JERUSALEM // One of the leading figures behind a recent wave of non-violent protests against occupation has been sentenced by an Israeli military court to one year in prison.
The court also ordered Abdallah Abu Rahme this week to pay a fine of 5,000 shekels (Dh5,140) after he was found guilty in August of incitement and organising and participating in illegal demonstrations.
The 39-year-old activist and secondary schoolteacher, referred to by some as the Palestinian Gandhi, has become an international cause célèbre for advocating peaceful resistance to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, its separation barrier and illegal Jewish settlements in the territory. "His conviction and the sentence given to him are completely unacceptable," said Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli spokesman for the informal protest movement that Rahme helped found five years ago. He added that the court's aims were "highly political".
Friends and activists familiar with Mr Rahme's case said his legal team has not decided whether to appeal because he already has served 10 months of his sentence in an Israeli jail. He was arrested by the military last December. His supporters said an appeal would be made if the military prosecution lodges its own appeal, which must occur within 30 days of the judges decision. At Monday's sentencing, attended by his family and several European diplomats, the judge also ordered a three-year probation that forbids Mr Rahme's participation in demonstrations during this time.
Permits are required for demonstrations of 10 or more people, according to the Israeli military law that governs much of the West Bank. That law was cited as justification to arrest Mr Rahme and some of the dozens of people who have protested against the separation barrier, which stretches hundreds of kilometres and reaches beyond Israel's internationally recognised boundaries and deep inside the West Bank.
Some activists expressed concern that Mr Rahme's sentencing could lend credibility to those who advocate violence against Israel. "One of the messages coming from this is the notion that violence is the tool to deal with Israel," said Issa Samandar, the director of the Land Defence General Committees, a grass-roots organisation that helps Palestinians affected by Israel's settlements in the West Bank.
Human-rights groups as well as Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy representative, also have criticised Israel's handling of the Rahme case. Human Rights Watch published a lengthy report in response to his conviction, citing numerous irregularities in the charges brought against him as well as evidence of coercion used by the military to extract testimony from children. Two of the four charges against Mr Rahme were dropped, including one that alleged he had possessed arms. In its report, Human Rights Watch noted that the arms-possession charge "was based on an art exhibit, in the shape of a peace sign, that Abu Rahme constructed out of used M16 bullet cartridges and tear-gas canisters that the Israeli army had used to quell protests".
The Israeli military declined to comment on the issue yesterday. Mr Rahme was one of the founders of an informal group of Palestinian and Israeli activists who began coordinating demonstrations against Israel's separation barrier in the Palestinian village of Bi'lin. The protests, which have since spread across the West Bank, in some respects have become a microcosm of the nature of Palestinian resistance itself.
Peaceful demonstrators are met with brute force on the part of Israelis forces, which provokes stone-throwing and violence that Israel uses to justify tactics such as implementing military law. The protests regularly erupt in clashes, and some have turned deadly as a result of live ammunition and tear-gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers to disperse crowds. Mohammed Khatib, a Palestinian activist who co-owns a chicken farm with Mr Rahme, said a total of 19 protesters have been killed by Israeli intervention in the protests since the wall was built.
"Sometimes it seems like the Israelis actually like violent protests, because it's harder for them to justify their hard security measures if they're non-violent," he said. According to Human Rights Watch, Israel's separation barrier has severed Bi'lin's 1,800 residents from roughly half of their land, on top of which the Jewish settlement of Mattityahu East is being built. The organisation reported in March that 118 residents and activists in the preceding 18 months had been arrested by Israel in the village of Ni'ilin, which is located near Bi'lin.
In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that parts of the barrier be rerouted through Bi'lin, following a petition delivered to the court by village leaders. In an advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice ruled in a 2004 that the routing of the separation barrier was illegal.