Most readers are only too familiar with the litany of harassments endured by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, from restrictions on personal freedoms to attacks on institutions and confiscation of land. Nonetheless, for the purposes of building campaigns to support Palestinian rights, and for a dearer understanding of the workings of the occupation, it is worth focusing on particular violations that are significant both for the victims and for that much-evoked phantasm, “world public opinion.”
A favorite harassment in recent months is the use of the charge of “illegal literature” to detain persons who have come under the military occupier’s scrutiny. Various long-standing military orders against “illegal literature” have been employed frequently against booksellers and political activists. The issue of banned books received international attention in the spring of 1982, when Israeli writer Amos Elon, echoed by the New York Times’ Anthony Lewis, chastised the authorities for their most blatant choices. Unfortunately, this discussion deteriorated into an examination of which books might be truly subversive or anti-semitic; the authorities, undeterred, issued their latest known additions to the list (now over 1,500 books) in Tulkarm on October 19,1982. The discussion also overlooked the de facto banning of virtually all journals from the Arab world, and the censorship and banning of East Jerusalem Arab newspapers. In the recent wave of “illegal literature” cases, the books and pamphlets seized have been simply a pretext for harassment or information gathering. The target is selected—a refugee camp, students from a university, a suspected activist. The offending material, in some cases a photo or poster, is seized. The culprits are dispatched to the nearest prison. There they can be detained for up to 18 days without charges and without seeing a lawyer, while the suspicious material is sent to an “expert” to determine its inflammatory content.
The offenders are available (a majority are secondary or university students), meantime, for interrogation. These discussions are rarely about literature, but rather probing for names of activists, descriptions of people and events and the like, accompanied by the usual threats and promises. Although much of the material seized is not determined to be illegal in the end, attorneys note that many victims prefer, after their interrogation, to plead guilty and pay a fine rather than wait in prison for a trial.
One recent case occurred in mid-January, when students at Bethlehem, Najah and Birzeit universities held peaceful celebrations marking the January 1 anniversary of the Palestinian national movement. The military authorities, determined to thwart any such public commemoration, detained large numbers of people in Qalandiya and Dahaysha refugee camps and other West Bank sites the previous week. At Najah and Bethlehem, the army conducted night raids on the campuses following the events, breaking into student offices, confiscating books and posters and arresting many students, including the entire student council at Najah. At Birzeit, despite army threats, the university itself was not raided. Instead, the army conducted late night raids on student homes in the village. Five were arrested and eleven summoned—all on the grounds that “illegal literature” was seized. The five were eventually released without charge, after a few days of interrogation and winter exposure in the Ramallah prison barracks. Questions focused on the organizers and speakers of the event, not the “dangerous literature.”
Another instance is the case of Leila Mi’ri, an ex-student council member at Birzeit. She has been under town arrest for the past 15 and a half months in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, where she is attempting to continue her courses through correspondence and teachers’ visits. In early February, shortly before her latest town arrest order was due to expire, she was summoned to Jenin Military Headquarters. Her family home was then searched and “illegal literature” conveniently discovered. Leila was arrested and put in Ramie prison. In a bail hearing in Nablus military court on February 16, the officer in charge of the search noted the discovery of such items as an “ironic” Christmas card from Birzeit students protesting the university’s closure, with the phrase “Greetings from the Occupied Holy Land.” Leila also possessed “inciting” material: to wit, a poster affirming “We shall not be expelled from our land.” She was also alleged to have a picture of George Habash, an offense committed by all readers of the Jerusalem Post on the day of the hearing. The judge scolded the prosecutor for an inadequate charge sheet, but remanded Leila for eight more days while additional evidence was sought. At last report, three fifteen-year-old girls in Jenin were being diligently interrogated about their friendship and conversations with Leila Mi’ri.
In Leila’s case, an aware lawyer and a client not content to plead gulty forced the authorities to go one step further, and may provoke a much-needed test case on “illegal literature.” Other methods, of course, are available to the military occupiers. But this particular issue should be the target of a sustained campaign to eliminate it as a device in Israel’s war against Palestinian expression and images and as a convenient technique of harassment and intimidation.