On the 25th January 2006, the Palestinian legislative elections were held by agreement with all concerned parties and under the supervision of the international community. The electoral process was witnessed as transparent and democratic.
After the elections’ results were announced and the new government was formed, the Israeli Minister of Interior threatened the four Jerusalemite deputies Mohammed Mahmoud Abu Teir, Ahmed Mohammed Atoun, Mohammad Imran Totah and the former Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Khaled Ibrahim Abu Arafah, of revoking their Jerusalem permanent residency status if they would not resign from the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Hamas government.
On the 29th June 2006, the four PLC members representing Jerusalem, along with several other Palestinian deputies and ministers, were arrested by the Israeli authorities and detained for 3-4 years. Following their release, the four legislators were summoned by the Israeli police and given expulsion orders from Jerusalem for one-month. Mohammed Abu Teir’s notification period finished on the 19th June 2010 while the other officials’ notification periods ended on the 2nd July 2010.
On the 30th June 2010, Muhammed Abu Teir was arrested near his house. On the 1st July 2010, Ahmed Mohammed Atoun, Mohammad Imran Totah and the former minister of Jerusalem affairs Khaled Ibrahim Abu Arafah went to seek asylum at the International Red Cross headquarters in Jerusalem in order to avoid the possibility of being arrested and banned from living in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalemite deputies are still holding their sit-in at the ICRC headquarters in Jerusalem and they will stay there until the Israeli authorities cancel the expulsion order and return their revoked residency IDs. They are calling on local and international organizations to oppose any decision by Israel to deport them from Jerusalem.
On the 17th May 2011, the Israeli Supreme Court held a new hearing in the case regarding the deportation of the four PLC legislators from Jerusalem.
Mohammad Imran Totah is Palestinian Legislative Council member from Jerusalem. Totah is holding a sit-in at the headquarters of the International Red Cross in Jerusalem, along with the three other deputies from East Jerusalem, in protest against Israel’s decision to deport them. The legislators started their protest on the 1st of July 2010.
1. Could you briefly describe the phase between the formation of the new government following the outcome of the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006 and your arrest on 29th June of the same year?
We were in prison for most of this period. We were incarcerated four months after the elections in 2006. I was released on the 2nd June 2010, the next day the Israeli forces handed over to me and my three other colleagues from East Jerusalem an order to leave within 30 days. The reason provided to us was that we are ‘disloyal to Israel’ being members and deputies in the Palestinian Legislative Council, even though the Oslo agreements allow Palestinians from East Jerusalem to take part in the elections, either to be elected or to elect.
2. With the arrest in 2006, how long were you sentenced to serve in prison? and on what charges?
I was imprisoned for 3 and a half years, the charge was that we participated in the elections under the ‘Change and Reform’ list which Israel claims it belongs to Hamas, and this is the only charge that we were given. Actually, I could not imagine that if I participated in the elections I would spend 3 and a half years in jail, especially since the international community had pressured all Palestinian factions to join the elections anticipating that the outcome of the elections would be respected. However, after the results were announced, the international community denied the electoral outcome and refused to deal with members of the ‘Change and Reform’ bloc clearing disapproving the fact that we could hold the majority in the Legislative Council.
3. While detained, you were subjected to extortion and threats to have your residency revoked if you did not resign from the PLC and the government. Could you explain what forms of threats were used against you during your imprisonment?
From the beginning, after we won in the legislative elections, we were told that we would be deported. When I was taken to jail for inspection, the Israeli authorities threatened that they would bring my mother, wife and children. Once, one of the inspectors came to the section where I had been put in solitary confinement, and gave me a picture showing my wife had been in fact called inside the prison for inspection. This was done in order to make me say what they wanted me to say.
Also, when we started our protest here, the Israeli forces phoned my wife warning that they would catch me. With regard to the prison conditions, I faced many difficulties while held in detention.
The major difficulty was related to my medical state. I contracted a disease inside the prison and, because I was denied medical care for a long period, the disease continued and still affects me today.
The disease started at the time I was transferred from one jail to another, I was left from 5 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the afternoon without water and I had no right to use the toilet. Currently, I have to take a medicine every day to cope with the disease, and the doctors are now telling me that it will stay for life.
In addition, during my detention more than once our room was inspected and searched, whether in the morning or at night, nevertheless nothing was ever found. And if I or any detainees did anything that the authorities judged to be ‘wrong’, we would be put in solitary confinement for 1-2 weeks, or in some cases even for months and years.
As for me, I was in solitary confinement for 35 days. Besides, we were allowed family visits once every two weeks, over 45 hours only, with up to two people visiting at a time. I have three brothers and four sisters, my mother, my wife and four children, so you can imagine it would not be until 4-5 months when I could get to see everyone.
4. After being released, you were summoned by the Israeli police and your identification card was confiscated. How did the Israeli police motivate their decision, just after you had completed your sentence?
The motivation they gave was ‘disloyalty to Israel’. The Israeli police did not charge us because we belong to a certain party, no, the main reason for the revocation of residency in East Jerusalem was that we are deputies in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
This was despite participation in the elections is permitted to Palestinians of East Jerusalem, based on Oslo agreements, as I mentioned before. And of course, before the elections everyone knew that we would take part and nobody imprisoned us at that time. Later, we won the elections but we were not detained then.
We were incarcerated four months after the outcome of the elections was made known. So if Israel says that we were doing something disloyal, why did they not revoke our residency from the very beginning? Why did they intervene four months later? This means that after four months, they realised it is ‘disloyalty’, it’s unbelievable. And it was a decision made by the Ministry of Interior, not by the Court. We are afraid of this decision because deporting us will open a gateway to deport thousands of Palestinians from East Jerusalem on the basis of disloyalty…of course, there is no special reason for being disloyal, and in the international law it is illegal for the people under occupation to be loyal to the occupying power.
5. You were also given expulsion notification from Jerusalem for one-month. How did you dispute the notification? what did you experience during that month period?
We have a lawyer working on this, our case has been sitting in the Israeli Court but we are not optimistic as we know that only 2% of the cases are resolved to the benefit of the Palestinians so we are not positive but we have to try in all the ways. It is against the international law to deport the people under occupation or to transfer them from one place to another. Although Israel violates the international law, it makes sure that any decisions are legitimized through the Knesset so that, once new laws are introduced, the government can claim: ‘We are with the law’. Nevertheless, all laws passed in the Israeli Parliament are against the Palestinians, whether inside Israel or in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
In the face of the Occupation, the only tool that we have is the protest…we said that we will not go outside East Jerusalem, it is our original home, we were born here, our fathers and grandfathers were from here, we have been here for hundreds of years, East Jerusalem was seized and occupied in 1967 so the Israelis have to leave, not us.
That said, we held several meetings with representatives from all the Palestinian factions in East Jerusalem, we established different committees across the civil society with the purpose of resisting deportation.
On two occasions, we also met President Abbas who recognized the decision of deporting us is dangerous, and said he had discussed with the Israeli government and the Deputy of the US Ambassador, and reassured us that we would not be imprisoned again…unfortunately four days after meeting with Abbas, the Israeli authorities arrested one of us, Mohammed Abu Teir, near his home and deported him to Ramallah.
So we thought our fate would be the same, and to avoid deportation we decided to come to the headquarters of the International Red Cross and bring our case to the international community.
The other thing we did..we sent letters to all the consulates and embassies in East Jerusalem as well as to all international organizations working in the human rights field including the Red Cross, the United Nations and other international organizations. Some of these organizations showed their solidarity through letters, visits and protests held here, however that was not enough to make pressure on Israel and counter its decision over deportation. This was a very long month for us because it was full of meeting, contacts, sit-ins, etc.
6. Before your notification period ended on the 2nd July 2010, you went to seek asylum at the International Red Cross headquarters in Jerusalem. What other options did you have at that time to avoid another possible arrest or an actual deportation?
Are there other institutions or organizations where we could go? The embassies or consulates inside East Jerusalem would consider us ‘refugees’…through the United Nations, we would be separated from our people because nobody can enter the UN offices without permission, so it would mean for us being kept inside whilst not keeping contact with the community outside and sharing our cause with the world.
So the only option we had was to come to the International Red Cross headquarters, we have a good space here, people can reach us any time, the door is open…we even consulted officials and people from East Jerusalem to see if they had any other options to suggest but none of them did. Besides, we were afraid that, if we were deported, at least another 360 individuals living in East Jerusalem would be targeted for deportation. For that reason, all of them encouraged us to seek refuge at the International Red Cross.
7. How does the International Red Cross support you in your cause? Are there any other human rights organizations helping you?
They give us hospitality here and we thank them for doing so, but they haven’t gone further. We think their job could be more than that, they should say it is not fair and legal to deport us (according to the international law) and should address letters to the government, to the world’s community, and make pressure globally.
Nonetheless, the International Red Cross gave us hospitality at least, it’s better than other organizations that did not give us anything. Otherwise, no other organization is actually helping us…some have sent us letters of solidarity or made press releases and organized delegations to visit us, for eg. the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Jimmy Carter as well as a number of parliamentary deputies and consuls from many European countries visited East Jerusalem and came to see us.
But there is no actual support on the ground to push Israel to cancel the order of deportation. We are sure that if there was greater pressure from the international community, the order could be called off. We experienced this before. In 1992, 260 deputies were deported to Lebanon, they served one year there and were returned by decision of the United Nations.
We have sent two letters to Ban Ki-moon expressing our anger about this situation and asking him to intervene but unfortunately we still have no answer from him. We are deputies representing Palestinians, at least he has to answer our letters.
8. How are you currently coping in your life as PLC member and beyond?
We cannot really act as deputies in the Legislative Council since we cannot go out of this gate, if we do we will be deported and immediately imprisoned.
But as Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, we share our case from here, we make press releases regarding the situation in East Jerusalem, but we cannot do more than that since we cannot go out, it’s a self-imposed prison here, the Occupation is around us everywhere..what else can we do from this tent? By sitting and protesting here, we think we can effectively show to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem that we can face the Occupation, and we have to face the Occupation.
If they see their representatives holding this protest for this long time, it will encourage them to do the same…As husbands and fathers, we were separated from our families for 3 and a half years..my children are very young, we had planned to spend time together and share important moments of their life. When I was released, after only 28 days I came to protest here, so my wife and children are separated from me again.
Although my children can come to see me here, they don’t always have the time to come because they have school, they go back home and have to study.
As for me, I don’t have long time to spend with my family while supporters and people are coming and sharing our situation…[last March] I had another child and imagine, my wife was at the hospital -which is based 500 meters from here- but I couldn’t go, I couldn’t share her suffering, I couldn’t see my little baby coming into life. And right now, I feel like I have a new child but I cannot see him, and whenever my wife brings him here, I want to hold him but he sleeps a lot of the times and I don’t want to bother him.. it’s not easy.
9. As a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council representing the city of Jerusalem as well as someone born and raised in Jerusalem, how do you see life in this city for Palestinian Jerusalemites today?
I can see the Israeli government is in a hurry in changing the situation on the ground in Jerusalem, especially in the last 4-5 years. Unfortunately, none of the organizations concerned can make sufficient pressure to stop Israel from what it is doing. We think this has encouraged Israel to continue creating facts on the ground…we have over 14.000 people who have been deported from East Jerusalem, more than 10.000 homes have been demolished here, heavy taxes are imposed on the Palestinian population, overall the main objective for Israelis is to empty Jerusalem -particularly East Jerusalem- from its Palestinian residents by different means.
The whole world can see that, nevertheless there’s no action against what Israel is doing. What the Israeli government is doing on the ground clashes with what it is saying about peace..we know that East Jerusalem is an occupied land while Israel proclaims that Jerusalem is a united city and promotes ‘economic peace’ but this kind of peace will not give us any of our rights back. As a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, I believe we support peace but we are in favour of a peace that ensures our rights are recognized, a Palestinian state is established within 1967 borders to include East Jerusalem and all the occupied lands, and refugees can claim their right of return…We think the international community must intervene regarding East Jerusalem, the situation is getting worse and worse.
We think that East Jerusalem is a door to peace as well a door to war..people will not always stay silent, nobody can stop them and anything can change at any time in Jerusalem and beyond.
10. What do you think could effect a change in the future of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem in the face of Israel’s ongoing displacement?
Well, in the short term Israel has succeeded in deporting thousands of people, that’s right. But in the long run, this will show to the world that Israel does not want peace. The recent uprisings in the region will gradually transform the current environment.
Until now, Israel has depended on its imagine of strong power in the Middle East, but this equation is now changing, and Israel does not have the control it used to have before. Here, what we are asking to our people of East Jerusalem is to stay in their homes, we don’t have any power other than staying steadfast until we get our rights back.
But if they leave Jerusalem, it will be very hard for them, if not impossible, to return. We cannot ask our people more than that because their lives are very difficult here already…
11. How realistic do you see the possibility to form a national unity government? What impact could that have on the situation affecting Jerusalemite deputies, ministers and occupied Palestinians?
We aim for this Palestinian unity because we will be stronger in facing the Occupation if we are united. None of the factions can face the Occupation alone so we are with this reconciliation…But if we want to make this unity deal, first of all prisoners held in the PA jails have to be released. Then, the Palestinian Authority has to stop its security coordination with Israel.
How can we have national unity while the PA is coordinating security with the Israeli occupation forces? (at the detriment of the Palestinians) so it is unacceptable…If we were united, the whole world would support us and we would be stronger, we could set our own objectives and a common strategy to end the Occupation. We cannot halt the Occupation immediately but in the long term we can do so but we have to be united, first.
12. You are still holding your sit-in at the International Red Cross headquarters since 1st July 2010. How positive are you about having your expulsion order cancelled and recovering your revoked residency ID?
Well, we announced at the first moment we entered the headquarters that we would not leave from here until we get our rights. We knew from the very start that it would not be easy to have our expulsion order cancelled but we can succeed if we continue our protest, we think it could take years, we knew that from the beginning and we have to pay a very high price.
We feel that it is more difficult than the prison itself because in prison the door is closed so you know that you can’t go out. Now the decision to go out or not is left with ourselves, it is harder because people come to meet us, talk about outside life and we cannot relate to that and share the same with them.
It is more difficult but we will not leave this organization until we are able to protect the right of the people from East Jerusalem. If we choose to go out, we will force thousands of Palestinians out of East Jerusalem even if the decision does not come from us directly.
However, maintaining our sit-in here helps to deter this threat of mass deportation, and we know that it could take long time, we don’t know how long, but we don’t have another choice…We are not regretting this situation, no, we are still holding our protest with all our power, in this way we will achieve freedom for our people in our land. Until then, we will continue our protest.