Poet on Trial: A visit to an Israeli court

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The Israeli Court of Nazareth is an imposing, twelve-story landmark that stands on the border of Arab Nazareth and Upper Nazareth or “Nazareth Illit,” the largely Jewish municipality built and settled in the 1950’s on confiscated Palestinian land. Nazareth Illit was created as a bulwark to contain the natural growth of the Arab sector and to consolidate a Jewish majority in the Galilee. The commanding modern courthouse is perched on a promontory overlooking Arab Nazareth, as if to assert its dominion far and wide.

To enter the compound requires scaling several flights of stone steps and crossing an immense landscaped courtyard flanked by a row of birch trees. The vaulted lobby of the edifice leads to sleek corridors and chambers of marble, wood, and glass—seemingly designed in the spirit of high-minded civic purpose.

Such a stately piece of architecture to house such flimsy proceedings—the disgraceful prosecution of a poet for her writings and posts on social media.

On Sunday July 17, at 4 p.m. a third hearing was held in the State’s case against Dareen Tatour, the 33-year old Palestinian poet who is being prosecuted for “incitement to violence” on the basis of a YouTube clip, two alleged Facebook status updates, and a picture posted of Isra’a Abed, an Arab woman who was shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers. This famous photograph was published far and wide, including on many news outlets.

From the moment she was arrested last October until now, Tatour maintains her innocence of all charges, which she says represent a mischaracterization of her intentions, a wrongful attack on her personal freedom, and the suppression of her democratic rights. It is hardly unusual, controversial, or criminal for any human, much less a poet, to express political dissent. Freedom of expression is such a bedrock value of any purportedly democratic society that even a Ha’aretz editorial has called for Tatour’s release, asserting that “Tatour is a political prisoner in every respect.”

This court session marks the final hearing of the prosecution’s case in a trial that began in April. Tatour’s attorney, Abed Fahoum, will begin to present the defense’s case on September 6. The wheels of justice grind slowly in the State of Israel, at least for Palestinian activists who endure de facto and de jure inequality under the law, including being subjected to the deplorable practice of indefinite detention.

When we arrive at the court, we find that the building is practically deserted. It turns out that there is a court workers’ strike underway. The one group of employees who have reported for duty in great numbers are the security guards who screen us as we enter and keep an eye on us as we congregate.

Dareen’s family and her supporters have gathered around a tall, noticeable figure, Abed Fahoum, the attorney for the defense. In a white shirt and dark tie, Fahoum moves and speaks with an air of confidence befitting a lawyer whose client, a hitherto unknown poet, has suddenly garnered a great deal of international attention.

Ever smiling and gracious, Dareen is being interviewed in a corner by a journalist for AJ+ named Hagar Shezaf who agrees to help me decipher the official court proceedings, conducted in Hebrew.

After finding the correct floor, milling around, and snapping a few pictures, we enter the courtroom, which has been chilled to the temperature of a morgue. We take our seats in the public gallery—twelve supporters in all, plus Hagar, the reporter. It’s a well-appointed chamber with high ceilings and elegant woodwork. Unlike the enormous Israeli flags that preside conspicuously all over Nazareth Illit, the blue and white flag draped in the corner seems wilted and impotent by comparison.

Of the thirteen spectators in the room, not a single person is here to cheer on the side of the prosecution. Not a single onlooker has a desire to see Dareen Tatour put behind bars. This absence of enemies or antagonists in the public gallery speaks volumes about the lack of an actual crime.

The Judge, Adi Bambiliya, takes her seat and opens the proceedings. She is a pleasant-looking woman who wears her long blonde hair tucked casually behind her ears. Her demeanor is amenable and responsive, and it becomes one of the great mysteries of the afternoon: how such a reasonable-looking person could be bothered to adjudicate such a baseless case.

The prosecutor, a woman probably in her mid-thirties named Elina Hardak, is intent today on establishing that Dareen Tatour is, in fact, the owner and user of the offending Facebook account and that it is Dareen Tatour who herself posted the status updates in question.

The prosecutor later intends to establish that Tatour is not just any poet, but a “well-known” poet. In order to substantiate the charge of incitement, she must demonstrate that Dareen has a public following. This is not going to be easy, considering that Dareen was a little known artist until her persecution by the Israeli authorities.

Ms. Hardak begins to call the witnesses forth to testify: Staff Sergeant Haim Sivoni, one of the police investigators; Dareen’s brother Ahmad; and Dareen’s best friend Samira Juma’at. The prosecutor circulates a slim packet of print-outs of screen shots of Facebook pages among the defense attorney, the judge, and the witnesses in their turn.

To establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Dareen herself posted these items on Facebook proves to be more difficult than it would seem. There were several Facebook accounts under the name Dareen Tatour. At least one such account has been hacked, as Dareen’s friend Samira testifies

All of this makes for a series of banal and futile exchanges, including this one between the prosecutor and Dareen’s eighteen-year old brother.

Prosector: When you surf the internet, what do you use?

Ahmad: The usual. Google…some Facebook.

Prosecutor: How many friends do you have on Facebook?

Ahmad: I don’t know.

Prosecutor: How do you communicate with your sister, Dareen?

Ahmad: In the usual way. We’re close.

Up until Dareen’s unexpected arrest, Ahmad and Dareen were living in the same house under the same roof, so this exercise seems especially pointless.

Later, in the re-examination, the prosecutor shows Ahmad the print outs from the notorious Facebook pages and asks him to read the name written on them in Arabic:

Prosecutor: What is written here?

Ahmad: Dareen Tatour.

Prosecutor: And what is written here?

Ahmad: Dareen Tatour.

This examination seems more like a test of Ahmad’s reading ability than solid evidence. In the United States we use a pungent slang expression to illustrate such an inane encounter: No shit, Sherlock.

Ahmad Tatour, brother and witness (Photo: Kim Jensen)
Ahmad Tatour, brother and witness (Photo: Kim Jensen)

The entire line of questioning proves to be circular and inconclusive. In an online world, inhabited by trolls, hackers, agents, and forgers of fake identities, none of the witnesses can confirm that they know for sure that Dareen had posted the supposedly incriminating statements, which in any case were deliberately misconstrued and taken out of context in the indictment and in earlier hearings.

Last October, the courts issued an official order to Facebook to release the IP address from which the posts had been issued. According to Dareen’s attorney, Facebook completely ignored the order. This leaves the question of the provenance of the posts up to hearsay and speculation.

Throughout these proceeding a security guard has been scrutinizing Tatour’s supporters with his hands folded across his chest, his expressionless profile seemingly crafted from the same cement that the courthouse is made of. The earpiece he wears suggests an intimate connection to a higher power. He is charged with the task of maintaining the safety and decorum of the courtroom, and performs his duties with stern professionalism.

His noteworthy performance leaves us to wonder who is in charge of ensuring that this case is not a harmful charade.

No one, apparently.

Three witnesses later and we are no further along in establishing that the infamous printed screen shot is a copy of material that Dareen Tatour is responsible for posting.

The next witness to take the stand is a young Palestinian activist and local council member, Rami A’mer. In 2014, Rami had organized an event to commemorate the massacre of 46 innocent Palestinians in Kafr Qassem in 1956. He had invited Dareen to read her poems at this commemoration, which is why he has been summoned to testify. The prosecution is hopeful that his statements will be key in establishing Dareen as a “well-known” poet with enough public influence to incite violence.

A serious problem arises for the prosecution. Rami A’mer tells the court that he knew Dareen through Facebook and some common friends, but had no idea to what extent she was known to other people. He had been looking for a poet for the program, and she was recommended by the Palestinian singer, Salam Abu Amneh, who, like Dareen, is from Reineh.

The witness confirms the fact that he invited Dareen Tatour to participate in the event based on the content of her work. He didn’t consider whether or not she was famous. “I asked the singer [Salam Abu-Amneh] to recommend a poet,” he testifies, “and she recommended Dareen.” He adds that he didn’t think she had any influence on public opinion in the Arab sector.

The defense attorney cross-examines Rami with a bit of dramatic flair, essentially asking him to explain the difference between being “known as a poet” and being “a well-known poet.” Rami answers for a second time: “It is true that she is known as a poet. But if I know her as a poet, it doesn’t mean that everybody knows her as a poet.”

It’s a distinction that should be obvious.

The witness is called down from the stand, and we all wait to see what will happen next. The defense and the prosecuting attorneys move their chairs closer and are talking in familiar tones. Could it be that a deal is in the making?

We wait to see what comes next.

Nothing comes next. This is it. The final hearing of the prosecution’s evidence has turned out to be a fairly hollow display, leaving all of us a little baffled.

We get up to leave. It is difficult to suppress a smile and some laughter as we exit. Even the formerly stony-faced security guard cracks a smile as he joins us in the elevator, probably a moment of ordinary relief from the tension that naturally arises in closed, formal quarters. Now we all get to go back to being humans again, not mere implements in an antagonistic drama.

areen Tatour and her nephew looking at the photos she has just taken of him and his sister. (Photo: Kim Jensen)
Dareen Tatour and her nephew looking at the photos she has just taken of him and his sister. (Photo: Kim Jensen)

Outside the supporters and witnesses chat in the courtyard; we shoot some more pictures together. The mood is a little giddy, especially since three of the supporters ARE the witnesses—and the whole thing has gone better than expected. No friendships and relationships have been broken today, as can easily happen in situations where friends are subpoenaed as witnesses.

While Hagar from AJ+ conducts another interview with Dareen, I have a conversation with one of Dareen’s brothers outside in the sunshine. The birch leaves are rustling in breeze behind me—and beyond them—a view of Nazareth Illit. I tell Dareen’s brother my impressions of the judge. “She seems decent enough, don’t you think?” He shakes his head doubtfully.

“So you think she will find Dareen guilty?” I ask.

“I think she will, and they will give her a good punishment.” By good he means bad.

This pessimism is especially striking considering that Dareen’s case has attracted so much international outrage and pressure. A formerly invisible poet has been rendered visible by her trauma.

If we are to be pessimistic about an acquittal for Dareen Tatour, how should we feel about the hundreds of other Palestinians defendants facing incitement charges who have not seen such an outpouring of global support? How should we feel, then, about the thousands of Palestinian prisoners, most especially Bilal Kayed who enters his 36th day of hunger strike today, and the 45 Palestinian prisoners who have joined in his hunger strike?

I turn now to the activist and supporter Yoav Haifawi who has been writing and publishing about Dareen’s case ever since it began. I ask him the same question. “Do you also believe Dareen will be found guilty?”

“Unfortunately, I do,” he says, “unless a miracle happens.” He quickly amends his statement. “But I do believe in miracles.”

One minor miracle has already happened. The prosecuting attorney who has been very aggressive throughout the case has finally agreed that Dareen will be allowed to serve her house arrest in her family’s home in Reineh, rather than far away in Tel Aviv. She will return to Reineh on July 25. While the house arrest and electronic monitoring still represents an undue hardship on the family, it will alleviate some of the stress.

When I ask Dareen’s attorney, Abed Fahoum, the same question about the prospects for an acquittal, like any careful lawyer, he doesn’t say yes, and he doesn’t no. He simply admits that there are holes in the prosecution’s case. “Lots of holes.”

Does he believe that the international outcry and coverage has helped to bring Dareen home to her family? Yes, he does. He has confidence that the publicity “has helped to soften their stance” on that issue.

After more brief conversations, we begin to say our goodbyes and trail slowly down the long stone stairway toward the parking lot. Below on the street, Dareen and her friend Samira are sitting on a stone wall together, laughing and taking yet another round of pictures with Dareen’s professional equipment. She is an artist after all, always looking for that exquisite moment of liberty that can only be achieved through skillful and sensitive artistic expression.

Some of us will be going back to the Tatour house to share a meal. Dareen’s mother Ikhlas has been at home this whole time preparing a dinner of maqloobeh, Arabic salad, pickled eggplants, and fruit. Soon we will be sitting around, reviewing the proceedings point by point, smuggling some camaraderie into a very trying situation.

It isn’t over yet, but we hope that even more protests, letters, and actions from grassroots movements here and across the globe can help to free Dareen Tatour and so many other Palestinian political prisoners whose only crime is asserting their inalienable right to express dissent and to resist an illegal occupation.

Thanks to Yoav Haifawi who fact-checked and contributed the transcripts of the witness examination to this article.

Read Kim Jensen’s first article on Dareen Tatour’s case here

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Social media and news outlets including MW have done a great job bringing Ms. Tatour’s case the much needed attention outside the suffocating bubble of the zionist state. In a few more days God willing, she and her brother will return to their home. A small favor for sure, but it has to be a great relief to their parents. Thank you for this article.

Thank you for reporting in depth on this case. The prosecution (persecution) of this poet is a travesty. Very glad to see it documented.

I take back everything I said* about the Danes!
(Shakespeare’s Marcellus will have to answer for himself.)