Seth Freedman
The Guardian (Opinion)
June 28, 2010 - 12:00am

Despite government claims to the contrary, Israel's borders are far from impenetrable to residents of the occupied Palestinian territories. The separation wall is only 60% complete, numerous ways to circumnavigate checkpoints exist throughout the West Bank, and poorly patrolled perimeters provide any would-be terrorist with ample opportunity for security breaches.

It is an open secret that thousands of Palestinian labourers illegally cross into Israel every day seeking casual work, yet if Israel's hawkish right is to believed, the only thing preventing a new wave of suicide attacks is an iron-fist policy towards Palestinians' freedom of movement. Such a wilful distortion of reality is behind the scandalous police investigation of Ilana Hammerman, an Israeli journalist facing prosecution for violating the "law of entry into Israel".

Hammerman's crime was to take three Palestinian girls on a day-trip to Tel Aviv, in an act of civil disobedience intended to highlight the injustice of Israel's military occupation of the West Bank. In a moving article for Haaretz, she wrote of their fraught experience avoiding detection at the hands of border guards and police as she ferried her quarry around the sights of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Even though they lived a mere hour's drive away from the coast, the girls had never once seen the sea nor walked the streets of Israel's largest city, thanks to the heavy restrictions imposed by the IDF.

Hammerman openly acknowledges her awareness of breaking the law, seemingly prepared for the consequences of admitting to her deeds in public: "I did not do this in rash defiance, but rather after much thought. Out of a need, that has become ever more pressing in the last years, to raise certain essential issues for in-depth public discussion in Israeli society". In her eyes, her own liberty is worth sacrificing if it assists in the struggle to bring freedom to the millions of Palestinians held captive in their West Bank cantons.

Her bold actions have, inevitably, incurred the wrath of groups on the Israeli right, including the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel (LFLI) – an organisation founded to fight for settler rights during the 2005 disengagement. LFLI filed a formal complaint with Israel's attorney general, calling for Hammerman to be prosecuted for her violation of the law, beginning a process which could result in her spending up to two years in jail.

According to LFLI director general Nachi Eyal, a prominent figure in the settler movement, "she wanted everyone to know that you can take Palestinians in against the law and lie to police officers and the army. I want to send a message that no citizen in Israel can take the law into his hands and if he does they have to pay".

Hammerman is an easy and convenient target for the likes of Nachi, despite her crimes paling by comparison to the countless Israeli businesses employing Palestinians illegally on a daily basis, including employers within West Bank settlements.

For others, Hammerman's defiant gesture is a laudable stand against the Israeli government's inequitable policies. One Israeli activist working with Palestinian youth in the south Hebron hills describes her as "one of the great Israelis of our time" for her tireless campaigning, with others rallying support for her cause via NGO networks across the country.

Should the Israeli police take the bait and haul Hammerman over the coals for her actions, she will become another martyr in the vein of Ezra Nawi, whose heavy-handed treatment by the courts galvanised activists on the Israeli left who were horrified at the political bias displayed by the domestic authorities. Prosecuting Hammerman for her tame and harmless violations will only reinforce such a view, and will do nothing to protect the security of Israeli citizens in the process.

The likes of Hammerman and Nawi are vital in the fight to foster contact and communication between ordinary civilians on either side of the Israel-Palestine divide, and their work prevents even more hatred and mistrust being fostered towards Israelis than currently exists. However, portraying them as traitors and self-haters is the preferred tactic of the Israeli right, who believe that divisive, discriminatory policies are the one and only way to safeguard Jewish rights in Israel.

That their tactics have failed for years is of scant importance to those at the helm of the Israeli government. Fomenting tension and discord has left Israelis in constant danger for decades, but to Netanyahu and his merry men, robbing Palestinians of their rights to give succor to ultra-nationalist Israelis can never be bettered as a modus operandi. Flies in the ointment like Hammerman are a minor inconvenience, but no match for the clout and conviction of the hardline elements backing Israeli irredentism at home and abroad.

Whatever happens to Hammerman, there needs to be a serious re-evaluation of Palestinian rights in both the West Bank and Gaza, as much for Israelis' wellbeing as that of their Palestinian neighbours. Highlighting the unfairness of three girls' caged existences is a vital way to raise Israeli awareness, but unless it sparks a nationwide debate it will fail to come close to achieving its goals.

The tragedy of the Israel-Palestine imbroglio is that so few Israelis realise how counterproductive their government's policies are, but with activists like Hammerman refusing to stay silent, there is still hope that the blinkers will fall from the public's eyes before it is too late.


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