On January 4th, the health and human rights delegation that I’m on was scheduled to meet with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, Legislative Council member, former Palestinian Authority Minister of Information, and founder of Palestinian Medical Relief Society. We arrive at the modern PMRS offices in Ramallah, only to be informed that he is attending a rally at the Ofer Prison to call attention to the case of Jamal Juma’, Coordinator of the Palestinian grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign. Jamal Juma’ is a human rights activist from East Jerusalem who was arrested approximately three weeks ago and has yet to be charged. In East Jerusalem Palestinians have Israeli residency cards, but not Israeli citizenship. This was to be his first hearing in the process.
We are told that Israeli authorities have moved Jamal’s hearing outside of Jerusalem where a more accountable legal system exists, to a military court in the Ofer prison which we can see through the wire fencing and yellow sliding barrier as a long, ominous, concrete building in the distance. We have heard that conditions at Ofer have been compared to Guantanamo. Approximately 50 people mill about, chanting in Arabic, waving Palestinian flags and holding a large sign demanding Jamal’s release, as well as other anti-wall prisoners. They urge Abbas and Hamas to work for the release of prisoners and ask the prisoners to have patience. Dr. Barghouti adds his voice to the chants and talks with reporters. Two well-dressed men in suits urgently plead with the soldiers to allow their cars entry through the checkpoint that leads to the prison. They are both lawyers. A woman in a hijab and long dress anxiously waits to pass through the gate as well. I wonder if she is a prisoner’s mother or wife. We learn that at this point, no charges have been brought against Jamal although documents have been collected in a secret file, and ultimately the hearing is postponed until January 7, (and on January 7 postponed again), a common tactic in these situations.
In the U.S., this demonstration would have been an example of free speech, the right to assembly, the right for peaceful groups to join together to make their voices heard. But this is Israel, "the only democracy in the Middle East," and for Palestinians, much of what is happening this morning is not only immensely frustrating and dangerous but also illegal.
Ala Joradat, the program manager of Adameer, a Palestinian human rights organization that focuses primarily on prisoners, legal aid, and monitoring, meets with our delegation and tries to unravel the complex civil and human rights issues that face Palestinians, particularly those who choose to protest the conditions of the Israeli occupation. He explains that the prisoners are both a product of the conflict and a cause for the conflict. Since 1967, 800,000 Palestinians have experienced detention, representing more than 53% of the population over 18. Because mostly Palestinian males are targeted for arrest, 60-70% of adult males have been to prison. To me this feels somewhat parallel to the disproportionately large number of African-American males currently incarcerated in the US.
I wonder if this reflects a huge number of militants and fighters in the OPT, or are there more subtle political forces at work. Ala explains that arrest and detention are based on military orders that have been in effect since 1967. The military commander issues and cancels orders, heads the civil administration, and assigns the prosecutors, judges, translators, etc, so the entire "justice system" is collegial and the military court is a division of the Israeli Defense Force.
Ala emphasizes that military orders are designed to control the population, ranging from what road a Palestinian can use to whether he can dig a well for water. I am stunned at the list of mind boggling potential security offenses which include:
1. reading the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet who gave voice to the anguish of dispossession and exile
2. reading "The Collection of UN Resolutions on the Question of Palestine 1948-1982"
3. associations of parties, factions, charitable societies, NGOs, unions, and student associations. (After Oslo, defacto the PLO and Fatah were legitimized, but in Israeli law they are still listed as "illegal terrorist organizations.")
4. wearing political symbols, including the cartoon character "Handala"
5. carrying a Palestinian flag (which is the flag of the PLO which is technically still an illegal organization)
6. protesting the seizing of your land
7. throwing stones at the separation wall (destruction of state property)
8. throwing stones at a soldier (attempted murder)
9. assisting an injured person at a demonstration, including medical workers, (assisting a terrorist)
and the list goes on.
Functionally what this means is that the IDF can control the lives of people and organizations and use the thousands of potential security offenses in an unpredictable and arbitrary manner. According to Ala, an Israeli soldier, policeman, or even civilian can detain a Palestinian for 8 days without a specific reason, no legal review, and and at the end of this initial period, Palestinians appear before a military judge where they can be released, prosecuted and charged, placed in administrative detention, or most likely sent for interrogation for up to 180 days, with no access to a lawyer for up to 90 days.
Ala notes that the interrogation centers are located in police stations or prisons, are controlled by the Shin Bet, and report to the prime minister without external monitoring. Most of the torture that has been well documented by a variety of Israeli and Palestinian organizations occurs in these settings. The methods have changed over the years, but any statements obtained under torture are admissible in court, even if torture is proven. The prisons are also rife with collaborators; if a prisoner denies he has committed any crimes, then other prisoners suspect he is a collaborator. If the prisoner boasts of criminal activities true or false, to prove himself to the other prisoners, this is all reported back to the Israeli authorities and held as evidence without any external investigation.
These are the kinds of cases Adameer has represented for years. Ala further explains that charges are also often so vague, without clear times and places, they are difficult to disprove.
He sites an example of a case where three men were accused of shooting an Israeli vehicle north of Ramallah. Two confessed and one did not and Adameer took the case. During the trial, it was revealed that the event occurred in July, 2004. The prisoner stated he was in Jordan for the month of July. This information was brought to the attention of the military judge. Because the Israelis control all the borders, the judge could have easily accessed the security computer systems and determined if this man had left the country in July. Instead, the judge asked the Adameer lawyer to prove that the prisoner was in Jordan. The lawyers then brought evidence of stamps and papers that revealed that the prisoner was telling the truth. The military judge then demanded that the lawyers prove that the stamps were not fake. The man was subsequently found guilty in what sounds to me to be a kangaroo court.
Another dark side to this military justice system is the well documented use of collective punishment, demolition of the homes of prisoners, prohibition of family visitation, isolation of prisoners, and neglecting to provide adequate health care to prisoners.
Ala also urgently wants us to understand administrative detention, an unlimited detention that can be renewed for months at the judgement of the military commander. If a military judge deems that a prisoner is a potential threat, his source of information is a secret file that neither the prisoner or the prisoner’s lawyer has access to, and there is no limit to how often the administrative detention can be renewed. Ala describes cases where the detention was renewed just as the prisoner was leaving the prison, or even once he got home. What this means is that all people "of suspicion" can be imprisoned without evidence indefinitely. In the past 21 years, one Palestinian man has spent 17 years on and of, in administrative detention, effectively destroying him as well as his family.
The most significant point for me in this legally and ethically disturbing discussion is that the vast majority of people in administrative detention are nonviolent civil society activists. Additionally the IDF has a history of assassinating or imprisoning the more moderate Palestinian leadership.
So what are the implications of this system? Clearly the Israeli authorities are very threatened by nonviolent resistance and a powerfully organized civil society movement. This concept challenges the very idea of the unrelenting Arab threat that is the foundation of the Israeli security industry and foreign policy. Judging from the legal system in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a tortured and unjust legal system is strangling the leadership as well as the foot soldiers in the nonviolent movements that continue to persevere and sometimes flourish under the most difficult of circumstances. I can only wonder how many Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings, and Mandelas are rotting in Israeli jails today.
Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician and author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: The Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience.