Political row shows Palestinians and Israeli settlers facing different justice systems

An Israeli soldier gestures from inside a watch tower at Israel's Ofer prison near the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank (AFP)

Rosie Scammell

The National  /  June 14, 2022

Almost all those tried by army are convicted, while Israelis are given access to civilian courts.

A new political crisis has drawn attention to a law granting Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank access to civilian courts, while their Palestinian neighbours face military justice.

In a portable building beside a main road through the West Bank, Palestinians in brown prison uniforms are sitting in a military courtroom.

The paint peeling on the sun-baked doors at Ofer camp, north of Jerusalem, is a testament to how long the system has been in place.

After Israeli forces captured the West Bank in the 1967 June War, politicians legislated to ensure Israeli settlers there had access to civilian procedures. Palestinians, meanwhile, were tried in military courts.

The law protecting Israelis has been renewed every few years since but, with infighting gripping Israel’s parliament, the government is failing to get the votes this time.

If the legislation is allowed to lapse at the end of June, it will have dramatic consequences for Israeli settlers. As well as areas such as taxation and healthcare, they would be subject to the same military courts as Palestinians.

Teenagers and adults are tried at courts such as Ofer, where almost all defendants are convicted.

“Less than 1 per cent are found not guilty, in my experience,” said lawyer Burnat Hafed, dressed in a dark suit and tie.

The conviction rate of nearly 100 per cent has previously been cited in military data obtained by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, though the army would not comment on the figure when asked by The National.

Israel’s Justice Ministry did not respond to a request to provide a comparable conviction rate for the civilian courts.

Part of the reason the conviction rate is so high at Ofer is because plaintiffs prefer to plead guilty and reach a settlement, Mr Hafed said, rather than be held for up to two years before a conviction.

During one of the court sessions attended by The National, the father of a Palestinian accused of selling weapons said his son had been held for 22 months.

It could take four months for a witness to appear on behalf of a Palestinian, Mr Hafed said, whereas the military prosecutors can swiftly call up soldiers to testify.

The structure of military justice is described as “a facade of a court” by Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

“A judge that is a soldier can’t be neutral,” said the group’s Dror Sadot.

Inside one of the military courtrooms, an image of the scales of justice hangs behind a judge.

Detainees are led into the room in handcuffs, before proceedings swiftly get under way. Requests to extend a defendant’s detention are approved within a few minutes.

The father of one man, who has been held for 10 days so far, said his son did not understand the Hebrew proceedings.

Two different sets of laws and regulations, working on different kinds of populations … is by definition apartheid

 Dror Sadot, B’Tselem spokeswoman

While the military said that simultaneous Arabic translation was provided, this was not the case for any of the proceedings The National witnessed. Instead, a translator or a lawyer summarized at the end.

Of the 50 to 60 cases currently being handled by Mr Hafed, most are criminal or security-related such as throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

“It always surprises me when they arrest 14-year-olds for throwing a stone from 200 metres away from an army vehicle,” he said. The offence leads to a sentence of up to six months for a first offender.

Many Israeli opposition politicians support the West Bank law in principle, but they voted against its renewal this month as part of efforts to bring down the coalition. Further votes are due within days.

Ms Sadot said the system of “two different sets of laws and regulations, working on different kinds of populations … is by definition apartheid.”

Israel denies its legal system and practices regarding Palestinians amount to apartheid. Most countries view Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank as illegal under international law.

Before Palestinian detainees reach the courtroom, many undergo interrogation which can last weeks.

The military did not comment on allegations that they are denied access to lawyers during interrogation and suffer mistreatment.

“By the time they get to the courtroom, they’re broken,” said Mr Hafed.

There is widespread disbelief that the Israeli government would allow its citizens to go through the military courts, with the expectation that politicians would find an alternative.

Accommodating offenders among the half a million West Bank settlers in the military courts “would be problematic” according to Liron Libman, a former chief military prosecutor and fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“They would need more resources,” he said, such as courtrooms, judges and investigators.

“This could really create a logistical problem.”

Rosie Scammell – correspondent, Jerusalem