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America’s Credibility Gap

In the past three weeks the United States has rightly expressed concern about a pattern of increasing political repression in Sudan, has called on Iran to release all human rights defenders, and has wished Burmese human rights heroine Aung San Suu Kyi a happy birthday.

Yet the Administration remains silent about Israel’s draconian arrest and treatment of human rights defenders Ameer Makhoul and Omar Saeed, part of a pattern of increasing repression of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nor has the State Department sent Ameer birthday greetings. He turned 52 in prison on June 19 and when his trial resumes on June 27 it will feature a confession extracted by torture and “secret evidence” that will not be disclosed to his lawyers.

It is going to be increasingly difficult for the Obama team to turn a blind eye to the way Israel treats its Palestinian citizens — treatment Israel is also beginning to extend to Jewish human rights defenders. The 1.2 million Palestinians, whose community has faced discrimination under the law since Israel was established in 1948, have been committing the worst possible crime: demanding equality in the state of Israel.

As of 1993, the Oslo Accords sent three signals to the Palestinian people. To those living under occupation, Oslo sounded like a promise of freedom. To refugees and exiles, Oslo smelled of a sell-out of the right of return. And to the Palestinian citizens of Israel it was a signal to push for full citizenship rights — something that challenges Israel’s claim that it is possible to be a Jewish and democratic state. As Ameer’s wife, feminist writer Janan Abdu, put it, “When Israel insists on being a ‘Jewish state’ it cancels out our very existence.”

Over the years Ameer Makhoul helped to found political parties and community groups. He no longer belongs to any and instead he focuses on directing Ittijah — a coalition that now brings together 64 Palestinian non-governmental organizations. And he’s building bridges between Palestinian political and civil society leaders, and with the Arab world. According to Janan, “This ability to network locally, at the Arab level, and internationally, coupled with his clear strategic vision and the refusal to give up fundamental Palestinian rights — this is what Israel is trying to silence.”

Ameer means “prince” in Arabic, and there is no question that the soft-spoken Palestinian is an inspiring leader and coalition-builder. His wife is equally inspiring, somehow finding the strength to cope with a series of tragedies. Her parents died this month within two weeks of each other. Her father’s funeral fell on the day the family was finally allowed to visit Ameer. “I went from the prison to the funeral,” Janan says. “There are only two choices: to be strong or to be crushed. We need to keep believing in our rights, even if the personal price is so hard.”

Ameer recently established the Popular Committee for the Defence of Freedoms to expose Israel’s harassment of its Palestinian politicians. Janan recalls their conversations about the committee’s work, “I would say your turn will come. And now it has. Silencing his voice is also an attempt to silence a defender of political freedoms.”

Israel has been planning to silence Ameer for some time. During its December 2008-January 2009 assault on Gaza, when Israeli Palestinian and Jewish protestors filled the streets of Haifa and Tel Aviv, the security services hauled Ameer in for several hours of questioning. They were particularly upset at the way he was able to reach across generations and mobilize Palestinian youth. And they threatened him. They told him “We can ‘disappear’ you,” Janan recalls, “You should know that the next time we bring you in you will not see your family again for a long time.”

In his first letter from prison, released by his family this week, Ameer said the Israeli intelligence services forced him “to explain to them in a very detailed way how exactly I did what I didn’t do, ever.” And if they still need to “complete the puzzle, they have the legal tools to fill it in by so-called secret evidence, which my lawyers and I have no legal right to know about.”

In his letter Ameer launches a challenge to the human rights community to use his case to show how such tools are used “for the criminalization of human rights defenders.”

So here are some questions for the Obama administration: Given its ostensible concern for human rights, why does it not, at the very least, call for a fair trial for Ameer Makhoul and Omar Saeed and condemn Israel’s use of torture? Is it really ready to support institutionalized racism in the 21st Century by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state? Or will it, one day, bridge the yawning divide between its fine talk about human rights and its application to all human beings?

NADIA HIJAB is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

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