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Last week armed Israeli policemen entered the East Jerusalem YMCA offices and arrested Haytham Hammouri, a YMCA staff member. He was handcuffed and taken into police custody. No charges were made, and he was kept incommunicado for three days. At this point, he was able to see a lawyer, taken in front of an Israeli […]

Arbitrary Imprisonment

by SAM BAHOUR And PAUL De ROOIJ

Last week armed Israeli policemen entered the East Jerusalem YMCA offices and arrested Haytham Hammouri, a YMCA staff member. He was handcuffed and taken into police custody. No charges were made, and he was kept incommunicado for three days. At this point, he was able to see a lawyer, taken in front of an Israeli court, and sentenced to six months "administrative detention" in an Israeli prison. No charges were made against him, and there has been no trial. Haytham joins more than 12,000 Palestinians in a similar situation, but may be the only Palestinian resident of Jerusalem held under this arbitrary pretext.

Haytham Hammouri is a YMCA staff member working on community projects. The YMCA has taken an increasingly important role providing basic services to the community. The YMCA runs rehabilitation centers where the tens of thousands of Palestinians wounded during the previous and current intifada are treated, given support, and offered rehabilitation. Rehabilitation isn’t just a matter of teaching the youngsters to walk with crutches, or to implant prostheses; it is crucially also an economic issue. Most of the wounded people are manual laborers, and therefore the loss of one of their limbs or mobility is a major blow to their chances to become economically independent. The rehabilitation offered by the YMCA therefore also entails teaching the victims skills that will reintroduce them productively into society.

The YMCA differs from the organizations found in other countries, where it is synonymous with a sports club or cheap hotel. In the Occupied Territories, it has taken on an additional role to deliver essential services, and Haytham was involved in the organization of such services. Thousands of Palestinians depend on key services organized by the YMCA, and therefore Haytham’s imprisonment on no charges, for an undetermined duration (initially six months, but this can be extended arbitrarily), without trial or appeal, in a prison far away from his family is grotesque.

We in the "West" only hear about the bloody aspects of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and in fact, the reporting from that area stops when there is no bloodshed. However, the pernicious aspects of occupation–the attempt to make life unbearable for the grand majority of Palestinians–continue unabated even when there is "a period of calm." The most recent Israeli tactic is to atomize Palestinian society even further. After effectively crippling the official Palestinian "authority", now we witness further attempts to imprison all actual and potential leadership who work at the grassroots level. Thus, Haytham, who provides essential services to the population and is in no way involved in violence, has been arrested–his crucial leadership is thwarted making life more difficult for many. This is the intended effect of the perniciously named "administrative detention," in reality this is arbitrary imprisonment without charges or trial, for arbitrary terms that can be extended at will by the Israeli "judge" (these can’t even spell habeas corpus), with limited access to legal representation, and served in prisons far away from their families. This practice abrogates all the rules that we take for granted in the "West", however, the news we usually obtain from the area seldom mentions the Kafkaesque situation Palestinian leaders find themselves in. If Bush were really concerned about democratizing Palestinian society, then he may want to ask his frequent visitor, Ariel "man of peace" Sharon, why a person like Haytham Hammouri is imprisoned.

Despite the terrible situation Haytham finds himself in, he is "lucky" on two counts. First, he hasn’t been tortured (yet)–a common practice, and something that isn’t legally proscribed in Israel. Second, he is in a relatively decent prison in Netanya; other prisoners aren’t so lucky, and end up in what can only be called a concentration camp, the new Ansar camp in the Negev desert. This is a jungle of barbed wire where prisoners are kept in tents on top of an asphalt tarmac. Prisoners are rotated and moved between jails often to prevent the formation of social bonds, and break the spirits of the prisoners.

Despite all American claims about democracy, justice, and a special way of life, it is astonishing to see that they overlook the denial of those very rights elsewhere. Democracy and justice are crushed under an Israeli boot subsidized to the tune of untold billions of US money without a peep from the "lovers of freedom". The US bears direct responsibility for the brutalization of Palestinian society; you my American friend, have a lot to answer for.

What you can do: Please print out a poster about Haytham Hammouri’s situation, and please post it everywhere you can. Please get every YMCA around the world to campaign for Haytham’s release. The poster (in PDF format) can be found at: www.indymedia.org.il/imc/israel/webcast/40046.html.

More about Haytham Hammouri: He is married to Malak Masri and they have three daughters aged 4, 8, and 14; they live in Jerusalem. One of the consequences of Haytham’s imprisonment is the havoc caused to his family–the main breadwinner has been imprisoned, and his close relationship with his children has been cut. The YMCA also has been denied one of its most effective organizers. After learning of his six-month sentence, his 8-year-old daughter wrote her dad a letter that the Israeli prison authorities haven’t allowed to be delivered.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). He can be reached at sbahour@palnet.com.

Paul de Rooij is an economist who lives in London. He can be reached at jproo@btconnect.com