Andre Pshenichnikov being restrained at the funeral of Shahid Mustafa Tamimi, a Palestinian man killed by Israeli soldiers. Photo by Oliver Weiken/EPA..
Andre Pshenichnikov was working on a software project for the Israeli military when he came across something both bizarre and depressingly familiar. The test video the project used was a film of Palestinians being shot by Israeli soldiers.
‘It’s so deeply ingrained it was just seen as normal,’ he says. ‘The denigration of Palestinians is common throughout Israeli society; their lives are seen as having less value, as expendable.’
This was just one of the many experiences that convinced Andre, a former Israeli military programmer, that he no longer wanted to be Israeli.
‘It is my opinion that those with Israeli citizenship are part of the crime of occupation because by remaining citizens they tacitly support the system of occupation and apartheid,’ he says.
Andre, who is now 23, emigrated to Israel from Russia when he was 13. After completing three years of mandatory military service, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces Signal Corps and served an additional year and a half as a career soldier. But during this time his opinions changed dramatically and in an unprecedented move he is attempting to fully renounce his Israeli citizenship to become a Palestinian.
But it’s not proving easy. Andre was arrested in May after he was found living in the Dheishe Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. The camp is in the Palestinian ‘Area A’, which comprises 18 per cent of West Bank. Under full security control by the Palestinian Authority, it is out of bounds for Israeli citizens. Between interrogations he was held in a small cell on his own, where he remained 24 hours a day for eight days before being released on bail.
‘For three of the days I was in a room without any windows and I was beaten up once, but it was bearable,’ he says.
He told his police interrogators that he believes the concept of a Zionist state is not valid and that Israel is the representative of Western power interests in the Middle East. He told them that he wanted to break all ties with Israel. For this, the police accused him of being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
‘Andre only said he believed in the ideas of the PFLP, not that he was a member, so they couldn’t press those charges,’ says Andre Rosenthal, Pshenichnikov’s lawyer. ‘They were trying to get 15 more days to interrogate him but eventually they had to let him out on bail.’
Yet he still faces charges relating to being in Area A and is waiting for his trial date. In the meantime he is forbidden from returning to where he was living. Close ties between the Palestinian Authority and Israel meant it took just a phone call to have Pshenichnikov arrested in the street in the middle of the day.
‘The Palestinian Authority picked him up, but they are subcontracted by the Israeli authorities – they’re basically a wing of the Israeli authorities,’ says Andre Rosenthal.
If nothing else, Pshenichnikov hopes his trial will highlight Palestinian oppression and the real nature of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.
‘I believe everything in this world is possible and even if I’m not able to get citizenship, the process itself is very important,’ says Pshenichnikov. ‘It will show the world that Israel, not the Palestinian Authority, is really in control of the West Bank.’