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Occupation Justice: The Israeli Treatment of Palestinians

In February 1985 the Ramallah Military Court inflicted five years' imprisonment upon a 13-year old boy from Dheishe Refugee Camp, in the course of an "instant trial" lasting not more than one afternoon.

Following that trial, Jerusalem peace activists Gideon Spiro wrote letters to all three of the military judges involved, stating that "this trial made a mockery of any concept of justice, being reminiscent of the trials in the courts of dictatorial and tyrannical regimes" and wishing the judges' sleep to be nightly interrupted by nightmares reminding of the Palestinian child Ahed's experiences in the Israeli prison. The judicial system did not take kindly to this criticism; Spiro was prosecuted and sentenced (by a civilian court) to two months suspected imprisonment for "insulting a public official."

Three years later, at the beginning of the Intifada, "instant trials" became the rule at the military courts. Mass arrests were carried out by the army, and the High Command expected the military judges to help break the uprising by swiftly handing down the required number of "deterring" verdicts. It was at that time that Adv. Felicia Langer - well known since 1967 for her determined defense of Palestinians - decided to retire and close down her Jerusalem office. In a newspaper interview she explained: "I can no longer defend my clients. The judges expect them to plead guilty in order to finish quickly, and anybody who tries to conduct a real defense just gets a more severe punishment."

In the following period, the issue dropped out of the media - not because the situation improved, but because it had become a routine. It only achieved prominence again through the Amnesty International's report of July 1991, which was based on many months of thorough research. As well as giving detailed reports of the institutionalized torture of Palestinian detainees, the report which was extensively quoted in the Israeli press - concentrated on judicial malpractice by the military courts.

Amnesty researcher Wesley Greek told Israeli journalist Tom Segev of the scene he had witnessed at the Hebron Military Court, on November 9, 1990: "the accused was brought wounded before the judge. He had apparently been tortured. His shirt was torn and bloodstained. On his left arm, open wounds were visible. There was also a chest wound. During the proceedings the accused took off his trousers, and his lawyer asked the judge to look at his thigh, which was blue and black and wounded. The judge said that this was not relevant and refused to look at the wounds." (Torn Segev in his article The Guilt of the Judges, Ha'aretz 2-8-91.)

Not all military judges - mostly lawyers who do this as part of their reserve military service - are happy with the role they are called upon to play. When the dissident sociology lecturer Haim Gordon explored the attitudes of his fellow academics to the Intifada, he came upon the following testimony by a law professor at Tel-Aviv University: "... About a year ago, I was called up into the reserves, in order to act as a judge on appeals of prisoners in the Ketzoit camp (Ansar-3, a large detention center for Palestinians from the occupied territories). I reviewed the cases and released about a third of the prisoners. After that, a letter arrived at the Army Attorney General from the Security Service, saying that I am pro-PLO in my views." Gordon's contact, who described himself as a "politically centrist and opposing leftist views," insisted on his name being kept secret. However, another military judge - Aryeh Koks, a lawyer in civilian life - spoke out in an extensive interview published in Hadashot (11-10-91):

"There are dozens of mostly young prisoners. They don't even try to defend themselves. They have no confidence in the system. There are different standards for Jews and for Arabs. A Jew would get a year for killing an Arab; an Arab would get the same for throwing a stone that did not hit anybody.

"I tried not to conduct 'assembly-line' trials, but to ask personal questions of the accused and to determine the details of the alleged crime. But it is difficult. Usually the main evidence is a total confession of all the charges, and it is very difficult to get at the bottom.

In the Territories, the people we have to judge are regarded by the population as heroes. This makes it difficult for a judge to function. It is very unpleasant to sentence 17-year old boys - the same as my son - for acts which any normal person would have done in their place. I also would have done the same."

Meanwhile, Gideon Spiro wrote to the (civilian) judges who convicted him in 1985, asking for their apology since " the expressions which I used in my letter to the Ramallah military judges should be regarded, as it now turns out, as having only one fault: extreme understatement."

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