Send a Tweet, Free a Prisoner

September 5, 2012

Just one week after a global Twitter campaign by Amnesty International, Palestinian Waleed Hanatsheh walked free from an Israeli prison.  Israeli officials had jailed him without charge or trial for periods totaling some 5 years of his life.  But after facing the public spotlight, those same Israeli officials let Hanatsheh go home.

In this online campaign, Amnesty International members and staff targeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (@IsraeliPM), the Israeli Defense Forces (@IDFSpokesperson), and the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC (@IsraelinUSA):

Since the 1960s, Amnesty International members have been using whatever form of communication it takes to reach governments, politicians, corporations and other targets. From mailing letters to prison cells (yes, we still do this!) to taking our demands in person to embassies, Amnesty International members have helped release tens of thousands of prisoners over the years.

The Internet has become more important to our advocacy in recent years, but does it actually work?  Can electronic messages impact governmental policies or help free prisoners in far flung countries?

The answer we’ve found is yes – when you have the right target, the right campaign, and the right online channel.  In this case:  Twitter.

During our campaign for Hanatsheh’s release, the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC demonstrated that they were paying close attention.  Israeli diplomats replied to our tweets with attempted justifications:

Of course, our fundamental concern remained, and we replied in kind.  Israel imprisoned Hanatsheh and hundreds of other Palestinians without charge or trial:

The Israeli government then tried to justify this system of imprisonment with a link to a legal memo from the Israeli Defense Forces:

But despite these efforts to justify imprisonment without charge or trial, Israeli officials ultimately decided not to renew Hanatsheh’s detention. Within a week of our campaign, Hanatsheh was free.

Until his release, Hanatsheh was one of the hundreds of Palestinians currently held under Israeli “administrative detention,” a practice in which detained Palestinians are denied the right to a trial.  Under administrative detention, detained Palestinians have no access to due process.  No charges are brought against them, and files containing information about what they are accused of are withheld from them and their attorneys.

Administrative detainees can be put in Israeli jails for recurring six month sentences, and some Palestinians have languished in Israeli prisons for years as a result.  It is worth noting that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have also arrested and detained Palestinians without due process.

Hanatsheh’s freedom isn’t something that Amnesty International can take credit for alone.  Many people around the world have been campaigning for an end to Israeli administrative detention.  Indeed, these campaigns have been grounded in the hunger strikes of Palestinian detainees themselves.

Even as Hanatsheh is reunited with his family, many other Palestinian administrative detainees continue to suffer in Israeli prisons.  Hassan Safadi and Samer al-Barq are both Palestinian detainees who are on hunger strikes, protesting their imprisonment without charge or trial.  According to Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHR-I) and other local organizations, these two prisoners were even attacked on August 13th by Israel Prison Services guards after they refused to move from the cell they share to a cell holding non-hunger-striking inmates.

Meanwhile, on August 23rd, Israel officials just renewed Palestinian professor Ahmad Qatamesh’s imprisonment without charge or trial for another six months.  Amnesty International believes Ahmad Qatamesh is a prisoner of conscience, jailed by Israel solely for the non-violent exercise of his right to freedom of expression and association.  He has been imprisoned by Israel since April 21, 2011.

But even in these cases, Israeli officials are paying close attention.  After I criticized the Israeli government for extending Qatamesh’s imprisonment …

Yoni Ish-Hurwitz, an adviser to the Israeli Mission to the UN, sent this response:

But claims made on Twitter by Israeli officials are no substitute for a fair trial:

Such exchanges demonstrate that Israeli officials pay close attention to how their actions are viewed by the general US public.  Smart activists can increase the likelihood that a human rights campaign will succeed by ensuring that it is noticed by two key audiences:  1. Israeli policymakers and diplomats, and 2. the broader US society. Even if Israeli officials now start pretending not to notice, believe me, they are paying attention.

In his words before an Israeli military court, Ahmad Qatamesh captured the anguish of being imprisoned for month after month without a fair trial:

You are destroying my life and I want to know why.  As a human being I have my own mind and I am educated, and I want to know what I am detained for.  The military prosecution talks of its professionalism, and meanwhile I have no rights?

Hundreds of Palestinians currently suffer under Israeli administrative detention.  They need our help, just as victims of human rights violations under Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and other governments also need public solidarity.  The decision makers responsible for their plight are paying close attention.  They are intently studying what you and I will do next.