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If You Speak Out, You End Up Here: Hassan Karajeh at Ofer Prison

Forty percent of Palestine’s male population is, or has been, imprisoned in Israeli jails.

Ofer Prison, an Israeli prison in the West Bank. (Photo: Ariela R.)

The recent case of Hassan Karajah is illustrative of how Palestinians whose only crime is speaking out against the Israeli occupation can be arrested, imprisoned and subject to continuing harassment for security violations.

It is raining outside of Ofer Prison – and the concrete walls and watchtowers that eerily mimic the infamous 14-foot concrete separation barrier that snakes its way through Palestinian villages and closes Palestinian citizens into the Bantustans of the West Bank look appropriately foreboding against the fog.

Even though Ofer Prison is located in the West Bank, Israeli flags perched atop the watchtowers are a reminder that this is an Israeli-administered facility, though not technically on Israeli land. Ofer is one of three Israeli prisons and two Israeli courts in the West Bank, where Palestinians who have been arrested by the Israeli military for “security violations” are processed, tried and sentenced.

It is the court hearing of Hassan Karajah – a Palestinian human rights defender who was arrested when the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) raided his home at 2:30 AM on January 23. According to Addameer, the Palestinian Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, after 20 IOF soldiers kicked open the door and spent three hours ransacking his family home, breaking furniture and confiscating three personal laptops and five mobile phones as well as several personal files and reports, Karajah was identified, arrested, blindfolded and taken to an Israeli interrogation facility.

According to Israeli Human Rights organization B’Tselem, any political affiliation including nonviolent protest can be considered and treated as a security violation. Though the Israeli Prison Service declined to comment, a fact sheet produced by the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, titled “Administrative Detention of Palestinian Terror Suspects,” justifies these arrests as well as administrative detention without trial as a preventative measure for Israel’s safety and security.

In another report, titled “Prisoners of Peace: Administrative Detention During the Oslo Process,” B’Tselem comments, “If the same standards applied in Israel, half of the Likud party would be in administrative detention.”

Karajah’s most likely “security violation” is working as a youth coordinator at Stop the Wall, a Palestinian NGO that advocates against the construction of the separation barrier and draws attention to the companies that facilitate its construction.

“When Hassan’s sister called me and told me about the raid, I thought she was kidding,” Sundous, Hassan’s fiancée of one month told me. “Hassan’s work does not involve anything that should get him arrested, he focuses on peaceful resistance.”

At this court hearing, Karajah is supposed to learn whether or not his interrogation will be renewed or if his case will immediately go to trial. According to Israeli military law, an arrestee can be held for up to 90 days for interrogation and up to 60 days without access to a lawyer. Once his interrogation is over – though it is possible that he will be released – it is far more likely that he will either be tried in the military court or held in administrative detention. If he is tried in the military court, he will most likely be convicted, since, according to the 2011 Israeli Military Courts annual report, the conviction rate of Israeli military trials taking place in the West Bank is 99.74 percent. Alternatively, if he is held in administrative detention, he will be imprisoned without trial for three months – which can be renewed indefinitely.

At this point, Karajah is seven days into his initial 12-day interrogation period and has not been permitted to see his lawyer or his family. Without access to his lawyer, it is impossible for his family to know how he has been treated during his interrogation or the extent to which he has been tortured. Like many Palestinian prisoners before him, Karajah’s only human contact since his arrest has been his Israeli interrogators.

When Hassan’s lawyer asks the prosecution about Hassan’s charges, the prosecution lawyer responds, “He was arrested for something that we do not want to talk about.” According to Israeli military law, this is a legitimate response, because arresting someone without naming the charges is legal.

Even though there is no guarantee that they will see him today, Hassan’s mother and fiancée, Sundous, have been here since 8:30 in the morning, waiting outside in the rain for hours after going through multiple checkpoints to get into Ofer. However, once the court is in session, any time that Hassan is in the courtroom, his lawyer and family are ordered to step out, and ushered back in only when he is in another room.

I was at the court myself, though I was not allowed to officially enter as a journalist. To enter as a journalist, you need a GPO press card from the State of Israel and clearance from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson – meaning that any Palestinian journalist would most likely be denied entry to the court. Once I was finally permitted to enter, the Israeli prison security guards repeatedly questioned me to ensure that I was not attending the court as a journalist. Still, journalist or not, I was allowed to bring a blank notebook and a pen – though I was not permitted to have anything else on my person.

Like Hassan’s mother, fiancée and lawyer, I was ordered to step out of the court every time Hassan appeared before the judge.

“It was so sad to be so close to Hassan, but still not be able to see him,” Sundous told me later.

By the end of the day, there is still no ruling on whether or not Karajah’s interrogation period will be renewed.

What is remarkable about Hassan Karajah’s case is that it is not remarkable. In Karajah’s own family, his father and eldest sister have both been arrested and imprisoned, and one of his brothers is currently in prison at Ofer. In 2009, both Mohammad Othman and Jamal Jumaa – also activists with Stop the Wall – were arrested and imprisoned. Both Othman and Jumaa were held in administrative detention – meaning that they were arrested without charges, extensively interrogated and held without trial the entire length of their time in prison.

“No one knew anything about me for at least a month,” Othman told me, recounting his own interrogation experience with the Israeli military incarceration system.

In 2009, Othman, also a youth coordinator for Stop the Wall, was arrested by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) at the Israeli border on his way home from a prominent speaking tour in Norway. During his trip, Othman met with Norwegian finance minister Kristen Halvorsen, a meeting that later lead to Norway’s national pension fund divesting from the Israeli company Elbit – an electronics firm crucial in the building and maintenance of the separation wall.

“I knew it was coming,” he told me, now recounting his arrest. “My friends in Norway opened a bottle of champagne before I left, and I told them, ‘This is my last trip. They’re coming to get me.’ “

Sure enough, at the Allenby Bridge land crossing from Jordan – Palestinians are forbidden from flying into Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, and therefore they must cross into the West Bank via the Jordanian border – Othman was stopped, arrested, taken to and detained at an interrogation facility in Haifa, Israel. During his detention, he was interrogated for as many as 16 hours per day and finally locked in solitary confinement with no charges and no trial.

Four months later, after extensive international pressure, Othman was released. However, since his release, he has still faced enormous trouble from the Israeli authorities – such as periodic house arrests and severe restrictions on travel and freedom of movement.

“I know they’ll be back for me,” he said. “They never let those of us they held in administrative detention really go.”

Spending time with Palestinian activists, the common statistic that 20 percent of Palestine’s total population and 40 percent of its male population is, or has been, imprisoned in Israeli jails begins to come to life. According to the most recent report from B’Tselem, 4,517 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners are currently being held in Israeli prisons, with another few dozen Palestinians being held in facilities for shorter periods of time.

Many of these are not criminals, but ordinary citizens whose only crime is speaking out. However, according to the Israeli authorities, their actions constitute a “security violation,” meaning that they must be arrested, guaranteed imprisonment and locked away so that Israel can continue its occupation of Palestine with impunity.

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