On the second anniversary of Israel’s attack on the Gaza strip an Israeli magistrate judge imprisoned an Jonathan Pollack, a central Israeli activist, for riding a bike.

Two years after what Israeli army jargon called “Operation Cast Lead” and what the United Nations called war crimes, little is achieved by way of justice.  Israeli authorities opened 48 criminal investigations which led to four indictments but only one soldier served actual jail time to date.  He wasn’t charged with using Palestinians as human shields, for firing at an ambulance, or for killing civilians holding white flags, as the UN’s reports documented. He was charged for stealing a credit card. Instead, on the second anniversary of the war, an Israeli finds himself jailed for opposing the war and the siege on Gaza. 

When I met Jonathan Pollack for the first time I was on my way to cover one of the weekly Bil’in protests in the West Bank.  At first I only noticed the tattoos on his arms and his general quiet demeanor. Israelis aren’t known for their quiet demeanor, so he stuck out in my mind. Week in and week out as I traveled across the wall to cover the growing Palestinian non-violent movement, I found myself sharing bus rides with him and later finding him in many of my shots.  I couldn’t have even guessed at the time that Pollack was indeed a central activist in the Israeli solidarity movement and has been so since his early teens. It wasn’t until I saw his brother’s documentary, Bil’in Habeebti that I came to see the polite and quiet man for what he was.

Over the months I took his presence at the weekly West Bank protests for granted. But even before I knew the extent of his activism, I noticed the army would frequently target Pollack for arrest, selectively picking him out from a crowd of demonstrators.  It was so frequent that it became part of Pollack’s routine.  Infamously, he’d complete his media work on the ride back from jail, writing press releases about the weekly protests and the army’s responses to them in the car.  It seems it almost became an inconvenience rather than a terrifying experience, which is what being imprisoned by the Israeli army in the occupied Palestinian territories would be for me, at lest.  That’s why I didn’t find it surprising to find out that an ongoing case against Pollack was being brought to trial. 

Today, on Monday, December 27th, the two year anniversary of the war, Pollack was sentenced to three months in jail.  His crime: riding his bicycle.  Two weeks after Israeli jet planes and tanks finished bombing Gaza, Jonathan rode his seemingly criminal bike in a critical mass ride in Tel Aviv. The ride was protesting the siege on Gaza.  It was just one of the many non-violent actions Israeli and Palestinian activists on both sides of the wall participated in during and after the attack. I wasn’t surprised by the severity of the punishment because routinely, Israeli society and policing intensifies at moments of conflict.  The same Tel Aviv demonstrations against the siege of Gaza on any other week would go off with nothing more than some cursing from pedestrians. But during the navy’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla demonstrators against the siege found themselves the frequent targets of violence from angry passersby.  Some even advocating that their citizenship be stripped away. Perhaps if Pollack was to ride in a critical mass on a regular Friday he’d now be free to continue protesting Israel’s occupation, but as the record shows, Israeli law is bendable.

According to Israeli figures there are currently thousands of “security” or political prisoners in Israeli jails. 228 of them are children.  This year saw a number of publicized arrests, including that of the director of Ittijah (Union of Arab Community-Based Associations) Ameer Makhoul, and of Jerusalem-based director of the Stop the Wall campaign, Jamal Jum’a. Most recently, leading Palestinian non-violent activist from the village of Bil’in, Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, was ordered to remain in jail on the very day he was supposed to be released after completing his sentence.  Because Pollack is Israeli and lives outside the occupied territories, it’s unlikely that a brigade of IDF soldiers would burst into his home in the middle of the night, kidnap him, “apply physical pressure” to him, and throw him in jail indefinitely under Israel’s infamous “Administrative Detention” orders. After all, he’s not a Palestinian.  However, just as he weekly stands shoulder to shoulder with Palestinian activists like Adeeb and Abdullah Abu Rahmah in Bil’in, and just as he weekly gets tear gassed, shot at, and beaten by Israeli soldiers alongside them, so too he now joins them on the astronomical list of political prisoners held in Israel jails. 

Below is Jonathan Pollack’s sentencing argument:

Your Honor, once found guilty, it is then customary for the accused to ask the court for leniency, and express remorse for having committed the offence. However, I find myself unable to do so. From its very beginning, this trial contained practically no disagreements over the facts. As the indictment states, I indeed rode my bicycle, alongside others, through the streets of Tel Aviv, to protest the siege on Gaza. And indeed, while riding our bicycles, which are legally vehicles belonging on the road, we may have slightly slowed down traffic. The sole and trivial disagreement in this entire case revolves around testimonies heard from police detectives, who claimed I played a leading role throughout the protest bicycle ride, something I, as well as the rest of the Defense witnesses, deny.

As said earlier, it is customary at this point of the proceedings to sound remorseful, and I would indeed like to voice my regrets regarding one particular aspect of that day’s events: if there is remorse in my heart, it is that, just as I argued during the trial, I did not play a prominent role in the protest that day, and thus did not fulfill my duty to do everything within my power to change the unbearable situation of Gaza’s inhabitants, and bring to an end Israel’s control over the Palestinians.

His Honor has stated during the court case, and will most likely state again in the future, that a trial is not a matter of politics, but of law. To this I reply that there is hardly anything to this trial except political disagreement. This Court may have impeded the mounting of an appropriate defense when it refused to hear arguments regarding political selectiveness in the Police’s conduct, but even from the testimonies which were admitted, it became clear such a selectiveness exists.

The subject of my alleged offense, as well as the motivation behind it were political. This is something that cannot be sidestepped. The State of Israel maintains an illegitimate, inhuman and illegal siege on the Gaza Strip, which still is occupied territory according to international law. This siege, carried out in my name and in yours as well, sir, in fact in all of our names, is a cruel collective punishment inflicted on ordinary citizens, residents of the Gaza strip, subjects-without-rights under Israeli occupation.

In the face of this reality, and as a stance against it, we chose on January 31st, 2008, to exercise the freedom of speech afforded to Jewish citizens of Israel. However, it appears that here in our one-of-many-faux-democracies in the Middle East, even this freedom is no longer freely granted, even to society’s privileged sons.

I am not surprised by the Court’s decision to convict me despite having no doubt in my mind that our actions on that day correspond to the most basic, elementary definitions of a person’s right to protest.

Indeed, as the Prosecution pointed out, a suspended prison sentence hung over my head at the time of the bicycle protest, having been convicted before under an identical article of law. And, although I still maintain I did not commit any offense whatsoever, I was aware of the possibility that under Israeli justice, my suspended sentence would be imposed.

I must add that, if His Honor decides to go ahead and impose my suspended prison sentence, I will go to prison wholeheartedly and with my head held high. It will be the justice system itself, I believe, that ought to lower its eyes in the face of the suffering inflicted on Gaza’s inhabitants, just like it lowers its eyes and averts its vision each and every day when faced with the realities of the occupation.

Lia Tarachansky (lia@therealnews.com) is the Middle East correspondent for The Real News Network (TRNN). Previously based with TRNN in Washington D.C. and Toronto, Canada, she is now fundraising to build a Middle East bureau for The Real News in Israel/Palestine.  She is also working on her first documentary, Seven Deadly Myths (www.sevendeadlymyths.com)

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Lia Tarachansky is a journalist and filmmaker at Naretiv Productions. She is a former Israel/Palestine correspondent for The Real News Network, where she produced short, documentary-style reports exploring the context behind the news. She has directed several documentaries that tackle different aspects of social justice struggles in Israel/Palestine.