On Sept. 26, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition by the state to review a ruling by a district court that partially acquitted the Israeli Arab poet Dareen Tatour of incitement. The justices refused to even discuss the matter on the grounds that there were no new arguments or new evidence to justify an appeal. The Supreme Court's decision brought Tatour's legal journey to a close.
Tatour, who lives in Reniah, a village in northern Israel, had been a rather anonymous poet until her arrest in October 2015, when a wave of attacks by individuals erupted on the West Bank and on the other side of the Green Line, in Israel. A month later, Tatour was brought to court in Nazareth and accused of inciting violence and suspicion of terrorism, for a total of three counts.
The main complaint against Tatour was that she had posted to her Facebook page a photo of Israa Abed, a woman from Nazareth whom Border Police wounded with gunfire after she waved a knife in Afula at the central bus station. The police claimed that her erratic behavior had been grounds for suspicion of terrorism. Tatour added a caption to the photo that read, “I am the next shahid [martyr].” She later posted her poem “Rise Up, My People, Rise Up Against Them” on YouTube and Facebook.
Tatour’s indictment turned her into an icon of the struggle for freedom of expression. Many people came to view the judicial proceedings against her as nothing more than a show trial, intended to intimidate the Arab population at the height of the “intifada of individuals.” Tatour was initially detained for three months, then placed under house arrest, and finally convicted in May 2018 and sentenced to five months in prison. After being released, she appealed her conviction to the district court.
One year later, in May 2019, the district court acquitted her of one charge, ruling that “Rise Up, My People, Rise Up Against Them” does not constitute incitement. The three-judge panel of Esther Helman, Yifat Shitreet and Saeb Dabour also concluded, however, that the sentence imposed had not been excessive given other things Tatour had written.
The judges wrote in their opinion, “Despite all the discomfort and hard feelings that could reach into the soul and consciousness of any Israeli exposed to the poem, it was not written in a threatening, demanding, insistent, and subversive voice.… Nor should the status of the appellant as a poetess be ignored.… She released her poem on the Facebook page under her own name, so that in the end, her target audience understood it to be a poem. This distinguishes it from a sermon, speech, or post by someone of political stature and/or with a reputation for extremism who is identified with some ideology or other.”
Gaby Lasky, the human rights activist and attorney who represented Tatour, told Al-Monitor that the legal system and the Israeli police had been intent on prosecuting Tatour, showing no sign of leniency, although she couldn't understand why. “It’s not as if there were no Israeli Arabs who have stood trial for incitement. Of course, there were,” she said. “But what made her famous was the legal process itself. They took a girl who wrote a poem and turned her into someone inciting terrorism.”
In a November 2018 interview with Haaretz, Tatour revealed that she had suffered sexual abuse as a girl and had been raped by a member of her family. She and her relatives claim that it was apparently the same perpetrator who complained to the police about her publishing the “inciteful” poem. Given the tense environment in Israel at the time, with a prevailing fear of increased terrorism, the incident was blown out of proportion.
According to Lasky, that a trial about a work of art in Arabic was conducted entirely in Hebrew is in itself problematic. “The poem was translated by a policeman who happened to speak Arabic. He was a member of the Druze community, but he had no special background in literature,” Lasky explained. “Nevertheless, the system ignored that. When examining the poem without the proper context, it has a very different meaning. This is especially true when the translator ignores [in his translation] the cultural background of the writer as a woman and a young Palestinian poet who lives in Israeli society.
Lasky then explained that the word “shahid,” at the center of the trial, was judged from the perspective of a Jewish narrative, or in other words, it was understood as meaning “terrorist,” rather than referring to someone as being a victim, a common interpretation in Palestinian and Muslim society. “When we were in the district court, we were lucky to have a Druze judge [Saeb Dabour], who noted that someone drowning can also be considered a shahid,” Lasky noted.
Once the trial began, human rights activists followed it and supported Tatour, protesting the very fact that she was being put on trial for poetry. The activists convinced Tatour to contact Lasky, who agreed to represent Tatour after she had examined the relevant material, which led her to focus primarily on what she called the specious translation, which was the ground for Tatour’s arrest and trial.
Tamar Goldschmidt, Ilana Hammerman, and Iris Bar professionally translated the poem, which was then released to the media to underscore the difference between a literary work and incitement to terror. While this did not affect the outcome of Tatour's trial, it was a factor in the appeal.
Lasky does not speak Arabic and is certainly not conversant in the language at a literary level. When asked how she knew that Tatour was not inciting terror, Lasky said that she had asked Tatour to read the poem to her in Arabic, then translate it into Hebrew for her, and after that show her other Hebrew translations by people fluent in Arabic.
“It was all so simple once she translated it,” said Lasky. “The poem talks about Palestinian children as victims and asks them to look at how many victims there are on the other side.” Lasky said it doesn’t matter what she thinks about the poem. The fact is that it was not a crime for Tatour to publish it. “Her arrest and trial stemmed from a desire to silence a legitimate voice,” Lasky asserted.
As for Tatour’s two other convictions, Lansky said, “The court [in the appeal to the district court] did not accept our arguments, but in any case, she already served her sentence. As far as she is concerned, it is the poem that is important. In that sense, she feels like she won.”
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