Jailed for Caring

Without international intervention, Israeli human rights activist Ezra Nawi will most likely be sent to jail.

Nawi is not a typical rights activist. A member of Ta’ayush Arab-Jewish Partnership he is a Jewish Israeli of Iraqi descent who speaks fluent Arabic. He is a gay man in his fifties and a plumber by trade. Perhaps because he himself comes from the margins, he empathises with others who have been marginalised – often violently.

His “crime” was trying to stop a military bulldozer from destroying the homes of Palestinian Bedouins from Um El Hir in the South Hebron region. These Palestinians have been under Israeli occupation for almost 42 years; they still live without electricity, running water and other basic services and are continuously harassed by Jewish settlers and the military – two groups that have united to expropriate Palestinian land and that clearly have received the government’s blessing to do so.

As chance would have it, the demolition and the resistance to it were captured on film and broadcast on Israel’s Channel 1. The three-minute film – a must see – shows Nawi, the man dressed in a green jacket, not only courageously protesting against the demolition but, after the bulldozer destroys the buildings, also telling the border policemen what he thinks of their actions. Sitting handcuffed in a military vehicle following his arrest, he exclaims: “Yes, I was also a soldier, but I did not demolish houses … The only thing that will be left here is hatred.”

The film then shows the police laughing at Nawi. But in dealing with his audacity, they were not content with mere ridicule and decided also to accuse him of assaulting a policeman. Notwithstanding the very clear evidence (captured on film), an Israeli court recently found Nawi guilty of assault in connection with the incident, which happened in 2007, and this coming July he will be sent to prison. Unless, perhaps, there is a public outcry.

Nawi’s case is not only about Nawi. It is also about Israel and Israeli society, if only because one can learn a great deal about a country from the way it treats its human rights and pro-democracy activists.

Most people are not really surprised when they read that human rights activists are routinely arrested, prosecuted, imprisoned and harassed in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and several other Middle Eastern countries. Indeed, it has become common knowledge that the authoritarian nature of these regimes renders it dangerous for their citizens to actively fight for human rights.

In this sense, Israel is different from most of its neighbours. Unlike their counterparts in Egypt and Syria, Israeli rights activists, particularly Jewish ones, have been able to criticise the policies of their rights-abusive government without fear of incarceration. Up until now, the undemocratic tendencies of Israeli society manifested themselves, for the most part, in the state’s relation to its Palestinian citizens, the occupied Palestinian inhabitants and a small group of Jewish conscientious objectors.

People might assume that Nawi’s impending imprisonment as well as other alarming developments (like the recent arrest of New Profile and Target 21 activists, who are suspected of abetting draft-dodgers) are due to the establishment of an extreme rightwing government in Israel. If truth be told, however, the rise of the extreme right merely reflects the growing presence of proto-fascist elements in Israeli society, elements that have been gaining ground and legitimacy for many years now.

Nawi’s case, for what it symbolises on both an individual and societal level, encapsulates the current reality in Israel. His friends have launched a campaign, and are asking people to write letters to Israeli embassies around the world. At this point, only international attention and intervention can make a difference.

NEVE GORDON is chair of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of Israel’s Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).


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Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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