Many take their liberty for granted even as they have endless time to rail on and on about how “they” are coming for us. Be it the “coup”, apparently now underway, or the spread of domestic McCarthyism that seeks to cower us into silence, or the baffling, sudden, corrupt reach of the Department of Justice, for most white men here we enjoy a privilege that says not us. Typically, it works.
A world away, liberty is less a race-based edge than it is the benefits you gain by the day of the week you celebrate your faith. For those who get directions from god on Saturdays, there appear to be no limits to the dispensation to which you are entitled; be it the execution of an unconscious prisoner, the mass arrest of a family with the temerity to fight for their land or a Prime Minister protected by legislative fiat empowered well beyond the reach of mere mortal law.
Israel has long preached justice and equality to the world. How often have we heard its mantra about democratic ideals and traditions as so much a unique historical tenet of its travel… a journey for the chosen that get to choose who the beneficiaries are… and are not.
For those of us in the US, either schooled in the classic process of the law or victimized by its aim, we’ve grown spoiled by its safeguards even though they remain but abstract and elusive for those many in the prisoner dock of “wrong” color, with but coins in their pocket or militant politics in their gait.
Yet, despite the betrayal of equal hope for all, the march from investigation to arrest to trial and result knows no formal de jure distinction along the way. Of course, one would be so much a fool to argue that justice is blind, or little more than a commodity for purchase, or the skill of one’s advocate, or the luck of one’s judicial draw. Yet these damning imperfections leave hope along the way that justice may, on occasion, just slip and fall into ones lap despite a long and tarred drop.
That is not the case in Israel. Israel has two systems of justice… one for Jews and the other for Palestinians be they Muslim, Christian or atheist. Nowhere is that more apparent or destructive than it is in the Occupied Territory.
The Detention of Children
Several days ago, 16 year old Ahed Tamimi was arrested, by heavily armed Israeli soldiers, during a violent pre-dawn raid on her home. It followed a video, since gone viral, of her slapping a soldier on the face and arm and pushing another soldier, standing nearby, who she was ushering away from the family home… this, after her 14-year-old cousin, Mohammed, had been shot by an Israeli rubber coated bullet that entered through his mouth and lodged in his brain.
For Ahed, it was not the first time that her challenge to the occupation received international attention and acclaim. As an 11 year old, she was video recorded confronting soldiers with clenched fist. She did not back down. At 13, she helped to wrestle her 11 year old brother, his arm in a cast, from the clutches of an Israeli soldier who was physically assaulting him during a standoff near her family home. For that, she was the recipient of the Handala Courage award in Turkey.
Not long after Ahed’s current arrest, Nariman Tamimi was seized when she went to the local police station to check on her daughter. After attending his daughter’s initial military court appearance, Bassem Tamimi, a prominent land defender and non-violent organizer in the village of Nabi Saleh, was also taken into custody. He has been arrested numerous times by Israeli forces. In 2012, he was termed a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International during one of his several detentions in an Israeli prison.
Later that night, soldiers seized a family cousin, Nour Tamimi, a 21 year old journalism student, from her own family home.
Mother, father, daughter, and cousin arrested after another cousin shot… all within a matter of a few days. Welcome to Palestine. Welcome to the Occupation.
Liberty means more than the freedom to walk in and out of your home with the approval of those who occupy the streets that lead to it.
Though the arrest of Ahed has captured the attention of many, it is as much the force of her charisma as it is the call of justice that has produced it. Since 2000, over 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and prosecuted in an Israeli military system devoid of any meaningful protection for the most vulnerable and traumatized among those that have known nothing but the bark of occupation their entire lives. It is a military justice process notorious for the systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children.
The majority of these children have been seized in middle of the night raids by heavily armed Israeli soldiers. By now, military kidnappings have become so much the expected norm that Palestinian teens sleep with their clothes on to maintain their modesty when the doors to their bedroom are kicked in with the shouts of “get up get up” by heavily armed soldiers.
Dragged out the door to the screams of their powerless parents, for most, it will be the last they will hear from them without the watch and eavesdrop of prison guards for the many months of detention to follow.
Several hours after their arrest, children arrive at an interrogation and detention center alone, tired, and frightened.
All Interrogations, by their very nature, are inherently coercive no matter the age or experience of its target. None are more so than for an often bruised and scared child forced to go through the process without the benefit of counsel or the presence of parents who are never permitted to participate.
Israeli law provides that all military interrogations must be undertaken in a prisoner’s native language and that any statement made by them must be reduced to writing in that language. Despite this prohibition, detainees are typically coerced into signing statements, through verbal abuse, threats, and physical violence, that are written by police in Hebrew… which most cannot understand. These statements usually provide the main evidence against these children in Israeli military courts.
By virtue of the military court process, as of the end of this past summer there were 331 Palestinian minors held in Israeli prisons as security detainees and prisoners, including 2 administrative detainees.
The Military Court Process
The military courts, themselves, are held inside military bases and closed to the public… and usually family members of the accused. Within these courts, military orders supersede clear Israeli and international law. The court proceedings reduce the prospect of any justice to little more than a military dress parade where soldiers exhibit their uniform without any independence or skill attached to it whatsoever.
In military courts, all parties to the proceeding… the judge, prosecutor and translators… are members of the Israeli armed forces. The judges are military officers with minimal judicial training and, by-in- large, served as military prosecutors before assuming the bench
The prosecutors are Israeli soldiers appointed to the position by the Area Commander. Some of them are not yet certified as attorneys under the Israeli Bar Association.
Under the rules of occupation, all defendants in military courts are Palestinian… with the jurisdiction of the Israeli military court never extended to some eight hundred thousand Jewish settlers living in the West Bank. They are accorded the full benefit and safeguard of Israeli civil law.
Under Israeli military orders, a Palestinian can be held without charge, for the purpose of interrogation, for a total period of 90 days during which he or she is denied the benefit of counsel. These detention periods can be extended without limit and require but an ex parte request of military prosecutors. By comparison, an Israeli citizen accused of a security offense, within the Occupied Territory, can be held without indictment within the civil process for a period of 64 days during which time counsel is available at all times.
Though Palestinian detainees are entitled to trials in military proceedings which must be completed within eighteen months, if the trials have not concluded within that time frame, a judge from the Military Court of Appeals can extend the detention of a Palestinian by multiple six-month increments… indefinitely. It is this process which has left thousands of Palestinian political detainees imprisoned for years on end without the benefit of counsel, formal charges, or trial. The comparable time limit for detainees before Israeli civilian courts is nine months.
While criminal liability begins at age 12 for Palestinians and Israelis alike, under the military system Palestinians can be tried as adults at age 16. For Israelis, the age of majority for trial as an adult in a civilian court is 18. This two year difference, without physical distinction of consequence, can mean the difference of many years in sentence should a conviction ensue. In some cases, it can literally mean a variance between a few years in prison versus decades upon conviction.
For those Palestinian detainees who have been accorded a military trial in the Occupied Territory, the conviction rate is but a bit short of 100%. All military trials are undertaken by a judge and not a jury.
Although the United Nations has repeatedly held that the military justice system in the Occupied Territory violates international law, it has done nothing to ensure equal protection to hundreds of thousands denied justice by virtue of being Palestinian and nothing else.
Detention as a Political Weapon
For fifty years, the justice system in the Occupied Territory has been the exclusive domain of the Israeli army… completely removed from any oversight by civilian laws, courts, and safeguards. It’s been estimated that, during this time, several hundred thousand Palestinians have been sentenced for a wide range of “security violations” as defined by arbitrary military fiat on a case by case basis. It has been reported that 20% of the Palestinian population have been swept up and detained by the military during this time.
While Israel has tried to portray its exercise of judicial authority in the Occupied Territory as one largely concerned with traditional criminal offenses or serious acts of “violence”, in point of fact, most of those seized have been detained for little more than non-violent political activity.
Designated as “Hostile Terrorist Activity,” these offenses often target speech, association, cultural expression, “unauthorized” assembly and movement, non-violent protest, and political activity carried out by elected representatives of local Palestinian government entities.
Others have been detained for “incitement” or membership in “illegal associations” as determined by the local Israeli military commander… or for “leaving the area without permission.”
Journalists have been arrested because of their critical coverage of the military at demonstrations or for reporting about the occupation in general. One was arrested for making a Facebook comment on another arrested Palestinian’s mugshot: “your smile will end the occupation.”
Troops have raided and shut down several broadcast outlets for six months on the grounds of incitement including the Manbar al-Hurriya radio station and eight local outlets operated by PalMedia, Ram Sat and Trans Media.
Documentation of almost two dozen Palestinians, in the West Bank, detained by the Israeli military for nothing more than Facebook posts or exchanges is claimed by 7amleh, the Arab Centre for Social Media Advancement. Additionally, Israel’s security system handed over a list of 400 other Palestinians, having posted to Facebook, to the security of the Palestinian Authority, who arrested them.
Members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) have been arrested and detained for carrying out a population census in occupied East Jerusalem which the military deemed as “illegal work” with the Palestinian Authority.
Although International law prohibits interference with the free exercise of one’s political opinions, the Israeli military has sought to suppress the Palestinian political process, as a whole, for decades. Palestinian political leaders and activists are routinely arrested and detained.
In July of 2014, a high of 38 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council were detained for political activity. As of November 2017, the current number is 11 members. Others have been prevented from travelling outside the Occupied Territories. A number of Legislative Council members had their residencies in Jerusalem revoked and were forcibly deported to other parts of the Occupied West Bank.
70 lawmakers from the Palestinian Legislative Council have been arrested since 2002 for political activity and little else, including a number that have been detained on multiple occasions.
Among the current members of the PLC in Israeli detention is 55-year-old Khalida Jarrar, a female legislator and senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Head of the Prisoners’ Commission of the PLC and vice-chairperson of the board of directors of Palestinian Prisoners’ Rights Group, Jarrar, who was last released from Israeli detention a year ago, was accused of “promoting terror activities”.
For seventy years, Israel has held itself out as a nation under siege. It has used this talisman to evade and avoid the clear mandate of international law. Nowhere is that more readily apparent and painful than in the Occupied Territory which, with the passage of time, has become illegally annexed and policed by military force of law.
Jails do not break the back of resistance. They firm it with the price expected for the cost of freedom. In Palestine, it is a price willingly embraced by both the young and those who have aged with the slam of the prison gate.
Perhaps one day, Israel will awaken to the truth that the siege it fights is the very one it promotes. Until then, neither the military nor its sham courts will quell the taste of freedom or the natural beckon for it.