TEL AVIV // The pre-dawn arrest of a prominent Israeli-Palestinian human rights activist has this week become a rallying cry for the country's Palestinian minority. Yesterday, hundreds of Israeli Palestinians protested against last week's detention of Ameer Makhoul, protesting that it was part of an escalating campaign to crack down on Israel's Palestinian citizens.
Mr Makhoul is an outspoken critic of Israel and one of the key backers of a new Palestinian boycott on goods produced in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. The demonstrators included his wife, who held up a placard plastered with a photo of her husband along with a demand to free him. Among the protesters were Israeli-Palestinian legislators, including Jamal Zahalka, who declared the arrest was an attempt to "put us into a political ghetto" and pledged that "major protests were on their way".
Israeli police and the country's Shin Bet internal security service yesterday partly lifted a gag order on Mr Makhoul's arrest, saying that he was suspected of spying for Lebanon's Hizbollah militia, against which Israel fought a month-long war in mid-2006. A statement from the Shin Bet said Mr Makhoul, along with another Israeli-Palestinian activist, Omar Sayid, who was arrested in late April, were detained for "severe security offences including contacting a Hizbollah agent". The two men have not yet been charged, according to a police spokesman. Colleagues of Mr Makhoul, the general director of Ittijah, the umbrella group for Palestinian non-governmental organisations in Israel, and the brother of a former member of the country's parliament, deny the accusations.
Hussein Abu Hussein, a lawyer and the chairman of Ittijah, called the suspicion "ridiculous" and said in an interview: "It's true that he has connections with activists in the Arab world, but also in Europe and in the US and only in the field of human rights. I have no doubt that he has no relations with Hizbollah." According to Mr Hussein, the arrest of Mr Makhoul, who is not known for advocating violence, was Israel's way of relaying a message to its Palestinian citizens. He added: "Israel is trying to show that no one is immune and that he should lower his voice against Israeli practices inside the green line and in the occupied territories."
Mr Makhoul was detained at around 3am last Thursday at his home in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Despite the gag order imposed immediately on the case, nine human rights organisations have publicised it by swiftly issuing a joint statement demanding his release. According to the statement, 16 Shin Bet agents were accompanied by police officers as they raided Mr Makhoul's home, citing unspecified security reasons. They confiscated documents, maps, the family's four mobile phones, two laptops, hard drives from the desktop computers of Mr Makhoul's two teenage daughters, a camera as well as his wife's tape recorder.
A similar raid took place at the same time on Ittijah's offices nearby. Soon after, Mr Makhoul's detention was extended for six days and he was denied access to a lawyer for at least two days, the groups said. The arrest came just weeks after Israel's right-wing, ultra-Orthodox interior minister signed an order prohibiting Mr Makhoul from leaving the country for two months, saying his exit "poses a serious threat to the security of the state", according to the groups' statement.
Palestinian groups claim Mr Makhoul's arrest reflects a stepped-up Israeli campaign against human rights defenders in general and Palestinian activists in particular. Along with arrests, the campaign also includes raids, deportations, travel bans and visa denials, they say. Abeer Baker, a lawyer for Adalah, a Haifa-based legal group advocating for Palestinian rights, and which is representing Mr Makhoul and Mr Sayid, said: "These actions are the extreme aspects of the criminal law - they should be used exceptionally, but they are used very often against Arab leaders in Israel. This is a way to limit our rights to criticise publicly."
Ms Baker said the campaign has intensified since the predominantly right-wing, pro-settler government of the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office more than a year ago. She added: "It's a political attack in which they use emergency regulations, criminal law and the most extreme provisions of the Israeli law." Masud Ganaim, a Palestinian legislator in Israel's parliament, lambasted the arrest in an e-mail as a "clear proof of racism for whomever claims Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East".
Indeed, Mr Makhoul's arrest is only the most recent example of such actions against Arab citizens. According to Ms Baker, a non-governmental organisation registered in Israel and advocating for the rights of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails was shut three months ago by the Israeli defence ministry, which had cited security reasons. Such actions are drawing more support among Israelis, who, according to analysts, are increasingly drifting to the right. Indeed, a poll released in late April by Tel Aviv University showed that more than half of Jewish Israelis believed human rights groups that exposed immoral behaviour by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely, and that the government permitted too much freedom of expression.