Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ameer Makhoul's Day in Court

I have known Ameer Makhoul since the day he came to my office at the Galilee Society to be interviewed for the position of director of our then new and ambitious project called ITTIJAH, the Arabic acronym for Union of Community-Based Arab Associations. I knew of him before as another troubled Arab student at Haifa University who couldn’t square away Israel’s bogus claims to democracy, as in ‘the only democratic state in the Middle East,’ with his experience as a member of a minority gagged and shackled by draconian security-based regulations. This had led at the time to his dismissal from his studies and banning from entering the university campus as another ‘trouble maker.’ Ameer went on to obtain his Bachelor’s degree through the accumulation of credits in after-hours and off-campus courses. Two decades later the administration of Haifa University was still formally advising its foreign students and other international guests against visiting Arab communities for their own safety. In1964-6, during my own university studies, I had rented a room in Vermillion, South Dakota from an old lady that warned me daily against the ‘wild Indians’ in the Prairies. I could relate to the deep-seated apprehensions of the aggressor.

The decision to hire Ameer over several other candidates, including an accomplished lawyer, was unanimous for the simple reason that he inspired greater trust and had his own independent vision of what ITTIJAH could become. At the time, my own concept of the future of the project was rather hazy, clouded among other things by the promise of generous funding from the Ford Foundation on a track to parallel the Shatil Project it had started funding for the nascent New Israel Fund in support of its grantee organizations. One Zionist Israeli citizen after another came to represent the Ford Foundation here and a day came when all of its grantees in the Middle East were asked to sign a declaration distancing them from and denouncing terror organizations. Ameer argued with his constituency on one side and with the funders on the other as to the definition of terms such as ‘terror.’ He rightly sensed an admission of guilt in the text of the form he was required to sign. He refused to do so at peril of the loss of funds. He veered further to the left in his search of funding resources internationally. With this came further alignment of ITTIJAH with Human Rights issues and structures in the various world forums including the gaining of special consultative status with the UN ECOSOC Council.

This process and Ameer’s unbending leadership style gradually led to ITTIJAH having its own stand on significant national level and international policy issues and Human Rights campaigns. This has meant that Ameer was charged with representing his constituency of over eighty local and national Arab NGOs in Israel and had at the same time to reflect back to them the sense of the international community’s rising struggle against neocolonialism, globalization, degradation of the environment and the infringement on the rights of the poor and the indigenous communities. Inevitably, Ameer gained prominence in the international struggle for freedom and equality, the very same issues he had long struggled for on the home front. At Durban, South Africa in 2001, he stood out as another front-line freedom and human rights advocate. Israel’s security services could no longer ignore him. Seeing him and Abu-Asa’ad, the head of the Sons of the Village Movement, in the frontline of protesters whose images, with clenched and raised fists, were splashed on TV screens across the globe I couldn’t help imagining the handcuffs on those raised arms. Abu-Asa’ad’s turn came first. He is more confrontational and rash. It took the responsible parties this much longer to spread the right bait and drum up the right charges against Ameer. In the meantime he has added insult to injury in the authorities’ eyes by establishing and heading the national level forum of the Committee for the Defense of Freedom which aimed to raise public awareness, locally and internationally, to the recurrent infringements of the Israeli Government on the freedom of its Arab citizens both individual and collective.

This morning, Ameer had the same confident, iron-will look, the same victorious self-confident smile, and the same massive heavy-knuckled clenched and raised fists thrust up in the air, this time with real handcuffs. I sat in the same front row in court with members of the Makhoul family including, among others, his wife, Janan, his two daughters, and four siblings. It dawned on me that Ameer’s prominent politician brother, Isam, the former member of the Israeli parliament and head of the Communist-led Jabha coalition and the current Director of the Emil Touma Institute of Palestinian and Israeli Studies was on trial as well. Second to Vanunu, Isam has done more to alert the world to Israel’s nuclear weapons than anyone I know. Except that he has done it openly and within the limits of the law. Still, to have dared to raise such taboo topic in the open and at international forums is a step beyond courageous. Cameel, my former associate at the Galilee Society and a brilliant genetics researcher, was there too. Very likely, he was on trial by proxy as well. Except that I couldn’t pin any specific violation on him. He did research at all the right places: the Weizmann Institute and Haifa University. It had often occurred to me that this branch of the Makhoul clan would make a nice group for a social science investigation regarding the factors contributing to the production of such a fantastic array of prominent individuals in one generation. Could it be that Ameer is paying the price for their collective prominence? Palestinian villagers in Galilee are supposed to survive modestly on the meager remnants of their land. This bunch is too proud and worldly successful for its own good. Somehow, everyone in the audience (all but two were Arabs) was on trial as far as I could tell from the expressions on their faces and the opinions they expressed later outside the court.

In front of the glass barrier, (not the full-height one Jonathan Cook featured symbolically in his book “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State” but a more symbolic low one,) sat the lawyers: The defense team consisted of four well-known attorneys including Avigdor Feldman and Hussain Abu-Hussain who heads ITTIJAH’s board. At one point I had a chance to greet my two friends and to ask about the absent Adalah lawyers. They had other involvements today. The prosecution team consisted of one lady attorney and her student assistant. She busied herself with the frequent smoothing down of her constantly straying locks of waist-length scraggly hair spread across her back from the tip of one shoulder to the other. I, in contrast, busied myself with imagining a less messy haircut for the petit woman: a shoulder-length cut should do, I thought. Perhaps an aggressive masculine haircut would be more in tune with her assignment. Then I came up with the perfect style for her: a straight shave. Perhaps she will discover a form of cancer that would force her to take chemotherapy and loose all of her hair. I shuddered: Why such vengeful thoughts? She is only doing her job as part of the system, no more. She is not there because she hates Ameer Makhoul personally. The system! That is exactly the problem. Her representative role is what makes her a monster to me and makes Ameer and possibly all Palestinian Citizens of Israel enemies in her eyes. But that is also what gives her power: Here she is, standing up single-handedly to a team of dedicated world-class lawyers knowing from the start that she will win. She and the three judges that have now entered the court to the subdued hiss of the audience’s motion as we rose from our seats and sat back again, were two different arms of the same system, there to tame the same beast they all know all of us to be. At one point I could see the woman in profile. She was a spitting image of Marcie, the cartoon persona in Peanuts.

This may well be a worldwide phenomenon: a system of control designed to disadvantage the disadvantaged. The three judges, the court secretary and stenographer, and the half-dozen jailors and guards are all part of the same system, a whole institution created and functioning in a way to control the likes of Ameer. Conceptually, they all owe their living to the continued perceived need to prosecute and punish the elements of society that object to the hegemony of which they are part. Not only that, but also they are fed by the same zeal and perceived duty to find, apprehend, convict and punish those who dare to disapprove of the essence of their system. Ameer and everyone in his audience today surely do disapprove of the imposed Zionist system of the State of Israel. Everyone in the court system as well as those in the security apparatus internalize their duty as being that of stemming this perceived threat to their very existence and livelihood. And this coalition of interested parties, this collection of invested partners, proceeds to assign different roles to its various members and to put on a well-orchestrated show to give the impression of impartiality in performing the very function for which they exist in the first place: to put Ameer in jail.

I need to pause for a breath here. I am sure this is not news to juridical experts and scholars of the philosophy of jurisprudence. Yet, relying entirely on my own logic, I am reaching the end of my wits. (Please, Raif Zraiq, bear with me for the next thought. I know you are laughing by now. But I lack your scholarly training.) When two contestants, say over the exact border between two adjacent pieces of land, go to court to settle their dispute, the judge and the entire court system are presumed to be neutral, unless if one party had managed to bribe them. But in our case one of the contestants is the very system of whom the entire court structure is part. All those sitting in judgment of Ameer have been bribed a’priori by holding the positions which they hold and fulfilling the duty for which they are being paid a monthly salary. And they are full partners by definition: the police who arrested him, the Shin Bet that torture him, the jailors who incarcerate him, Ms. Marcie who is prosecuting him, and the judges who will judge him together with all of us, his undeclared collaborators. We all seem to resist swearing allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”. We seem to have our doubts about subscribing to a scheme whereby the state defines itself exclusive of us. I wonder how many Americans would swear allegiance to an America that is defined as white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant?

Here finally come the formal charges against our man: meeting an agent of an enemy state abroad. What evidence does the state has against Ameer? There is a lot of it but it is all of a secret security-related nature and hence cannot be shared with the defense team. All except for one piece of evidence: the fact that Ameer saw his physician after his return from a trip abroad with the complaint of dizzy spells which the prosecutor takes as proof of the mounting internal psychological pressure of the accused over his guilt feeling about meeting the Hizbollah agent. In contradistinction to the secrecy enveloping the entire affair, the prosecutor here repeated half a dozen times the name of Hizbollah, apparently for no reason other than wishing to incriminate the accused through the mere mention of this feared bogeyman. The rest of the two-hour-long session was wasted on technicalities related to the claims of the secret and sensitive nature of the information that can be shared only between the different arms of the establishment Mafia: the prosecutor, the judges, and the secret police.

In the absence of an alternative system of justice we all will meet here again in two months. The courts’ collective holidays are upon us. The judges, the guards, the police, and the prosecutor need to spend their summer vacations with their families that had missed them all year. Ameer’s family will be visiting their next of kin in Makhoul Village in Upper Galilee. Ameer’s prison cell is reported to be comfortable: it has a proper bed.