The National – 30 December 2010
Jonathan Pollak, one of Israel’s most prominent political dissidents, is no stranger to dangerous situations or arrest in the occupied territories.
In seven years of joining Palestinians in their weekly stand-offs with the Israeli army at sites in the West Bank, where the separation barrier is being built, he has been arrested “too many times to count”, he said. He has been injured several times, including a wound to his head that required 23 stitches after a tear gas canister was fired at him.
This week, he received his first jail sentence – a term of three months – for participating in a mass bicycle ride in Tel Aviv.
Mr Pollak, 28, was the only person to be arrested as 40 demonstrators took part in the ride in January 2008 to protest Israel’s siege of Gaza. He said it was a “ludicrous” decision that highlighted the “clear deterioration in the right of Israeli Jews to protest against the occupation”.
Human rights groups, too, have warned that his case illustrates the growing persecution of Israelis involved in solidarity activities with Palestinians.
The Association of Civil Rights in Israel (Acri), the country’s oldest human rights organisation, said it was “part of a larger policy to infringe on freedom of speech and demonstration” in Israel.
Its chief legal adviser, Dan Yakir, said it appeared Mr Pollak was “personally targeted because of his views in an attempt to silence him”. For many Israelis, Mr Pollak is the public face of a small group of far-left activists who are seen to have crossed a line in not only criticising Israel’s occupation but also joining Palestinians in directly challenging military rule in the occupied territories.
The Tel Aviv judge, Itzhak Yitzhak, said he had not sentenced Mr Pollak “on the basis of the ideology embodied in his deeds” but because he had committed the offence of “illegal assembly”.
Mr Pollak received a suspended sentence in 2007 for demonstrating against the West Bank separation barrier.
Gaby Lasky, a leading human rights lawyer who represented Mr Pollak, said it had become “policy” to criminalise left-wing demonstrations and that her client had been singled out for his activism.
Both the Israeli police and justice ministry were unavailable for comment.
Mr Pollak will begin his sentence on January 11. Speaking to The National shortly after he was sentenced, he said did not intend to appeal because it would give legitimacy to his conviction.
A founder of Anarchists against the Wall, Mr Pollak has regularly publicised the cases of Palestinians jailed for participating in protests against the West Bank barrier. He said there was “a kind of poetic justice” to his own imprisonment.
“But I can’t compare my treatment to that suffered by my [Palestinian] comrades. They are tried by military tribunals, jailed much sooner and for much longer for the same so-called ‘offence’.”
Mr Pollak’s jailing follows the publication of a report this month by Acri in which it said there had been a serious deterioration over the past two years in the right to protest.
As well as condemning the treatment by security forces of demonstrations in the West Bank, it highlighted the increasingly repressive atmosphere inside Israel.
It said security agencies and elected officials were using a range of tactics to stop protests, including denying permits to demonstrate, blocking roads to protest locations, demanding payment to use sites such as public squares, breaking up demonstrations with violence and arrests, and launching unwarranted criminal procedures.
Police brutality, it added, was particularly evident during protests in support of Gaza and at weekly demonstrations by Israeli Jews in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood of East Jerusalem from which Palestinian families are being evicted by settlers.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, was also criticised for regularly summoning left-wing activists for “warning talks” at which threats were made. Acri said the practice recalled “the techniques of security forces in totalitarian regimes”.
Several leading Israeli left-wing activists told the Haaretz newspaper this week that they had recently been singled out by the “Jewish department” of the Shin Bet, which usually deals with terrorist activities by far-right and settler groups.
Matan Cohen, 22, an IsraeIi studying in the US and a co-ordinator of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, was detained and interrogated by police for several hours this month after he landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. Although he was released, the police filed a report listing him as “suspected of terror activity”, Mr Cohen said.
Two years ago, the Israeli army was reported to have begun requesting intelligence information on Israeli Jews active in the West Bank so that they could be issued with restraining orders to prevent them attending the protests.