of the balance of power, can we work for true equality and liberation.”
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.