Context is everything. All social workers know this: that to make sense of a situation, to assess it, we need to put events into context. Put another way, private troubles are often connected to public issues, but we only see this when we make an effort to join the dots, to locate the micro in the macro. This connection, between the personal and the political, is at the heart of what it is to do social work. As the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) states:
Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledges, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing (IFSW, 2014)
How we practise social work is profoundly impacted by the opportunities and constraints set by our immediate context. In some countries that context can powerfully, even violently, impact on practice.
On 27th December 2017 the Palestinian social worker, Munther Amira, was arrested and detained by Israeli Occupation Forces during a protest in front of Israel’s illegal “separation wall” in Bethlehem city, in the occupied West Bank of Palestine. Munther was taking part in a peaceful demonstration, protesting the arrest and detention of the 16 year old Ahed Tamimi and the detention of all Palestinian child political prisoners. The Israeli state detains between 500 and 700 children (aged between 12 and 17) each year. They are tried in military courts with a prosecution rate of almost 100%. The vast majority are tried for the “crime” of throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli Occupation Forces and their military vehicles: a crime that is punishable by up to twenty years in prison. Around two thirds of children detained by the Israeli military have testified to being violently abused during arrest and incarceration, some child detainees have been threatened with sexual violence.
The arrest of Munther Amira sparked an outcry in the international social work community. Strong statements, demanding his immediate and unconditional release, were made by the International Federation of Social Workers, the Aoteaoroa New Zealand Association of Social Workers, the British Association of Social Workers, the Turkish Association of Social Workers and the Palestinian Union of Social Workers and Psychologists. A change.org petition calling for the release of Munther Amira was launched by Filipe Duarte and has, to date, collected almost 8,000 signatures.
But why would the Israeli state want to arrest a social worker taking part in a peaceful protest? To understand this, we need some more context. First of all, the right to peaceful protest, written into the declaration of human rights, cannot be taken for granted in the Occupied Territories. Secondly, although Munther is a social worker, and former head of the Palestine Union of Social Workers and Psychologists, he is also, like many social workers, an activist in the popular struggle of the Palestinian people against the Israeli Occupation Forces. In fact, he is the head of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) in the occupied West Bank, and that makes him a target for the Israeli state.
The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) is a remarkable network of community based organisations committed to unarmed struggle against the Israeli occupation. I say remarkable because (and here we have some more context) the occupation of the Palestinian Territories by Israel since 1967 is illegal under international law and in breach of the Geneva Convention. A people occupied by a a foreign force are legally entitled to resist “by all available means” including armed struggle. Instead, the PSCC advocate unarmed, popular struggle, a struggle that includes the whole community. The PSCC consider that the participation of older people, youth and children in protests and demonstrations is an important act of empowerment, an act that protects self-esteem and resists the daily humiliation of Palestinians by the IOF.
As the recent statement issued by the Palestinian Union of Social Workers and Psychologists makes clear:
It is difficult to convey the intensity of the continuous surveillance, harassment and humiliation of the Palestinian people. On a daily basis, checkpoints, road blocks and the infamous “separation wall” are used to implement Israel’s apartheid system. Women, children and university students who are simply travelling, or attempting to go about their daily business, are all subject to routine checks, harassment and detention.
The villagers of Nabi Saleh, on the West Bank of Palestine, are part of the unarmed, popular struggle. Since 2010 they have held weekly demonstrations to protest the confiscation of their land and the takeover of the village spring by Jewish settlers (the settlement of occupied Palestine is also illegal under international law). These peaceful demonstrations are routinely met with heavily armed resistance by the Israeli Occupation Forces, including the use of teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. In the video below Ahed Tamimi (a 16 year-old Palestinian activist) talks about Nabi Saleh, the occupation and the daily issues confronted by the Palestinian community.
Not long after creating that video, and following Donald Trump’s declaration to move the US Embassy to Bethlehem, Ahed Tamimi was projected onto the world stage when a video of Ahed slapping a heavily armed member of the Israeli Occupation Forces went viral on social media. Ahed’s actions occurred shortly after an Israeli soldier shot her 14 year-old cousin in the face, at close range, with a rubber bullet, requiring him to be placed in a medically induced coma. The following night, on the of 19th of December, the Israeli Occupation Forces conducted a night raid on her house and detained Ahed, her cousin Nour and her mother Nariman. Both Ahed and Nariman remain in military detention and face long prison sentences. One of the most despicable aspects of the aftermath of Ahed’s arrest, and an indication of the extent of the dehumanisation of Palestinians by some parts of Israeli society, were the comments from the Israeli Education Minister that the girls should “spend the rest of their days in prison”, and from a prominent Israeli journalist that, “In the case of the girls, we should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras”. At the time of writing the village of Nabi Saleh has been declared a closed military zone.
So, if you were asked to write a social work report for the Military Court on Ahed Tamimi what would you say? How would you make sense of her actions? Perhaps you would note her personal history as a fearless and intelligent activist, committed to scholarly achievement in spite of its regular disruption by the forces of occupation. You might highlight the close and loving relationship she has with her family, and their active promotion of her sense of self-esteem and empowerment as a young woman. Reflecting on the circumstances of the “offence”, you might consider this in the context of the near fatal assault on her 14 year-old cousin by illegal forces of occupation. Focusing on her strengths you could mention her close involvement, and tireless commitment, to community work in defence of her people and their land. You would undoubtedly point out the international condemnation of the treatment of children at the hands Israeli Military Courts, and the brutal occupation and apartheid policies of the Israeli state. I suspect you might, like me, conclude by recommending the immediate release of Ahed and all political prisoners, and an end to the illegal occupation and colonisation of the Palestinian Territories. At which point, without the shadow of a doubt, you would be detained by the Israeli Occupation Forces!
Palestine is probably the most dangerous place in the world to practise social work. With the intensification of the struggle, as a result of Trump’s recent declaration, Palestinian social workers, Palestinian child detainees and the Palestinian people need acts of solidarity from the international social work community now more than ever. As stated in the global definition cited above, social work ought to promote the “empowerment and liberation of people”. What can you do to support Palestine?
- Participate in the activities of local Palestinian solidarity networks such as one of the three rallies to be held in New Zealand on Saturday 3rd February 2017 in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.
- Actively promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement in your workplace, trade union and professional association.
- Campaign and raise awareness about the plight of child detainees in occupied Palestine.
At the end of the day the sacrifices made by Ahed, Munther and 6000 other political prisoners will be in vain unless the international community steps up to the plate.
#FreeAhedTamimi #FreeMuntherAmira #FreeAllPoliticalPrisoners #FreePalestine
Image credit: Rusty Stewart