Israel uses imprisonment as a tool to oppress Palestinians who fight for freedom and resist the occupation of their homeland. Numerous Palestinian human rights activists have been arrested and detained. Palestinians from the West Bank – including East Jerusalem – and Gaza are tried by Israeli military courts, despite international humanitarian law’s preference for impartial civilian courts.
In a new booklet, Palestinian rights organization Addameer presents information about Palestinian political prisoners and the chaotic course of Israeli military court hearings. Volunteers and researchers working for Addameer witnessed hearings of Palestinians accused of “offenses” such as throwing stones, participation in demonstrations and other political activities. In their contributions they describe how prisoners, family members and lawyers were treated by the Israeli military during the hearings. A haunting picture of the shocking reality of the Israeli military courts arises from their impressions. A summary of the booklet is presented below.
750,000 Palestinians detained
Addameer summarizes the facts about the detention of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza in the first part of the booklet. Since 1967, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders, including 10,000 women. That is a frightening figure when one considers that 3.9 million Palestinians now live in the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Moreover, Israel has arrested around 8,000 Palestinian children since 2000.
As per 1 April this year, Israel was holding 4,610 Palestinian political prisoners, including seven females and 203 children, 31 of whom were under the age of 16. Among the prisoners were 27 Palestinian lawmakers, 322 administrative detainees who were held without charge or trial, and 456 prisoners from the Gaza Strip, who have been denied access to family visits since June 2007.
Almost 100 percent conviction rate
The Israeli military court system is mainly used to prosecute Palestinians who are arrested by the Israeli military and charged with “security” violations and other crimes. Of those who are charged, 99.74 percent are convicted.
Israeli military orders define offenses using the categories of “hostile terrorist activity”, disturbance of public order, “classic” criminal offenses, illegal presence in Israel, and traffic offenses committed in the West Bank and Gaza. For example, all political parties belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organization are considered “illegal organizations.” Carrying a Palestinian flag is a crime and participation in a demonstration is deemed a disruption of public order. Pouring coffee for a member of an “illegal association” can be seen as support for a terrorist organization.
The Israeli military courts do not respect the fundamental right to a fair trial which includes the right to prompt notice of criminal charges, the right to prepare an effective defense, the right to trial without undue delay, the right to interpretation and translation, and the right to presumption of innocence.
Children tried as adults
Every year, Israel prosecutes about 700 Palestinian children from the West Bank in its military courts. Children aged between 16 and 18 years are tried and sentenced as adults. In addition, it is not the age at the time when the alleged offense was committed that is decisive, but the age at the time of sentencing. A child who is accused of committing an offense at 15 will be punished as an adult if he or she has turned 16 by the time of sentencing.
Palestinian children are commonly charged for stone-throwing which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Palestinian child detainees held for interrogation are routinely made to sign confessions written in Hebrew, a language few of them understand. These coerced confessions then serve as the primary evidence against them when they are prosecuted before the military courts. With no guarantee to a fair trial and the prospect of a harsh sentence, most children plead guilty, regardless of whether they actually committed the offense.
Humiliation of visitors to military courts
The second part of Addameer’s Eyes on Israeli Military Courts booklet gives the impressions of contributors who witnessed hearings in Israeli military courts. Here are some excerpts:
It was an outside prison, I thought. Here were the families of prisoners, made to wait patiently in the searing sun for their time to be called. Gates would open, guards would scream, several worried faces would stare, and one by one each family member would be accepted into another part of the prison. What was the purpose of acting with so much vehemence towards these people? Why yell and scream at old women and men, young boys and girls, who cared only about the future of their loved ones and not for the petty wickedness of those “in charge”? I was enraged but also sad. Peter Hamm on Ofer military court.
Chaos in the courts
The court visit seemed more like a visit to a prison – only with more security than the prisons I have visited in the United States. The Israeli military was running the entire show. The judge was from the military. The prosecutor was from the military. The translator was from the military. And other people in the courtroom whose roles I could not determine were also from the military. I would have thought that the military – known for its discipline – would have been able to create order in the courtroom. And yet in this court, there was no order. Abbas Khan on Ofer military court.
I understood quickly that there were no arguments being submitted, no testimony collected, nor any form of regular procedure I would associate with criminal proceeding. This was very much political. The judge was in charge: no doubting this. He issued commands, above the statements of others, and appeared not to hear that which he did not want to. Peter Hamm on Ofer military court.
Language as a weapon
In Israel’s military courts, language is a weapon. Everything is in Hebrew – the court transcripts, the “No Smoking” signs, the judges’ questions and pronouncements, the witness testimonies. You can’t be a successful defense lawyer unless you speak Hebrew and Arabic fluently. Language is a tool of exclusion, proclaiming, “Justice is on our terms, not yours.” Anonymous
Justice upside down
Having been to court rooms in both Canada and the United Kingdom, Israeli military justice, apparently, is a shadow of the norms, rules and regulations of standard civilian trials I am used to. More, it is an obvious farce that pits actors of such obviously unequal positions of bargaining power that to call it justice would be like calling up “down.” And this is aside from the real fact that justice administered by the occupier is a farce to begin with. Peter Hamm on Ofer military court.
Ofer military court is situated on Ofer compound in the occupied West Bank. It includes a prison and an army camp. According to Who Profits, a research project of the Coalition of Women for Peace (a grouping of Israeli and Palestinian activists), the British-Danish security firm G4S provided a perimeter defense system for the walls of the Ofer facility and installed a central command room inside, from which the entire facility can be monitored.
G4S is a target of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for its role in the provision of services to the Israeli Prison Service, the Israeli army, the Israeli police and businesses located in Israeli settlements.