My neighbor protested his family’s expulsion from its home – now he’s in an Israeli prison

Murad Attieh (center) sings during a protest against the forcible expulsion of his family and neighbors from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem (Maya Alleruzzo - AP)

Mohammed al-Kurd

The Nation  /  December 21, 2021

Murad Attieh has been in prison for 133 days for what many believe is an effort to criminalize our movement.

When Israeli officers and undercover agents raided Murad Attieh’s home and arrested him on August 10, his mother, Nuha, had hoped he would be out of the interrogation room in a matter of hours. She’d seen many of her neighbors in Sheikh Jarrah—including my siblings and myself—detained, interrogated, and released shortly after and assumed her son would fall into this pattern. Today, however, marks Murad’s 133rd day in prison. No one knows if and when he will be released.

Murad’s family lives a few houses up the street from my home. In recent years, when he wasn’t teaching history and Arabic at a local elementary school, he was busy pursuing a master’s degree in social sciences at a university in Jerusalem. Between the occasional small talk and hearing his thunderous chants at demonstrations, I’ve come to know him as a kind and helpful neighbor and an important part of the #SaveSheikhJarrah movement.

Like my own family, Murad’s has lived in the Sheikh Jarrah refugee housing project since its establishment in 1956. After being forcibly expelled from their original home in the western part of Jerusalem during the 1948 Nakba, they found refuge in the neighborhood. Over the decades, they have battled the prospect of a second Nakba as Zionist settler organizations have targeted Sheikh Jarrah and tried to expel us from our homes.

Murad spent much of his early teenage years watching his neighbors brutally dragged into the streets during the first wave of displacement in 2009. He saw the Ghawi family sleeping in cars, homeschooling their children under the fig tree, while the Hannouns slept in a tent under the olive tree in front of their stolen home. He saw the funeral of Abu Kamel, a neighborhood elder who suffered a stroke and died within a month of his forced expulsion. And he was standing on the pavement outside my home on the day I returned from school to see my grandmother wheeled off to an ambulance because settlers had taken over half our house.

In many ways, much of the violence Murad protested against this past spring had already been at his doorstep for years. Even so, there was little preparing for the horrors that began in April. “Today, in the wake of the tension that the neighborhood is living under,” Murad’s mother said in a May interview. “I go to sleep with my cloak and hijab in fear of any sudden raids as we are confronting gangs.”

It wasn’t long before the family awoke to see Israeli authorities set up a checkpoint and cement barriers at their literal doorstep, effectively putting the neighborhood under blockade. Murad often complained that the soldiers could see into his windows, distressing his aunt and sister, both of whom have disabilities. In addition, he experienced the relentless tag-team attacks of police and settlers. For weeks, they ransacked homes, detained residents, and terrorized families with tear gas, sound bombs, and “skunk” water cannons, all in an attempt to stifle the community’s resistance.

This brutality was well-documented and widely reported, garnering international attention at the time. But attention eventually wandered, and few people know that the campaign of intimidation has not ended for the residents of Sheikh Jarrah. It has, rather, continued in the form of arrests and trumped-up charges against both neighborhood residents and other Palestinians who protested during this time. Murad is one example of this campaign.

For those of us who have been following Murad’s case, what has made it so alarming is the way it seeks to criminalize his participation in the protests—and, in fact, the movement to save Sheikh Jarrah itself. Nasser Odeh, one of Murad’s two lawyers, said he believes the case bears clear hallmarks of a political move—an attempt to “smear the movement [in Sheikh Jarrah] as violent before the international community.”

That attempt was made chillingly clear in the preamble to the charges brought against Murad in October. According to Lea Tsemel, who is also representing Murad as an attorney, prosecutors accused him in the preamble of “nationalist activities” and “acts motivated by racism” based in part on his membership in the committee to save Sheikh Jarrah and the fact that the protests took place during a time of war. What this means is that, rather than view Murad’s actions as part of a protest against his family’s and neighbor’s expulsion from their neighborhood by settlers, prosecutors have tried to frame them as “anti-Jewish.”

“It is a terrible description that we deny totally,” Tsemel said.

As for the charges themselves, they include a raft of offenses, according to both Tsemel and Odeh. Among them: conspiracy to commit a crime (specifically, to commit violent acts against law enforcement); aiding illegal demonstrations; and assisting the disruption of law and order. (Notably, the authorities attempted to level the first accusation against my sister and me as well, but released us without charges, thanks mainly to the hundreds of people who protested outside the precinct and the thousands who campaigned globally for our release.)

More specifically, Tsemel said the prosecutors have accused Murad of paying someone 200 shekels (approximately $63) to buy fireworks that were used by other people in confrontations with security forces, and 50 shekels (approximately $15) to buy gasoline that was used by other people in incendiary bottles. She said that Murad denies any involvement in violent protests or any intention to aid others in committing violence. “He said that once he gave money to a person to get home. However, he denied that he gave said person money for fireworks,” she explained.

Additionally, prosecutors claimed Murad conducted a meeting in his home with members of organizations which the Israeli government designates as “terror groups” and that during that meeting they discussed ways “to increase the throwing of stones and fireworks.” Tsemel, however, said that the legal team intends to push back against this charge, arguing that the activists at the meeting were not members of terror groups (she noted they all hold Israeli citizenship and none of them has been arrested) and they did not discuss violent activities. Moreover, she noted, the Shabak (the Israeli security services) failed to prove Murad belonged to a political organization, despite a concerted effort to do so.

When I asked Tsemel what all of these charges could mean for Murad, she declined to speculate. She did note that Murad is relatively fortunate in that he is being charged under standard criminal code and not the 2016 “counterterrorism” law, which has been sweeping Palestinian activists off the streets in recent months. Nonetheless, if the framing of the preamble to the charges is allowed to stand, it would increase the severity of his sentencing, Tsemel said.

Murad’s next hearing is on December 26, at which point his lawyers will formally answer the charges brought by the prosecution. The date could be important, but it’s also just the beginning of a longer legal process. In the meantime, Murad’s time in prison has already been traumatic, both his lawyers said.

Like many Palestinians, Murad has suffered an extended and punitive interrogation process in which he experienced ill-treatment, intimidation, and psychological pressure, according to Odeh and Tsemel. One reason, Tsemel suggested, has to do with the increasingly prominent role of the Shabak, rather than the police, in these interrogations, since the Shabak “are allowed to do much more than the police.” For instance, she said, “in order to prevent us lawyers from seeing and consulting our clients, they issue an order…as they did [for] Murad to prevent him from seeing a lawyer, so he feels totally isolated, and they can do whatever they want: They can play these games on him and…threaten him, or even more than that in order to get confessions from him that are very often false ones.”

In addition, Odeh said the prison administration had denied Murad phone calls and visits and postponed his hearing multiple times. Moreover, a policy of “closed-door” court sessions has prevented his family from being in court. (During Murad’s first weeks in prison, Odeh himself felt the pressure: The Israeli magistrate court issued a 30-day gag order on Murad’s lawyers, which hindered advocacy efforts and press campaigns.)

According to Israeli law, the prosecution can obtain a “secrecy certificate,” signed by the minister of defense, permitting them to conceal parts of the interrogation process from both the court and the defense for “security reasons.”

Odeh said the prosecution claims that such measures are being used to prevent compromising the secrecy of the investigation. However, Odeh maintains that “isolating [Murad] from the outside world is a method of psychological torture”; he believes it is part of an effort to pressure him into admitting to crimes he did not commit.

In one disturbing incident, the Shabak summoned Murad’s mother on September 30. She was questioned about a meal she had cooked for a group of young people in July. “I was shocked,” she said. “I thought they were going to ask me about my son, but all of [the interrogator’s] questions were about the food, how many people I fed. I told him hospitality is part of our culture.”

Although Murad’s mother was released shortly after, one source informed me that police officers told Murad that she would be “arrested and jailed.” Odeh speculates that this threat, if true, was leveled as a bargaining chip by prison investigators—a phenomenon that has been reported by multiple Palestinians who have been incarcerated.

Murad’s lawyers have further said that he has been preyed on by an undercover unit in the detention center that Palestinians call “the birds,” which is a widespread network of Israeli officers cosplaying as Palestinians as well as Palestinian informers posing as jailed militants. “The birds” pressure prisoners to confess through highly orchestrated scenes of coercive machismo, boasting, and even camaraderie.

four months after Murad disappeared into the legal swamp that swallows so many Palestinians, his fate remains as uncertain as ever. What many who know him believe, however, is that Murad’s stance against yet another Nakba has almost certainly cost him his freedom.

One friend called his detention “emotional blackmailing” aimed “to terrorize the young people of Sheikh Jarrah.” Another declared that the charges against Murad are baseless, that he was merely “peacefully protesting the Occupation’s crime of displacement against him and his recently widowed mother from their only home.”

As Murad’s family awaits his hearing, they continue to hope and advocate for his release, even as they go about their daily lives, marking events, both big and small, without him. On November 3, Murad’s sister Manar got married after he insisted his family not postpone the wedding until his release. His family and loved ones sang and danced as ordinary families do—and printed Murad’s face on scarves they wore to the wedding.

“Murad is a born leader with a passion for justice,” Murad’s mother said in a statement released by the neighborhood’s official social media account. “Consequently, they wanted him muzzled by these false allegations.”

Mohammed al-Kurd is the Palestine Correspondent for The Nation; he writes primarily about dispossession in Jerusalem and colonization in Palestine; his debut book, RIFQA (Haymarket Books), will be released in October 2021