Shawan Jabarin is an activist to some, a terrorist to others
RAMALLAH // When it comes to perseverance in campaigning to root out human-rights abuses on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide, few figures stand taller than Shawan Jabarin.
As the head of Al Haq, a human-rights organisation in Ramallah, he has sought international arrest warrants for Israeli officials accused of war crimes and has sued foreign companies aiding Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.
He and his organisation have not spared Palestinian officials, either. Al Haq has criticised the Palestinian Authority's security forces for arbitrary detentions in the West Bank and called on Hamas to end a crackdown on civil-society groups in the Gaza Strip.
In the view of Israel, however, Mr Jabarin is more than an equal-opportunity annoyance. Its supreme court four years ago called him a "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" personality who moonlights as a "senior activist" for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which Israel considers a terrorist organisation. That description was included in a ruling that upheld a 2006 edict barring him from travel beyond the West Bank.
To Mr Jabarin's supporters, the allegations would be just another laughable attempt to smear a Palestinian in the name of fighting terrorism - laughable, that is, if the consequences did not seem so cruel.
On November 28, the 51-year-old native of Sayer, a village near Hebron, was denied permission to travel to Denmark to receive a human-rights prize awarded annually by the PL Foundation, a Danish rights group.
A day later, three prominent human-rights organisations condemned Israel's refusal to allow Mr Jabarin to travel abroad and criticised its failure to produce "any evidence that would justify" the restrictions.
"While civil society groups recognise Jabarin's courageous work, Israel is punishing him with a travel ban," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, in the statement signed by her organisation, Amnesty International and the Israeli group B'tselem, a co-recipient with Mr Jabarin of this year's foundation prize.
Mr Jabarin calls Israel's allegations against him "absurd". He has neither been officially charged with a crime nor allowed to see what, if any, evidence the authorities have used to justify the travel ban.
In this ordeal, he sees an Israeli government that is growing desperate to silence those who use international law as a tool for challenging the abuses of its military occupation of Palestinian land.
"I think the Israelis see this as a war against them. But for us, it's not a war," he said.
"It's a peaceful way of defending human rights, and without trying to defend these rights, there's no way to make any improvement on the ground."
A father of four with a rugby-player's frame, Mr Jabarin was born to a family of West Bank farmers. His formative years were marked like those of countless other young Palestinian men living under occupation: administrative detention.
He forgets how many times since then he has been detained without charge or trial by Israel's military. But he can vividly recount the abuse he experienced as a prisoner in its jails.
There were the interrogators who repeatedly spat in Mr Jabarin's face. There was a marathon interrogation session during which he was not allowed to sleep for days and left him hallucinating with visions of Israelis demolishing his family home. "I actually thought for a while my home was gone," he recalled recently.
Unlike those who respond to Israeli brutality by taking up arms, the experiences, Mr Jabarin said, convinced him to challenge Israel by enlisting in the human-rights cause. He joined Al Haq as a field researcher in the 1980s.
Since then, he has befriended former US president Jimmy Carter and lobbied US government officials, and participated in a four-month programme on human-rights advocacy at Columbia University in 2001. He admits he has won so many awards from various European and American organisations that he has trouble remembering the exact number.
"One-two-three-four-five-six," he counted on his fingers during an interview at his Ramallah office. "Yes, it's six!"
Under his leadership, Al Haq's staff of Palestinian and foreign researchers have shifted their search for legal redress from Israel's military and civilian courts to foreign venues.
Following a criminal complaint filed by Al Haq, Dutch authorities last year carried out a raid on a company suspected of helping to build Israel's separation barrier. Also, the group has joined with the Palestinian village of Bi'lin in suing Canadian companies for alleged involvement in construction on a Jewish settlement.
In 2009, Al Haq sought with other plaintiffs to obtain an arrest warrant in a London court for Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, accusing him of committing possible war crimes during Israel's three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which began in December 2008. Mr Jabarin describes the evidence collected against Mr Barak and other Israeli officials as "a big, big file".
Israeli authorities claim these legal efforts abroad are aimed at "delegitimising" Israel. To combat it, Israel's parliament in July approved legislation that calls for penalties against any non-governmental organisation that advocates economic boycotts against Jewish settlements in the West Bank or any other Israeli institution. Critics of the law have said it and other proposed legislation like it stifles free speech.
For Mr Jabarin's Palestinian colleagues, it is a worrying trend.
"If this government perceives Israeli-Jewish human-rights organisations … as a danger and threatening the legitimacy of Israel, we have a good idea how the authorities would perceive someone like Shawan," said Hassan Jabareen, the director general for the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, or Adalah.
Pressure against Mr Jabarin increased when he became director at Al Haq in 2006. It was in June of that year that he learnt of the travel ban by Israel's security agencies, who cited his affiliation with the PFLP to justify it.
Mr Jabarin said that he was briefly involved with a PFLP student branch while studying sociology at Birzeit University in the 1980s and served nine months in prison after an Israeli military tribunal convicted him in 1985 of involvement with the group. His links with the whole organisation ended then, he said.
Some Israeli organisations insist that Mr Jabarin's involvement with the PFLP has not ended and question his bona fides as a champion of human rights.
"Our main concern is that someone who is engaged in terrorist activity and planning attacks should not be considered a human-rights activist," said Anne Herzberg, a legal adviser to NGO Monitor, a group that is critical of what it sees as the anti-Israeli bias of many human-rights groups and other non-governmental organisations.
Michael Sfard, Mr Jabarin's Israeli attorney, said Israeli authorities should either cite the evidence against his client and arrest him, or lift the travel ban.
"There have been thousands of these PFLP guys who have been arrested over the years, so why aren't they confronting him?" he said.
"He's not even allowed inside Jerusalem to observe his own case, which is absolutely crazy," said Mr Sfard, who has petitioned Israel's High Court three times to lift the ban against Mr Jabarin. It has turned him down each time.
Updated: December 13, 2011 04:00 AM