This was justice as I’d never seen it, as very, very few Israelis have seen it.
The judge was an IDF officer in a light-green uniform and knitted kippa. The prosecutor was an IDF officer in a light-green uniform, no kippa. The defendant was a Palestinian in a brown prison jumpsuit. This was last Thursday afternoon in a bungalow that serves as military appeals court on the grounds of Ofer Prison, the towering, concretewalled monstrosity on Route 443 between Modi’in and Jerusalem. Ofer is Israel’s prison in the West Bank for Palestinians.
The defendant was Abdallah Abu Rahmah, 39, a high school teacher and organizer of the best known of the “demonstrations against the wall,” the ones that have been taking place for years every Friday afternoon in the village of Bil’in.
Here’s justice for Palestinians in military appeals court: Abu Rahmah was due to be released from prison on Thursday after serving nearly a year – but the IDF didn’t want to let him out. The IDF didn’t think his sentence had been long enough and was appealing for a longer one, and meanwhile wanted him kept in prison until the appeal was heard and decided, which would take months and could, by law, take as long as two years.
You would think that if a guy’s served his time, he should go free. Not if you’re a Palestinian in Israeli military appeals court. The army prosecutor argued that Abu Rahmah was a “flight risk” even though his defense attorney pointed out that he’d always shown up for questioning and hearings in the past, when he was a free man.
The prosecutor argued that if Abu Rahmah were let go, he would return to his criminal activity. “There’s no reason to think that his ideology has changed, that his determination has changed. He expresses no remorse for his actions,” the prosecutor declared. The judge said he hoped to give his decision at the beginning of this week.
I asked Gaby Lasky, who represents scores of “anti-wall” protesters in military court, if she expected the judge to keep Abu Rahmah in prison like the prosecution wanted. “Of course,” she said.
Monday afternoon the judge’s decision proved her right.
Another wrinkle in Israeli justice for Palestinians is that Abu Rahmah’s
wife and children, who live in Ramallah, weren’t in court on Thursday;
the IDF didn’t let them through the checkpoint. Furthermore, they’ve
only been allowed to visit him in prison once or twice in the last year,
Lasky said, because even though the prison is in the West Bank, they
need a permit to enter “Israel proper” to go there, and Palestinians
whose spouses are in prison cannot get a permit to enter Israel proper.
Arguing for her client’s release, Lasky noted that his
one-and-a-half-year-old son doesn’t know him. That made the judge’s
eyebrows go up. “The child is one-and-a-half-years-old and the defendant
has only been in prison for about a year,” the judge pointed out. “Yes,
the baby did live with his father until he was six months old,” Lasky
SO WHAT was the remorseless Abu Rahmah convicted of? Organizing illegal
demonstrations and incitement. (Originally, he was also charged with stone-throwing and
possession of arms – piles of spent IDF bullet cartridges and tear gas
canisters he’d collected from the ground in Bil’in for an exhibit – but
was acquitted on those two counts.)
It seems pretty obvious that Abu Rahmah was guilty of organizing illegal
demonstrations – the Palestinian, Israeli and “international” activists
march from the village mosque to the security fence every Friday
afternoon, an IDF officer with a bullhorn calls out, “This is a closed
military zone; this is an illegal demonstration,” and the marchers keep
coming, so the verdict on this charge would seem pretty simple. If the
army says a demonstration is illegal, then demonstrating is a crime –
certainly in military court.
As for incitement, the prosecution says Abu Rahmah told boys in the
village to throw stones at the soldiers. According to Lasky, the army
got this testimony from some boys after raiding Bil’in in the middle of
the night, “blindfolding and handcuffing them and taking them to a
military base without their parents, without a lawyer, keeping them
there for hours, not letting them sleep, not letting them go to the
bathroom. Then the army took them to the police for more interrogation.”
That must have been quite an experience. Tens upon tens of thousands of
Palestinians can describe it. Or you can read a B’Tselem report. Ask
yourself: What would you do if soldiers forcibly came into your home in
the middle of the night, blindfolded and handcuffed your teenage son,
drove him off for interrogation and ordered you to stay inside? Now
hurry up and explain to yourself why that’s a silly question.
As to whether Abu Rahmah told some boys in Bil’in to throw stones at
soldiers during the Friday protests, who knows? Considering that the
fence divides villagers from their land, considering what IDF soldiers
do to Palestinian protesters and considering that the West Bank has been
under hostile Israeli rule for 43 years, why should anybody be shocked
that the boys throw stones?
“I was with Bassem right after he was shot, when they were taking him in
the car to the hospital in Ramallah,” says Ilan Shalif, a retired Tel
Aviv psychologist and a regular at the Bil’in protests. He is speaking
of Bassem Abu Rahmah, 31 (a member of the same extended family as
Abdallah), killed by a tear gas canister to the chest in April 2009.
“He was the only protester to get killed at Bil’in, but people have been shot and wounded endless times,” says Shalif.
While Bil’in is the most famous “antiwall” protest site, demonstrations
against the security fence by Palestinians who’ve lost their land to it
have been going on at various West Bank villages for seven years. In
that time, 20 Palestinians have been killed by IDF soldiers, according
Jonathan Pollak, the lead Israeli activist in the protests, says he’s
witnessed some of these killings, including the last one, of Aqel Srour,
36, during a June 2009 protest in the village of Na’alin.
“That day five protesters, Palestinians, were hit with live ammunition
by Border Police snipers,” he says. “The snipers were behind an old
well, I was standing about 50 meters from Aqel, and I heard shots. I saw
Aqel holding his chest, then he fell to the ground. He had a tiny
bullet hole in his chest. We put him on a stretcher and started running
to the ambulance, but soon he was foaming at the mouth and his eyes
glazed over. I yelled to him, ‘Aqel, talk to us!’ but he was gone,” says
Pollak, who suffered two brain hemorrhages in 2005 when a tear gas
canister hit him in the temple from short range, and who’s been injured
dozens of times by rubber bullets.
On Thursday in military appeals court on Route 443, Abdallah Abu Rahmah
sat placidly through the proceeding before he was led back to prison.
“He expresses no remorse for his actions,” said the army prosecutor.
Meanwhile, in the only democracy in the Middle East, the fight for our legitimacy, for our very survival, goes on.
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