The system in place

The arrest of acclaimed musician, Oday Khatib, sheds light on Israel’s draconian system of arrest and detention.

With thousands of other Palestinians behind bars, Oday's case is no more or less unfair than thousands of others - it simply sheds new light on the system [Photo courtesy: Musiciens pour la Palestine]

Imagine being confined to a small sliver of land, in plain view of a wider homeland that you cannot touch. Your house is in a refugee camp, surrounded by fine red-roofed homes built by and for strangers who seized your territory without warning or permission. 

The strangers, perched on hills that make it possible for them to spy into your home, are protected by one of the world’s most powerful armies, with its tanks, rockets and helicopter gunships supplied by the top military power on earth. The soldiers tightly restrict your movements through your own territory. 

They subject your family to random searches at military posts along the road, where you are forced to submit your documents and sometimes to strip down to your underwear. At night, without warning, the army may enter your home and take your teen-aged children. In fact, they often do.

Once you finally find out where they are, they may or may not face any charges. If they are not charged, the military courts can hold them there indefinitely. If they are, the chances they will be found innocent are 1 in 400. 

Imagine that you lived in such place, in a land you had long dreamt would be your own sovereign country, but which is now cut up into tiny enclaves that keep you thus confined. What would you do?  

If you chose to resist, how would you do so? 

Oday’s protest songs 

Oday Khatib fought back by singing. Unlike many of the boys and young men in Al-Fawwar, the Palestinian refugee camp near Hebron, who fought occupation by throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, Oday, the internationally-recognised singer of the acclaimed Ramallah-based Al Kamandjati music school, has long found his resistance in Palestinian protest songs. 

“He is not interested in throwing stones or getting involved in this,” Oday’s father, Jihad, said in an interview with my colleague Anan Abu-Shanab. Oday’s brothers have long hurled stones, but “since he was nine years old he was interested only in music”. 

Nevertheless, Oday was arrested on March 19 under questionable circumstances at Al-Fawwar refugee camp.

His family says Oday was standing on hill, waiting to meet a friend. Nearby, his father said, children were throwing stones, “and when the soldiers chased the kids, it did not come to his mind that the soldiers would go for him. Otherwise he would have run away”.

The Israeli military spokesman asserts that Oday was arrested “after security forces identified him engaged in rock throwing during the course of a violent riot”. (“Violent riot” is a curious description for a clash between well-armed soldiers wearing chest protectors, helmets and face shields, who fire live ammunition at stone-throwers.) 

Oday is charged under Section 212 of Military Order 1651, which states that anyone convicted of throwing stones “[a]t a person or property, with the intent to harm the person or property shall be sentenced to ten years imprisonment”. In other words, the law is so sweeping that if you throw a rock at a road sign, you could go to prison for a decade. Oday’s trial is scheduled for Monday, April 8.

Oday’s incarceration, along with the recent death of a Palestinian prisoner and two young protesters, sheds new light on a draconian system of arrests and imprisonment by Israeli occupying forces in the West Bank. Oday is only one of thousands of incarcerated Palestinians.

According to B’tselem, the respected Israeli human rights group, as of February, 4,713 Palestinians were held in Israeli prisons, including 169 under “administrative detention”, which allows Israel to arrest and detain Palestinians indefinitely without charge. The 10-year sentence for throwing stones can apply to youth as young as 14, according to a report by UNICEF.

Oday’s family history gives him reason to vent his anger. In 2002, his brother Rasmi was shot in the shoulder by an Israeli soldier. Despite multiple surgeries in Europe and the Arab world, he still cannot use his left arm.

Yet throwing stones, much less taking part in a “violent riot”, is completely out of keeping with Oday’s history and character, according to dozens of testimonials, both from his family and from friends and colleagues around the world.

Musicians from the US, the UK, Italy and France suggest that Oday, a recording artist whose musical tours have taken him to France, Belgium, Lebanon, Norway, Italy, Palestine, Dubai, Algeria and Austria, is, as his father said, simply not one to throw stones. 

“He is a very lovely and peaceful boy only interested in one thing: singing,” wrote Sarah Roger, who came from France to Ramallah to volunteer with Al Kamandjati. “His only aim is to spread love and make people happy thanks to his beautiful voice.” 

Added Nicolas Dobson, a British percussionist who taught at Al Kamandjati for two years: “He is probably the least likely person I know to be involved in any kind of violence.” 

Yet beyond whether or not Oday and thousands of other Palestinian youth are “guilty” of throwing stones is a more fundamental question: what constitutes legitimate Palestinian resistance to a 47-year military occupation?

Throwing stone and intifada

Al-Fawwar, like most Palestinian villages and towns, sits on land surrounded by Israeli settlements. The camp is in the midst of Area C, under full Israeli military control, which takes up 60 percent of the West Bank. One of the central purposes of Israel’s occupation army is to protect the settlers, whose illegal occupation, under international law, remains a towering obstacle to a just settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. 

“The sentence for throwing a stone – against a helmeted soldier often wearing a face shield – can be up to 10 years, according to Israeli Military Order 1651.”

For generations of Palestinian youth, throwing stones has formed the core of their efforts at expelling the occupying army. Stone-throwing was at the heart of the first Palestinian intifada, which forced Israeli leaders to the negotiating table. (The Oslo agreement they forged with Palestinian negotiators proved to be disastrous; nevertheless, there was a palpable sense during the first intifada that the stone would lead to Palestinian liberation.) 

I have spoken with several American officials in recent days regarding Oday’s arrest. The Americans have provided funds to Al Kamandjati to help support its past summer music camps, where Oday was featured prominently. Thus, I thought they would take an interest in Oday’s case.

My inquiry – into whether the American government would at least inquire about Oday’s incarceration – was met with virtual silence. “I just don’t have anything for you on that,” US Embassy spokesman Geoff Anisman told me four or five times from Tel Aviv.

Another American official in the region was only slightly more forthcoming: “There’s a system in place,” the official said, referring to Israel’s system of arrest and incarceration. 

Yes, there is a system in place: a military court system in which there is virtually no chance of being found innocent. The sentence for throwing a stone – against a helmeted soldier often wearing a face shield – can be up to 10 years, according to Israeli Military Order 1651. Moreover, many of the incarcerated are children – 7,000 in the last 10 years, according to a UNICEF report, which states: 

“The common experience of many children is being aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation centre tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear. Few children are informed of their right to legal counsel.” 

For children and adults alike, the question ultimately should not be whether Oday Khatib or anyone else threw a stone; the problem is the “system in place” that metes out extreme punishment, and the larger system of incarceration that has netted nearly 40 percent of all adult male Palestinians.

With thousands of other Palestinians behind bars, Oday’s case is therefore no more or less unfair than thousands of others; it simply sheds new light on the system.   

Oday’s family has expressed hope that several of the soldiers who chased the youth on March 19 will be willing to testify that Oday was not among the stone-throwers. Not likely: the conviction rate for such alleged offences in military trials, in 2010, was 99.74 percent. 

On Monday, Oday is scheduled to walk into the courtroom of an occupying military power and hear the charges against him. His old teacher – one of dozens who have been lighting up social media sites in the wake of Oday’s arrest – hopes he will sing.

“I imagine the only way he is surviving prison is by singing,” writes Julia Katarina, the British mezzo-soprano who put her opera career on hold for three years to teach voice lessons at Al Kamandjati. “I hope he sings in the military court,” Julia writes, because if Oday’s accusers can find “an ounce of humanity in their hearts, they will release him.” 

Sandy Tolan is author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, and associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He blogs here

Anan Abu-Shanab contributed reporting to this article.