Hamas under self-house arrest

Hugging and smiling, Khaled Abu Arafeh and Muhammad Totah pounded each other on the back to celebrate the release of over 1,000 of their comrades as part of the deal for Gilad Schalit.

Ismail Haniyeh_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Ismail Haniyeh_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Hugging and smiling, Khaled Abu Arafeh and Muhammad Totah pounded each other on the back to celebrate the impending release of over 1,000 of their comrades as part of the Gilad Schalit prisoner swap. Hanging on the walls around them, posters showcased the faces of hundreds of detainees, many arrested for acts of terror against civilians and considered by Hamas to be “political prisoners.” As they stood surrounded by an exultant throng of east Jerusalem Arabs, the day must have been bittersweet for the two men, as they knew that their own internal exile would continue.
Abu Arafeh and Totah are no ordinary east Jerusalem residents. They are leading figures of Hamas’s political wing, wanted by Israel on charges of disloyalty and membership in a terror organization. Currently living in the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Sheikh Jarrah headquarters in a bid to avoid arrest, their present troubles began after they were elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah in 2006, with Abu Arafeh being subsequently appointed the Palestinian Authority’s minister for Jerusalem.
Originally part of a larger group of Hamas political representatives in Jerusalem known as the “Hamas Four,” they are the only remaining MPs still at large in the capital.
Their colleagues Muhammad Abu Teir and Ahmad Attoun of Sur Bahir were recently detained by Israeli security forces and expelled to the West Bank, leaving the remaining lawmakers to serve as Hamas’s de facto representatives in Jerusalem.
As Abu Arafeh and Totah described the scene at the Red Cross, “crowds broke into cheers and chants as soon as the scenes of the freed prisoners’ arrival were aired on TV.
While all Palestinians were rejoicing and celebrating the event across all territories, the celebrations were the most intense at the sitin tent as freed prisoners’ families and wellwishers gathered there.”
While they may have had hopes of securing their freedom when the Schalit deal was first announced, those hopes would have been quickly dashed as the list of prisoners was published.
Hamas had no interest in freeing them as part of the deal, Gershon Baskin, Israel’s backdoor channel to Hamas, told The Jerusalem Post. According to Baskin, a columnist for this newspaper, Hamas did not at any point suggest the names of the Hamas Four, as the group was only interested in those he termed “hardcore” prisoners.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum confirmed Baskin’s assessment, telling the Post that the Izzadin Kassam Brigades only “arrested” Gilad Schalit in order to “free Palestinian leaders and members from occupation jails.”
Walking into the ICRC’s Jerusalem headquarters on any given day, one’s eyes are automatically drawn to the large banner adorning the front of the building, featuring the faces of the Hamas Four above the phrase “Do not empty Jerusalem of its people.”
Just beyond the couches and adjacent to the building, a courtyard within the compound’s walls houses a massive protest tent.
When I arrived there recently, the tent was empty, but frequently, under the banner proclaiming how long the parliamentarians have been conducting their sit-in, one can find foreign dignitaries, political leaders and local activists sitting and discussing the politics of the day.
My visit to the compound occurred several weeks before the announcement of the prisoner swap. At the time, I had hoped to have a word with Attoun, with whom I had spoken and shared a coffee last year, and tolearn what had transpired in the time since the fugitives’ arrival in Sheikh Jarrah.
They were in the middle of their afternoon prayers, together with a small group of well-wishers, heads bowed toward Mecca as I approached. As I sat down to wait for them to finish, I received looks that ranged from the merely curious to the overtly hostile.
The Hamas representatives were, to my disappointment, unwilling to speak with me despite our previous contacts, explaining that they felt some journalists had twisted their words to cause them unwarranted damage.
However, through their previous comments, ongoing blog posts and the words of those around them, it is possible to get a picture of life at the Red Cross over the past year.
In 2006, following the Palestinian elections, the Interior Ministry informed the Hamas politicians that they risked losing their residency rights in Jerusalem if they continued to represent the Islamist group, which Israel and the United States have designated a terror organization.
Their continued residency in the capital, the government explained, was dependent on their official repudiation of ties with the group.
However, despite a public declaration of intent to leave Hamas’s Change and Reform parliamentary list, the lawmakers never followed through, leading Israel to begin taking steps to deport them.
The first action came as Israeli forces in Jerusalem arrested Abu Teir and evicted him to the West Bank. Following his detention, the three remaining legislators made their way to the Red Cross.
Arriving in Sheikh Jarrah, the Hamas representatives stated that they were setting in for the long haul.
“They sleep here and they can use the toilet, and then they spend the rest of the day outside in the yard, and their families come to visit them,” said Cecilia Goin, the spokeswoman for the ICRC’s Jerusalem branch. “All of them have wives and children, and they come on a daily basis and they bring the food for them and they clean their clothes. There are also other people coming to visit them. When this happened last year, there were many visitors. Of course the families, they still come, the wives and the children.... In the afternoon, some people come, they sit down they chat and they pray.”
Soon after they moved into the Red Cross, another spokeswoman, Dorothea Krimitsas, stated that the three men had requested her organization’s “protection” from Israeli police and been informed that “they could remain on ICRC premises, but also that the ICRC could not prevent the Israeli authorities from taking action against them.”
The ICRC subsequently protested the decision to detain the PA lawmakers and called upon the government to “respect [its] obligations under international humanitarian law.”
“Israel, as the occupying power, has an obligation to protect the Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem and cannot lawfully undertake to forcibly transfer them from their homes,” Krimitsas stated. “Under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, forcible transfers of protected persons are explicitly prohibited, regardless of their motive.”
When asked by reporters if the ICRC recognized Israel’s categorization of Hamas as a terror organization, Krimitsas replied that it “is not up to the ICRC... to confer a particular status on people or organizations or to recognize their legitimacy; neither does international humanitarian law.”
Israel, however, took exception to Krimitsas’s statement.
“The three people we are dealing with are senior members [and] leaders of Hamas... and nobody can expect a country to allow people of an organization that is calling openly for its destruction to roam around freely in the territory of that country,” the Foreign Ministry responded, indicating that the three fugitives “are illegally staying in east Jerusalem, and they will have to leave to a PA-controlled area.”
Dr. Omer Abdel Razeq, a Hamas politician now serving time in an Israeli prison, told the Post before his arrest that political representatives of Hamas like Attoun had no ties to the military wing and did not pose a security threat. However, there are indications that at least some of the Hamas Four have active ties to members of terror cells.
Attoun’s brother Jihad was arrested in February for his role in planning what has been described as a mass-casualty terror attack in Jerusalem, and his other brother, Mahmoud, is currently serving a life sentence for killing three Israelis, including policeman Nissim Toledano, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center reported.
Abu Teir, too, is known for his ties to the Izzadin Kassam Brigades and previously served there in a leadership role. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has described him as a “Hamas military leader,” and he served time in an Israeli prison for his role in a plot to poison the country’s drinking water.
Direct ties to terrorism or not, during their time in internal exile, the fugitives have held regular Friday prayer services attended by large crowds of Jerusalem residents; greeted visiting dignitaries, including former American president Jimmy Carter; and held photo ops with local Arab notables, essentially acting as a Hamas diplomatic outpost.
One resident familiar with the matter, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, explained that the outpouring of support by local residents had less to do with their affiliation with Hamas than with the issue of Palestinian prisoners in general.
“People come here to show support, and people come from different [places]; it’s not just the personal supporters.
Many Jerusalemites would pass by and show support not only for them, but for the hundreds of prisoners who are held in the prisons,” he said.
The Red Cross serves as a focal point for protests by the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, one foreign activist noted, describing how the relatives of those incarcerated in Israeli jails would march, bearing Palestinian flags, outside the compound.
While Hamas has taken the opportunity to utilize the Red Cross as a base of political operations in Jerusalem, the government has been slow to act, with various ministries and politicians arguing over who is responsible for dealing with the matter.
In December, David Baker, senior foreign press coordinator at the prime minister's office, stated that the matter was the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry, which was “entrusted with matters concerning the ICRC” – a claim the ministry vigorously contested.
“We can’t order the police or any other unit to proceed to arrest them when they are here or there; it’s not our authority, it’s not our call,” responded ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor angrily.
“That’s what they always do when they are embarrassed,” he argued. “Every time something occurs in this country that calls for media attention and they’re embarrassed or just lazy, [or] they don’t want to answer... they would always refer [the matter] to me. I’ve had a number of talks with them about that.”
Palmor also stated that in the Foreign Ministry’s view, “the Red Cross compound enjoys immunity.”
The Prime Minister’s Office at the time denied Palmor’s allegations, stating that they were not “passing a hot potato” and that the matter was “definitely a Foreign Ministry issue.”
“If Hamas were working out of the German consulate, would [Palmor] say it’s not [his responsibility], either?” asked Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev.
However, despite the political infighting surrounding the case, the reason the three parliamentarians remain at large is not a political one, according to the Jerusalem Police.
Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben- Ruby told the Post last year that the police “don’t want to detain them right now,” citing unspecified “operational reasons.”
Some Jewish residents of the city have indicated that they are worried about a situation in which members of a proscribed organization are allowed to operate only 100 meters from a police station, and Mayor Nir Barkat’s office has agreed, stating that it views the ongoing situation as “alarming.”
While this issue has not received a great deal of attention in the local press, there are those in the government who would like nothing better than to see the parliamentarians removed from the scene – and are quite forthright in saying so.
Likud MK Ayoub Kara told the Post last week that he saw the MPs as “terrorists who must be removed” and that the government must take swift action to expel them from Jerusalem.
However, United Arab List-Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi, who is active on behalf of the Hamas legislators, echoed many observers when he noted that he believed police had not entered the compound as Kara desires because “the Red Cross is an international organization,” and such a move would likely cause widespread condemnation of Israel.
Tibi accused the government of human rights violations against the Hamas leaders, agreeing with Palestinian Parliament Secretary- General Ibrahim Khreiheh, who told the Post that the actions against the MPs were part of an “Israeli aggression policy both against Palestinians in general and in Jerusalem especially.”
In response to inquiries last week regarding the MPs’ continued presence in east Jerusalem, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem Police attempted to clarify her department’s policy, explaining that while the Hamas leaders’ citizenship had been revoked and they continued to maintain membership in a terrorist group, it would take an order from the High Court of Justice to make the police enter the compound. Should they leave, she hedged, they would be arrested immediately.
Several weeks before the announcement of the Schalit swap, Attoun was arrested in an undercover mission reminiscent of a spy novel.
Attoun was lured out of the Red Cross compound by several undercover police officers dressed as Arabs, who simulated an altercation on the street outside the compound.
When the lawmaker stepped outside to see what was happening, he was hustled into a waiting car and driven off.
Pundits, both Israeli and Palestinian, have alleged that Israeli security forces have been unwilling to enter the Red Cross building due to fears of negative publicity.
The police declined to clarify what legal distinction existed between the Red Cross compound and the street outside with regard to their jurisdiction to make an arrest, and subsequent police statements were seemingly at odds with Ben-Ruby’s previous explanations of the matter.
It is unlikely that this ruse will work again, and further action may indeed have to wait for the High Court’s final say on the legality of arresting the men.
In A petition to the High Court shortly after the beginning of their saga, the parliamentarians claimed that their deportation orders, which they termed “a grave violation of international law, collective punishment and racial discrimination,” were illegal because Israeli law did not apply in “occupied East Jerusalem.”
The High Court seems to agree with the fugitives. On October 23 Court President Dorit Beinisch ruled that Interior Minister Eli Yishai has 90 days to provide a reason for having canceled the Hamas members’ legal residency.
According to the court, “there is no specific legal doctrine or law that allows for people who were born in east Jerusalem to be expelled based on a breach of loyalty or for other reasons.”
Palestinians have interpreted the court’s declaration as “overruling Yishai’s decision because Israeli law does not grant the minister any power to make such a decision,” according to official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa. The news service indicated that the new ruling would effectively end the legislators’ internal exile in the capital should Yishai fail to make his case.
This is a “step in the right direction,” the parliamentarians said in a statement on Monday.
“Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have an inalienable right to live in their city without cleansing policies targeting them.”
Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel agreed. In a statement to the Guardian, Adalah director Hassan Jabarin stated that “for the first time Israel is using a claim of disloyalty to revoke residency. The consequences for Palestinians in East Jerusalem are dangerous. This case could open a new window to revoking residency on purely political grounds.”
Ministry spokesmen declined to comment on the court’s ruling, with Yishai’s press adviser Ro’i Lahmanovich stating that he had not heard anything regarding this matter.
However, Shiri Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Courts Administration, did speak out to dispute the Palestinian interpretation of the High Court’s conditional declaration.
Calling the Wafa report “nonsense,” Cohen stated that giving the government 90 days to present its argument was standard procedure and did not indicate that it was judging in favor of the plaintiffs.
“Maybe the Supreme Court has decided to give Eli Yishai time to respond to this claim, but it cannot happen that the court will write down a decision that says if the state doesn’t reply, we will allow” the defendants to go free, she stated.
Despite what may occur in the near future, for the remaining Hamas parliamentarians, life today remains as it has been for the past 14 months: a daily existence penned in by walls that, despite limiting their physical mobility, afford them increasing influence on the surrounding community.
At least until January 21.