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Guilt by association

Haaretz English edition may 19th 2000

A workers' aid center in Nazareth - the only one that operates in the Arab sector - is attempting to register as a non-profit organization. The writer reports on the obstacles being placed in its way

By Lily Galili

This Monday, when Palestinians were marking the Nakba, it was also women's registration day at the Nazareth employment bureau in Nazareth. Dozens of young Arab women lined up at the entrance, clutching registration forms that are basically useless. For each of them, it is a small personal tragedy. Textile factories in the north have relocated to Jordan, increasing joblessness among Arab women. These women do not have the option of threatening revenge against the daughters of the wealthy, as Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz did last weekend in an interview in Ma'ariv. In principle, the Histadrut has nothing to offer Arabs. In the wake of structural changes, the number of Arabs who belong to the Israeli labor federation has dropped from 280,000 to a mere 50,000. Now it is each person for himself, and the odds of success are not great.Mingling among the job-seekers at the entrance to the employment bureau are Assaf Adiv and Wehbe Badarneh of Ma'an, a workers' aid center in Nazareth - the only one that operates in the Arab sector. Every registration day, they are here, offering assistance and guidance to those who stand bewildered before a bureaucratic system whose workings they do not understand. The appearance of these two familiar figures, now accompanied by a journalist, seemed to make the security guards particularly skittish. A senior officer tried to get rid of us as if we were some kind of ticking bomb. The attitude of the registrar of non-profit associations is much the same: He has refused to register Ma'an as a non-profit association for close to two years.

The offices of Ma'an occupy two rooms in Nazareth's Shechuna Dalet, a slum neighborhood in this Arab town. Here, too, inequality reigns. On the door hangs a large sign indicating that the premises are shared by the Workers' Aid Center and Al Sabar, a bi-weekly Arabic newspaper. Four Arab women in traditional dress were sitting in the large room on Monday, carefully copying arithmetic equations from the blackboard. This is one of the solutions that Ma'an offers unemployed women: For a tiny fee, they acquire a basic education that allows them to help their children with their homework. The small room, decorated with a Nakba poster and a Palestinian flag, serves as an office.

For the people who work here, the backdrop is completely familiar. Certainly for Wehbe Badarneh, 32, a resident of Nazareth who has been active in politics and social causes from an early age. In 1989, he spent nine months in jail for belonging to a terrorist organization - in his case, the PLO. Assaf Adiv, 47, a former member of Derekh Hanitzotz, also feels right at home.

Twelve years ago, four members of this organization, all of them Jews, were brought to trial for membership in the organization of Naif Hawatmeh. Their newspaper was shut down by administrative order, and all four received prison sentences ranging from one to two and a half years. Upon their release, the whole group quickly resumed political activity. Now they publish a Jaffa-based English paper called Challenge, which explores issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is highly critical of the Oslo accords. Adiv, who moved to Haifa, runs the Ma'an center in Nazareth together with his colleagues.

Meanwhile, the group also founded a political party, the Democratic Action Movement (DAM), which participated in the 1996 and 1999 elections. The first time, it won a total of 1,500 votes; the second time, the results were slightly better, but not impressive: 2,300. "Sitting in jail leaves you two options," says Adiv, reflecting on the days when the affair in which he was involved took the country by storm. "Either you buckle under pressure, or you become more realistic, but without giving up activism. That's the choice we made, as individuals and a group."

Times have changed since Derekh Hanitzotz was found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization. Now we have the Oslo accords and there is open talk of a Palestinian state. Even Hawatmeh was politely interviewed on Israeli television not long ago. All of this makes it even harder to understand why Amiram Bogat, the registrar of non-profit organizations, refuses to recognize Ma'an as an amuta. In Ma'an's appeal to the district courts next week, the association will be represented by the law office of Gilad Sher, currently an advisor to Ehud Barak. "If he is good enough for Barak, I would assume he is good enough for us," jokes Adiv.

The story goes back to the mid-1990s, when Al Sabar became involved in the welfare of Arab workers. Despite a long history of political activism, this was new and unfamiliar terrain. And yet, there was an obvious need for such a service in the Arab sector. "We were totally ignorant about labor laws and the rights of workers," says Adiv. "We began to explore the subject together, and people started coming to us because there was no other address."

As time went on, activity expanded. A lawyer specializing in the field offered legal assistance, and the number of applicants steadily increased. All the work was done out of the offices of Al Sabar, funded by Hanitzotz Publishing, a non-profit organization on the books since 1985. Two years ago, operations reached a point where a structural change was needed. In June 1998, Adiv and his colleagues applied to the registrar of non-profit organizations with the object of registering Ma'an - Workers' Advisory Center as an amuta.

The working assumption was that the procedure would take four months. In September 1998, a letter arrived from the registrar's office approving the name with a slight change: Ma'an - Workers' Aid Association. Badarneh and Adiv did not see much difference, and wrote back on October 31, saying they agreed. Printed on the stationary was the word "association."

"It's true," says Adiv. "We innocently thought that if we agreed to the name proposed by the registrar, we could already use it. Actually, we used the Arabic word 'jama'a,' which means 'non-profit organization,' but could also refer to any non-formal association. 'Jama'a office' is a common term nowadays. In any case, as soon as the registrar mentioned it, we stopped. And certainly, we never took action of a corporate nature. We didn't open a bank account or enter into any commitments. We sat and waited."

On February 6, 2000, a letter finally arrived, but instead of the registrar's long-awaited approval, what they found in the envelope was a rejection slip. In a memo addressed to Badarneh, Amiram Bogat listed his reasons for turning down the application. In the first place, he wrote, there is already a registered company called Ma'an. Using this name was not possible because it might mislead the public. Rather than suggesting a name change, Bogat then went on to say that Ma'an was an illegal body whose sole objective was to deceive the public. He cited a meeting which took place on May 1, 1999 at which the activists falsely claimed to be an amuta, and accused them of inciting unemployed Arabs from Ein Mahel to stage a violent protest at the employment office in Upper Nazareth in October 1999. Bogat's conclusion was that Ma'an was clearly involved in illegal activity and had committed criminal offenses such as forgery, impersonation and creating a public disturbance. Under the circumstances, he wrote, he could not register the association as requested. Ma'an took advantage of the 30-day period of grace to draft an appeal.

Another odd incident occurred back in July 1999, when things were heating up. Ma'an approached the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), perceiving it as a natural address for their problem. ACRI thought so, too, and kindly offered to help. Attorney Amiram Bogat disagreed. He claimed ACRI was not qualified to handle the matter, citing the principle of "professional uniqueness." Considering the events that followed, one cannot help feeling that the registrar of non-profit organizations was not happy about turning the story into a civil rights case. Better that it should remain the story of a suspicious Arab.

The appeal submitted by the office of Gilad Sher in the name of Badarneh and Adiv led to a surprising reply from the State Prosecutor's Office that sheds new light on the whole affair. If, up to now, the reason for turning down Ma'an's application was that the applicant had not acted in good faith, a whole slew of new reasons suddenly sprouted. A major argument now cited by the registrar of non-profit organizations was Wehbe Badarneh's character: "An inquiry by the registrar shows that [Badarneh] has a criminal record, inter alia for disturbance of the peace and illegal activity as follows: March 1983 - attempted assault of a police officer; March-April 1988 - attempted assault of a police officer, support of a terrorist organization, violence and property damage, unruly behavior; December 1987 - creating a public nuisance; January 1989 - willful destruction of property." The State Prosecutor's Office further claimed in the registrar's name that Ma'an was "highly likely to serve as a front for illegal activity."

It is worth noting that Badarneh's distant past and the suspicion that Ma'an would become a front for illegal activity were never cited by Amiram Bogat during his two years of correspondence with Ma'an - not even in the official letter in February rejecting its application. Even more bizarre is the fact that Badarneh's actions when he was very young and not yet known to the public are presented as grounds for turning down the application, rather than the much graver offenses of Assaf Adiv, a real catch compared to his Arab colleague. "Both of us have records for security offenses," says Adiv angrily. "So say you don't want people like us running an amuta. But strangely enough, I'm not even mentioned."

"This whole thing fell on me like out of the blue," says Badarneh, with a mixture of anger and sorrow. "What offenses are they talking about? Taking part in demonstrations after Sabra and Shatilla, and the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs? You know what they mean by property damage? I was detained for 14 days and it was boring. So I peeled an orange and used the peel to scrawl some verses from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish on the wall. That was back in 1988. I think they fined me NIS 500. At the time of Sabra and Shatilla, I was 16 years old. We had relatives in those camps. And now this registrar comes along and throws my whole life back at me. I never admitted to assaulting a police officer. But all of a sudden, I'm an Arab criminal who isn't fit to head an organization. Any way you look at it, it's strange. From the start, he could have said 'Take him off the founders list.' He never said a word, but now he pulls it out of his hat. There wasn't even a charge sheet for the Ein Mahel demonstration. Now they're using that, too, as if I'm some sort of irresponsible criminal. I'm proud of the offenses I committed, but now I'm older and I have other ways of serving my people. Apparently the registrar and the State Prosecutor's Office want to put an end to that.

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