Last week, Israel fired the latest salvo in its “war” against the non-violent boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). This time it came on the streets of Ramallah. As happens so often with Israeli abuses against the civilian population of the occupied West Bank, the soldiers invaded in the middle of the night. At 2am on Wednesday 26 October, Israeli occupation forces crashed their way into the home of Salah Khawaja, a well-known Palestinian activist against the occupation, and a campaigner for the boycott of Israel.
According to Stop the Wall, an organisation of which Khawaja is a leading member, the troops ransacked his home, turning out drawers, destroying furniture and generally causing chaos. Stealing one computer and breaking the monitor of another, they also grabbed Khawaja’s phone before taking him to Ofer military base and prison built on stolen Palestinian land near Ramallah. He remains there more than a week later, denied any access to a lawyer.
Palestinians kidnapped by Israel in this manner are often held using the practice of “administrative detention”, an Israeli euphemism for internment without trial or charges. This is an “emergency law” which dates back to the British “Mandate” occupation of Palestine; technically, Israel has been under a state of emergency ever since its foundation in 1948 on top of the ruins of historic Palestine.
The latest data shows that the use of such detention without trial is on the rise. About 700 Palestinians are currently held by Israel in “administrative detention”, and even Palestinian citizens of Israel have begun to be targeted by the abusive practice over the past two years.
At the moment, Khawaja is being held under a 15-day order issued by a military court. In Israel’s apartheid system in the West Bank, only Jews have access to the civilian court system. The Palestinians who form the vast majority of the population living in the occupied territory are denied their rights systematically by Israeli military courts, which exist primarily to perpetuate the occupation indefinitely, and to protect Israel’s occupation soldiers and illegal settlers.
Khawaja was also seized by Israeli occupation forces in 2008, for daring to participate in protests against the apartheid wall in the West Bank (which was declared illegal under international law in 2004). Back then he was abused and beaten by the soldiers who took him to a military base. Eventually he was released without charge, but the occupation authorities refused to let him lodge a complaint about the way that he was treated.
Stop the Wall says that Khawaja’s latest arrest was met with resistance by local youths in Ramallah, who engaged in unarmed confrontations with the occupation forces. The Israelis reportedly blanketed the entire area in tear gas, which had a seriously adverse effect on local families who had been asleep.
Salah Khawaja is an activist in the Palestinian National Initiative, the political party founded by Mustafa Barghouti, a politician and medical doctor. The party makes non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation one of its headline policies.
He is also a member of the secretariat of Palestine’s BDS National Committee (BNC), the coordinating body for the BDS movement. The BNC is not a political party, but a small organisation with a tight remit: to promote and coordinate the 2005 BDS Call document. In 2005, the vast majority of Palestine’s civil society organisations came together to found the BDS movement in a document with three clear demands: to end the occupation, to ensure equal rights for all Palestinians and to respect the Palestinian right of return.
These three key demands unify the entire Palestinian body politic, representing as they do the three main sectors of the Palestinian people: those in the occupied territories, the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the refugees. The most crucial factor in the rise of the BDS movement in the past decade has been the BDS Call, and the tireless work of the BNC to promote and protect it.
In the past few years, Israel has launched what it calls its “war” against BDS. The movement has begun to replace Iran as the largest of what Israel claims are “existential threats”. It is no surprise, then, that the Israeli authorities would seek to crush key activists working for BDS and other forms of popular action against the state on the ground. The travel ban on the BDS movement’s founder and key thinker, Omar Barghouti, is another symptom of this.
Since there are no charges and Khawaja has been completely denied any access to a lawyer, it is hard to know exactly which of his actions triggered this current crackdown. However, as one of his supporters told me, it is fair to assume that it is likely to be the sum of his work as a key movement activist coordinating popular action in Palestine.
There is due to be a court hearing on 9 November, so we may learn more then. In the meantime, Israel must free Salah Khawaja immediately and unconditionally.