Every week, as I return from lessons in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia I pass by the tent erected by activists in support of Gilead Shalit, the captive Israeli soldier. Each time I pass by and wish them good luck I am struck by the steadfast commitment to their cause while I am also, sadly, reminded of my own inactivity in the cause of my imprisoned friends. For as the leaders of Israel and of Hamas (along with the press) are busy discussing the release of their combatants there are a few important prisoners who have been neglected from the debate. These prisoners are those who have been imprisoned for taking a stand for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. Amongst them are my friends Orr Ben David and Mohammad Othman both young, but experienced, activists for peace.
I have known Mohammad Othman* for many years due to our mutual engagement in the fight to bring down the racist barriers separating our peoples and our struggle for a joint future for Israelis and Palestinians. Mohammad is from Jayous, a beautiful agricultural village located in the northern part of the occupied West Bank. The village has lost much of its land to the separation barrier built by Israel. Muhammad was arrested on the 22nd of September at the Allenby Bridge as he was returning from a speaking tour of Scandinavia. He has spent the first 60 days of his arrest in isolation while enduring intensive and often humiliating interrogations and for the last 30 days has been under administrative detention without a trial or formal charges. In recent days two more Palestinian anti-wall activists Jamal Juma’ and Abdallah Abu Rahmeh have been arrested and held, like Muhammad, without formal charges. Alongside them in Israeli prisons are thousands of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom have been sentenced for petty offences, if they can be called that, such as working in Israel to support their families, organizing civil protests, and taking part in Palestinian institutes and political parties.
I met Orr Ben David** when she was a 15 year old teenager attending an alternative summer camp dealing with social and environmental issues which I co-founded. Orr is now a 20- year old woman who recently completed a year of voluntary service in which she taught art to children. Orr has been imprisoned for refusing to serve in an army that oppresses another people as well as its own soldiers. She is presently serving out a 34 day sentence after already having spent 46 days in military prison. During her long prison stay Orr has been joined by other military refusers such as Wala Kasem and Idan Barir who have also spent time in prison for their refusal to serve. In addition to the imprisoned objectors there are hundreds of other young soldiers imprisoned for such "crimes" as standing up to their abusive commanders, deserting in order to support their families, and refusing to cooperate with the military system whilst it is harming their physical and/or mental health.
As we live out day our daily lives it is easy to forget about all those imprisoned in prisons far away from our eyes and hearts. This is true sometimes for our imprisoned friends and even more so when those prisoners are defined by our rulers as "enemies" or "terrorists" and never as human beings. This is why those dedicated people who remind us daily that Gilead Shalit has been imprisoned far too long, at a great cost to his mental and physical health, are so important. Nevertheless, as we remember Gilead and work for his speedy release, and while our Palestinian counterparts work for the release of their combatants, we should not forget those who are imprisoned not in the name of past and present wars but for a future free of them. These young people like Or and Muhammad, who have committed their bodies and souls to non-violent action for peace, justice and equality are the foundations on which we shall one day build a joint society for all of this land’s peoples. A society which will provide a worthwhile future for our children far away from the armies, prisons and cemeteries of today and close to their friends and families, fruit trees and vegetable gardens, sports and recreation clubs, learning centers and nature.
**Orr Ben David is a conscientious objector and a member of the Shministim movement: www.shministim.com