An urgent need
How many times have you heard the refrain “where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” The answer today is that he is probably in an Israeli jail. A burgeoning unarmed protest movement in the West Bank is being repressed by the Israeli authorities. Incarceration is a primary tool in this effort. Every week, dozens of activists are arrested and jailed, many of them on trumped-up charges and without minimal due process.
In East Jerusalem, those protesting the impact of intensive settlement activity – funded largely by Jewish-Americans such as Irvine Moskowitz — are facing a similar crackdown. Since August 2009, the police have made over 160 arrests of Israelis non-violently protesting evictions in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, leading to over 60 indictments. In recent months, community leaders in Silwan have been repeatedly arrested and even deported.
The situation in the Negev has also escalated. Bedouin activists from 40 unrecognized villages face harassment, violence and incarceration. The community of Al Araqib is a focal point of repression. Since the summer of 2010, it has been repeatedly (over 20 times) bulldozed by the Jewish National Fund to make way for a new forest funded by US Christian Zionists. Attempts by residents to non-violently protest the destruction have been met by over 50 arrests, many resulting in indictments.
Beginning with the 2009 war in Gaza, even the freedom to protest government policy in Israeli urban centers, far removed, from the actual flashpoints has been severely curtailed.Activist Jonathan Pollack has just completed a three month prison sentence for participation in a bike ride against the war. Police investigations have been launched against a group of women led by Israeli writer Ilana Hammerman who take Palestinian women and children to brief respites on the Tel-Aviv beach.
As repression in the West Bank intensifies and substantial Israeli democracy deteriorates, the survival of democratic protest movements on both sides of the ’67 border is an imperative. Whatever the final outcome, both the Israeli and Palestinian communities are here to stay. Non-violent protest and inter-community humanitarian cooperation are critical to ensuring positive future relations.
If the movements are to survive and remain non-violent, their leaders, and the activists defending them, must remain free. They need to know that if they are arrested, they will receive the very best legal aid available. This is their single most pressing need.
A focused response
Responding to mounting calls for aid from the field, a varied group of activists, attorneys and academics began meeting regularly beginning in March 2010. The group began by assessing existing legal aid mechanisms. It found that human rights defenders operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had no clinics to turn to and that the financial aid required for support from private attorneys was virtually non-existent. A number of lawyers were trying to fill the gap by providing services pro-bono, or on a pay-as-you-can basis, but they were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work. Some were on the verge of bankruptcy.
In Israel proper, the situation was only slightly better. Some clinics did exist, but their mandates were highly specialized. As in the Palestinian Territories, Israeli human rights groups were focused mainly on policy-oriented advocacy and their ability to provide individual support was limited to specific cases in line with that agenda. A few had plans to develop clinical mechanisms, but these were still embryonic.
It quickly became clear that effective support for democratic activists at this critical juncture required a new approach. Funding existed, from a variety of sources concerned for the democratic future of Israel and Palestine and committed to non-violence. What could be done to help donors support those on the front-line, when they needed it most?
The Human Rights Defenders Fund was designed specifically to perform this function. Its structure and operational framework aim to provide donors with the confidence that their funds are disbursed legally and efficiently, in support of non-violent human rights defenders only. At the same time, it has the flexibility to operate in a highly fluid environment. From the mission statement:
The Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF) will protect human rights defenders advancing democracy, liberty and equality, in Israel and the territories it controls, through provision of legal and other aid.
The structure of the HRDF and its operational methodology are designed to ensure:
(a) fiduciary and legal responsibility through a system of checks and balances, frequent performance reviews, full transparency and the appointment of experienced officers;
(b) fiscal efficiency (80% to 90% of funds raised in 2011 will be disbursed as aid) through reduction of administrative costs to the bare minimum;
(c) disbursement of aid to those who need it most, through appointment of an advisory board comprised of leading experts, from a variety of professional disciplines, equipped with a wide range of activist experience and connections;
(d) rapid and flexible response to the legal needs of human rights defenders, through a highly empowered, yet carefully monitored, executive body.