Nine months after he helped to organise protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza, Samih Jabareen is a prisoner in his home in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, an electronic bracelet around his ankle to alert the police should he step outside his front door.
The 40-year-old actor and theatre director is one of dozens of Arab political activists in Israel who have faced long-term detention during and since Israel’s winter assault on Gaza in what human rights groups are calling political intimidation and repression of free speech by the Israeli police and courts.
A report published last week by Adalah, an Arab legal rights group in Israel, said 830 Israeli demonstrators, the overwhelming majority of them Arab citizens, were arrested for participating in mostly peaceful demonstrations during the 23 days of the Gaza operation.
According to the report, the police broke up protests using physical violence; most protesters were refused bail during legal proceedings, despite the minor charges; the courts treated children no differently from adults, in violation of international law; and Arab leaders were interrogated and threatened by the secret police in a bid to end their political activity.
This month’s report by the UN inquiry into Gaza, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, dedicated a chapter to events inside Israel, concluding similarly that there was wide-scale repression of political activists, non-governmental organisations and journalists in Israel.
The goal, the committee said, was “to minimise public scrutiny of [Israel’s] conduct both during its military operations in Gaza and the consequences that these operations have had for the residents of Gaza”.
Abir Baker, a lawyer with Adalah, said the police and legal system had resorted to mass arrests and a declared policy of “zero tolerance” as the most effective way to suppress peaceful protests.
According to Adalah’s statistics, a third of all those arrested were people under the age of 18, and, in a break with normal legal procedure, 80 per cent were refused bail for the entire period of legal proceedings. Detention is usually reserved for people considered a danger to the public. Most charges related to participation in a prohibited gathering, disturbing the peace or assaulting a police officer. Some children were charged with stone-throwing.
Ms Baker said it was telling that all the detainees in northern Israel, where most of Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens live, were kept in detention throughout proceedings, while in Tel Aviv, where joint Arab-Jewish protests were held, all those arrested were quickly released.
She said: “The police used the power of arrest not to punish criminal behaviour, but as a weapon to deter the Arab population from staging entirely lawful demonstrations. This is a tactic we have seen used before in Israel, particularly in the first and second intifadas.”
She noted that there were echoes of events in October 2000, at the start of the second intifada, when Arab citizens held demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied territories. Thirteen unarmed Arab demonstrators were shot dead and hundreds were beaten and arrested.
A later state inquiry castigated the police for treating the Arab minority, a fifth of Israel’s population, as an “enemy”. Unlike in 2000, however, police commanders on this occasion did not resort to rubber bullets or live ammunition.
Mr Jabareen, a prominent political figure in Jaffa, said that during the Gaza assault he had been put under a three-day house arrest and faced a series of interrogations where he was warned he would be jailed.
Three weeks after the Gaza assault ended, at a small demonstration in northern Israel, he said the police set a “trap” for him. “When I arrived, the police commander clearly knew who I was. He immediately had seven officers surround me. I was soon on the ground and they were beating, hitting and kicking me.”
Mr Jabareen was jailed for three weeks and has been under house arrest ever since.
Ms Baker said of his case: “The police commander accused him of assaulting him and yet they have produced no video footage, even though they filmed the entire demonstration, and no medical evidence that the commander was ever harmed.”
Mr Jabareen said his treatment contrasted with that of the ultra-Orthodox in the Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem who have been clashing with police for months to prevent the opening of a car park on the Sabbath.
“They are shown on TV throwing punches at the police and hurling stones at them. A few arrests have been made, but despite the high levels of violence, they are almost always released the same or next day. How can I still be under house arrest for eight months? It is clear that different legal standards are being applied.”
Ms Baker said the police had created new offences during the Gaza operation, such as “protests detrimental to public morale”.
Adalah found that a new directive was issued to police commanders about how to handle the protests, though the police have refused to divulge its contents. Ms Baker said she would petition the attorney general for the information.
The Goldstone Committee noted widespread intimidation and humiliation of community leaders. Saleh Bakri, a public figure who participated in a silent candle-light vigil on January 1 in Haifa, was arrested and forced to stand motionless facing the Israeli flag for half an hour as police officers filmed him.
The committee also recorded that at least 20 Arab leaders were forced to attend illegal interrogations by the Shin Bet where they were asked about their political activities. Student activists were asked to collaborate with the authorities and threatened with arrest or harm to their studies if they refused.
Police demanded Amir Makhoul, the head of the Ittijah co-ordinating body for Arab organisations in Israel, attend an interrogation following a speech he gave on December 29 in Haifa. After he refused, he was forcibly escorted to a police station where he was interviewed for four hours.
“They told me I would be thrown in jail if I continued my political work and that they could arrange for me to be dumped in Gaza. Their main concern seemed to be that I was urging the younger generation to be more politically active,” he said.
The Arab minority is staging a general strike on Thursday to protest the increasingly harsh climate and to mark the failure to prosecute any of the policemen responsible for the 13 deaths in 2000.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.