Mahmoud Abu Rahma, who was attacked last week
The unrecognized heroes of Palestine are the human rights investigators. Their job is to investigate and expose the atrocities committed against their people, no matter who the perpetrator — Israeli or Palestinian. Nine times out of 10, they are stymied, stonewalled at every step. Or — worse. Like Mahmoud Abu Rahma, director of international relations for Gaza’s Al Mezan Center of Human Rights. He is slowly recovering from his second assault in a month; this second time, he was lucky to escape with his life.
When I was filming vignettes in Gaza for the Palestinian Gandhi Project, I focused one of my interviews on two field workers for Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. (You likely have heard of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and its charismatic director, Raji Sourani. Al Mezan is less “slick” in its appearance — both virtual, on the Web, and at its physical headquarters. And its senior team does a lot less to generate publicity. But they are just as professional and have a “we try harder” spirit. It was with Al Mezan that I decided to volunteer my time as a Web consultant when I lived in Gaza for six months in 2010.) They told not only of the expected non-cooperation by government officials (both in Israel and within the two ruling Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah), but also by the victims themselves. After all, investigations and a reliance on the rule of law usually yield nothing — or perhaps even life-threatening harassment.
“The people can easily see that we investigate so many cases where the crime is obvious, but nothing happens. The ‘criminal’ is still there, and the victim does not receive any compensation,” Samir Zaqout, coordinator of Al Mezan’s fieldwork unit, told me.
To international organizations and governments, he had this to say: “You need to prove your credibility. Your credibility is destroyed every day. ..The people hear about the (UN) Security Council, etc. But in reality, the criminal still keeps committing more crimes, and nobody protects or compensates the victims. Everything is turned into a case for international ‘relief’ — not justice. With this silence, the people feel they have no one to trust. This leads them to radical views, to perhaps look for more violent acts to defend their rights.”
However, Israel is not always the perpetrator. On New Year’s Eve, Abu Rahma published a courageous essay on the Ma’an news site. He wrote, in part:
“Facts on the ground indicate clear examples where Palestinian citizens in Gaza and the West Bank find themselves clashing with the government and/or resistance. These cases are many; beyond what most of us think.
“One can only wonder in such cases: Who will protect citizens from the mighty resistance and the powerful government when one, or both, of them harm them?
“Sadly, example after example has shown that the very notion of citizen protection simply disappears in such cases, and people fall into a situation of helplessness and misery. Resistance protects, but only from outsiders, ‘the enemy.’
“Government can protect us from private persons and gangs. Sadly, however, both the resistance and our government fail to protect us from our own-selves; from one another.
“It is safe to assume that neither the government nor the resistance is willing to step in to protect people who dare to criticize them.
“Every day we see detention and summoning of citizens by the dozens; not for unlawful acts they committed, but mostly for who they are and what they think, or for their mere political affiliation.
“We witnessed, with much agony, the outrageous attack upon free expression and peaceful assembly since March 2011. There are reports of hundreds of cases of torture and abuse. Several people died in detention and under torture in Gaza and the West Bank.
“No one was punished for these acts, and we know too little about whether their families were compensated according to a process of law.
“On the contrary, we only see overwhelming efforts exerted to protect the violators of people’s rights; be those torturers, teachers who abuse children, or doctors who act with utmost negligence.
“The government stands by them firmly and no one can get the reports, evidence, or public records that prove their innocence or wrongdoing. Nor do we hear of serious investigations seeking the truth.
“Many citizens also fell victim of the continuous negligence of the resistance groups who show little or no care for people’s life and well being, or, worse, fail to take responsibility for shocking acts by their members.
“It is clear the government is not willing to take the smallest act. It does not open investigations or even hold talks with the resistance groups to ensure that steps are taken to protect the vulnerable people. It is equally clear that the resistance continues to show the same carelessness towards violations committed by the government against the people…
“Welcome to the naked truth: the relationship between the government, the resistance and the people is moving in one way: the people support, nourish and protect their resistance and government. But the resistance and the government are not in the least bit interested to do the same for the people. This is an untenable situation and a dangerous reality.
“It is not the intention of the author to dismiss entirely either Palestinian resistance groups or the governments; or to attempt in any way to undermine their best qualities. Neither is an example of pure evil.
“People act and commit mistakes which can be forgiven; however, in order to forgive the mistakes of any kind of power or authority, there must be some indication that the power or authority wishes to make amends, to take responsibility for its past failings.
“Power and authority with a poor moral foundation are doomed to fail. They will destroy themselves and lead their people to corruption and injustice.
“The people of any nation have a responsibility to criticize those who lead them. We must look in the mirror before we can see ourselves clearly.
“This is a call for both the Palestinian resistance groups and the government to make sincere efforts to repair their relationship with the people they claim to represent and hope to help.
“Relationships go two ways. If the people do not enjoy respect and rule of law from the resistance groups and the government — two political bodies that claim to stand for their rights — they will all go down together.”
The internal response to Abu Rahma’s brazen “speech to power” was immediate. He says he received a series of threatening emails and phone calls, and just three days after publication a group of masked men entered his building and beat him up. He escaped unscathed. But he was not so luck last Friday. It was slightly before midnight when he was walking home from his office; before Abu Rahma made it to his house he was attacked by three masked men. He was stabbed multiple times in the leg and shoulder.
The Hamas-controlled Information Ministry in Gaza said in a statement the government is investigating the circumstances of the attack and called it a violation of human rights. It also said Gaza authorities respected the right of political expression as long as it conformed with “national responsibility.”
But, according to the CNN blog, international rights organizations like Human Rights Watch say the governments in both Gaza and the West Bank are complicit in the abuse and harassment of Palestinian critics, using both detention and torture as a means of repression.
“Hamas’s failure to protect Abu Rahma, who has been a leading voice for human rights in Gaza, sends a chilling message to other human rights defenders,” Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson was quoted as saying.
Mahmoud says he remains undeterred. He and his staff will continue to speak truth to power, whether that means the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian governments or self-governing militant groups. In our activism, we must support Mahmoud and his compatriots in any way we can. “Gandhi” lives.