JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is arresting a growing number of prominent opponents to its policies toward the Palestinians, say critics who are accusing the government of trying to crush legitimate dissent.
In the most high-profile case yet, Jerusalem police detained the head of a leading Israeli human rights group during a vigil against the eviction of Palestinian families whose homes were taken by Jewish settlers.
Since the summer, dozens of Palestinian and Israeli activists have been picked up, including those organizing weekly protests against Israel’s West Bank separation barrier as well as others advocating international boycotts of Israeli goods.
Some of the Palestinians were released without charge only after weeks and months of questioning.
The arrests come at a time of shifting tactics in the protests against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and annexation of east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians want for their future state. Israel captured both from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.
The violence of the second Palestinian uprising, with mass marches and violent attacks, has given way to carefully calibrated protests and legal action in which Israeli and Palestinian activists now often work together.
The main protest efforts are Friday demonstrations against the West Bank barrier in the Palestinian villages of Bilin and Naalin and vigils in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, where Palestinians have been evicted.
There appears to be an increased police crackdown on the protests with greater numbers of activists being arrested.
In the West Bank, troops fire tear gas, stun grenades, and live rounds — even midnight arrest raids — to disperse anti-barrier protesters. Israel says the protests are illegal, and the harsh tactics are a response to stone-throwing and violent rioting.
In east Jerusalem, police have arrested some 70 demonstrators during marches in recent months, according to Israeli rights groups. On Friday’s protest, police arrested 17 Israelis, including Hagai Elad, head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
They were released 36 hours later by a Jerusalem court, which found the gathering to be illegal, but the arrests unnecessary.
Elad said the arrests represent a “dramatic increase in attempts to silence dissent” that he believes began during last year’s offensive in Gaza, when Israel arrested hundreds of anti-war protesters, mostly Arab citizens of Israel.
Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld dismissed allegations of an arrest campaign and said recent protests in east Jerusalem did not have the required permits.
“There’s no campaign whatsoever,” he said. “When there’s a right wing or left wing, or Jewish or non-Jewish or Christian or Muslim demonstration … they have to be fully coordinated with the police.”
The residents of Bilin have marched every Friday since 2005 toward the barrier that separates villagers from 60 percent of their land. Last year, Nobel Peace Prize laureates Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu dropped by for a visit. Nearby Naalin started similar marches two years ago.
Israel says the barrier seeks to keep out Palestinian attackers, including suicide bombers. Palestinians call it a land grab because parts of it jut far into the West Bank.
The Bilin marchers, joined by Israeli sympathizers and international activists, chant and wave Palestinian flags. Some youths throw stones at Israeli soldiers. A Bilin man and five in Naalin have been killed and hundreds wounded over the years by soldiers. Israeli troops also have been injured, including one who lost an eye.
Since June, Israel has arrested almost three dozen villagers, mostly during night raids on the village, organizers say. More than 100 have been arrested in Naalin, including 16 in the past month.
Schoolteacher Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, a leader of the Bilin protests, has been held since last month on charges of incitement and weapons possession — the latter stemming from spent Israeli tear gas canisters, stun grenades and other munitions he collected to show visitors.
Two high-profile Palestinian activists were recently released without being charged.
Jamal Juma, coordinator of the Stop The Wall campaign, was held for 17 days. Mohammed Othman, who encourages a boycott against Israel, was released after nearly four months.
Othman, who was arrested upon his return from an advocacy trip to Norway, said he was interrogated almost daily. “The questions focused on the boycott movement, ‘How do you work on this and who are your contacts?'” said Othman, 33.
Interrogators searched his computer, his cell phone and e-mail accounts, he said. He had to pay a $2,700 bond.
Othman said he would continue with his activism. “I don’t do anything illegal,” he said. “All my work was out in the open.”