On Wednesday 6 August an SFP volunteer attended Salem Military Court in solidarity with an imprisoned SFP member. This was their observations.
If you’re Palestinian you are guilty.
This is the first thing you should know about the brutal and racist military law that governs Palestinians. Palestinians are guilty at birth, the debate in the Court is around to what degree on top of that baseline they are guilty.
Any idea of law, justice or rule of law should be removed from your mind when you observe the Israeli Apartheid legal system in practice. Palestinian lawyers hands are tied. They are brokers in the Apartheid system, attempting to barter that their client isn’t a “really guilty Palestinian, just a mildly guilty one”. Their duty is to act in their clients best interests and base their advice on probability. It’s not a probability in their favour. Guilt is already established. If you’re Palestinian you’re guilty.
As the lawyers wait around in the heat, and young female soldiers swagger back and forth, the lawyers debate other ‘guilty’ Palestinians. They discuss the case of a man kidnapped from his temporary home in Balata refugee camp (his land being inside ’48 territories he’s forbidden to return to) for the umpteenth time. The Shabak officer (Israeli internal intelligence) drew a handy little picture for his lawyer to explain his guilt. It constituted a red dot (the man) and inner circle (the Occupations red line) and an outer circle. Simple enough.
The Shabak man calmly explained that they believed the red dot may be thinking about crossing the line denoted by the inner circle. An inner circle he explained that included the possibility he may influence others (there are lots of other dots within these circles apparently). And therefore his detention was to ensure those thoughts did not ever become conversations that may cause conversations with other dots.
The paper the lawyer had redrawn looked a lot like crack addict being left with a pen and paper while he waited for his dealer to come round with his next fix. Not at all like the impressive technology showcased in Tom Cruise’s Minority Report to confirm someones future thought crime.
So his guilt was not just his birth but also his potential mind. The thoughts he may have in the future, his future Palestinian self.
Finally, after being made to wait around for the majority of the day, the Palestinian lawyers then enter into negotiations with the ‘Prosecutor’. Often there is no evidence presented. No pictures, no finger prints, no witness statements. Just that ever present Green I.D. card symbolising they are a Palestinian.
The Shabak’s file is empty bar the hastily typed up ‘evidence’ paper, usually a side of A4. They rely solely on forcing a confession from the kidnapped Palestinian during the hours and days they are held with no access to a lawyer, family, or human contact (other than the sleep-depriving interrogation sessions).
The Prosecutor hands the piece of paper, the evidence, to the guilty parties lawyer. The first time he’s seen the ‘evidence’. It is at this point the bargaining begins, like a leather handbag in a souk market. The ‘evidence’ usually constitutes a few lines on the A4 sheet with vague claims by the Shabak (stone throwing, molotov cocktails being thrown, etc.) perhaps some, again, vague, claims by another Palestinian they witnessed the client do something against the illegal Occupation, but the majority relies on the ‘confession’ – obtained un-recorded and with no representation for the guilty.
Despite nothing that would constituent anything like ‘evidence’ the Palestinian lawyer knows that it is a case of degrees of guilt – there is still the evidence of their birth certificate. The Prosecutor offers an immediate release with the payment of thousands of dollars into an Israeli bank account. The Palestinian lawyer haggles and gets it down to $750 and release in 7 days. The handbag is secured to the satisfaction of the seller and the consumer. A total of 15 days in prison for the crime of being Palestinian this time.
Then comes the Court process. Everything is computerised and a tailor-made Apartheid computer programme logs all the documents and transcription of the events. The prisoners are brought in handcuffed and legs shackled, with the handcuffs being removed in Court. If they are lucky, as the Prosecutor shuffles papers, they can call across to their family, seated about 10 metres away. Two family members who have traveled to the Court and waited in the heat for the long hours for a few minutes glimpse of their kidnapped son. A son they have been unable to see since his kidnapping.
As the Prosecutor reads out the indictment and deal to the Judge in Hebrew, a disinterested young soldier halfheartedly translates into Arabic to the prisoner. All the while his back is turned to him and he’s seated 5 metres away.
As the Prosecutor continues reading out the agreement for the benefit of the transcriber and the computer system, the Palestinian lawyer takes the opportunity to finally talk to his client. The first opportunity to do so. In whispered tones, there is no private room for a client-lawyer meeting, the lawyer explains the deal, gives his advice and presses the prisoner for an answer. All in the space of the few minutes it takes for the Prosecutor to read out their three-paragraphs of ‘evidence’ and state the deal to the Judge.
The prisoner gives his lawyer the nod and the deal is struck for is partial freedom, a return to the slightly larger open-air prison of the West Bank area of Palestine. $750 and 15 days of a young mans life the cost of this barter. We leave with the satisfaction you feel when you have only paid 60% of the original asking price from the trader in the souk, leather handbag secured.
Next is a young man to which the Palestinian lawyer is allowed no access to the file detailing his additional guilt. The Shabak are asking for administrative detention (AD). The bargaining begins again.
The lawyer is able to secure an agreement that the young man serve 15 months and an assurance that this will not be amended to become an AD order. The young man is informed, again, in the few minutes his lawyer is able to whisper to him the deal and his advice while the Prosecutor reads out the deal to the Judge. The young man does not appear to have the same happy disposition about this trade, is he going to gamble…. I few more whispers and he announces his hand, he’s going to ‘stick’. Deal done. The House is happy. That’s one less AD statistic for Apartheid Israel, neatly slotted into the category of sentenced prisoners, and the implication of justice that column implies. He wasn’t a gambler.
We are all left wondering how the Shabak can be so sure that this young man will be ‘rehabilitated’ from his unknown crimes in 15 months time. Or whether for this young man the crime of being Palestinian was 15 months taken from his life.
Next in a young Palestinian man that is doubly guilty – he’s accused of being Hamas. As his mother weeps in the corner of the Court and he tries to give her a reassuring smile, the Prosecutor needs more time. Doesn’t look like this guilty one was prepared to confess to his crimes. A little more time and persuasion is needed and the Judge duly agrees.
And as we left the Court, and the prisoners were transported back, via international private companies, to prisons inside the ’48 territories in violation of international law, we wondered how many bullets today’s fines paid for and what the ever-changing sentences would be for tomorrows guilty Palestinians.
- The volunteer has a legal background in their home country.
- Administrative detainees are arrested by the Israeli Occupying Forces on the basis of Military Order 1226 – the order which empowers military commanders to detain an individual for up to six months if they have “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention.”
- On or just before the expiry date, the detention order is frequently renewed. This process can be continued indefinitely. There is no explicit limit for a maximum amount of time an individual may be detained, leaving room for indefinite detention.
- Detainees are not informed of the reasons of their detention; neither are their lawyers.
- It is unknown how many detainees agreed to deals to a fixed term imprisonment instead of being held under administrative detention, but were still unable to see the file or charges against them.
- 750,000 – 800,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been prosecuted in Israeli military courts since 1967.
- Over 99% of cases in the military courts end in conviction.
- Dual Israeli legal systems operate in the West Bank. Palestinians (in Gaza and the West Bank areas of Palestine) are prosecuted in military courts, whereas Israelis settlers are prosecuted in civilian courts, with far greater rights and protections.