Lt.-Col. Maurice Hirsch, the chief military prosecutor for the West Bank, says he will soon publicly unveil a new pilot program in which Israel will issue written summonses to Palestinians wanted for questioning instead of arresting them in the dead of night.
Since an October 2013 UNICEF report that was critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian minors, and a more recent program on the issue broadcast by Australian television, there have been indications from unnamed sources regarding the change. Hirsch’s revelation to the Post late Monday night was the first official confirmation at the IDF’s highest levels.
The new program will be unveiled at an upcoming Knesset committee meeting, he said.
Hirsch explained that the rationale behind night arrests was an “operational requirement to prevent wide-scale demonstrations and danger to both sides,” saying that daytime arrests had “resulted in incidents like the Kalandiya incident, with wide-scale protests, gunfights and greater danger” to both the Palestinians and Israeli security forces.
For years the IDF has endured heavy international criticism on this issue, having to explain that night arrests, in its view, are the best alternative in light of the unique attributes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s lack of easy access or control of most Palestinian areas.
The new pilot program, Hirsch noted, was “one of many decisions in a general re-evaluation of the situation, not only improving treatment of the rights of Palestinian minors, but also taking into account the potential operational benefits.”
He elaborated on three points.
“If we bring a suspect to interrogation without the need for a [military] arrest operation, since every arrest is dangerous, that is best,” he said.
His second point was that “much of the criticism of torture and abuse against Israel,” which Israel disputes, is “claimed to have occurred during that initial nighttime period of arrest.” Thus, he said, the hope was that the pilot program could “neutralize those complaints.”
His third point was that “while we have tried the summons process in the past, it has been sporadic, and there were insufficient statistics about who turned up and who did not.”
Asked if the IDF thought the program might fail to get Palestinian suspects to turn up for questioning, Hirsch said: “We approach this with an open mind; we are going to try to make it work.”
If the program works, there will be “tremendous gains in saving people from operational dangers and minimizing future claims of abuse,” he explained. If it does not, “we will have shown conclusively that summonses do not work” and there is no alternative to the policy of night arrests.
Hirsch added that the decision to try the use of summonses had not been taken lightly.
“We will not tolerate any regression in law enforcement,” he told the Post. “If suspects do not turn up of their own volition, [the law] will be enforced, including, if necessary, any kind of arrest required. We have no intention of reducing the intensity of the fight against Palestinian terrorism, stone throwing and offenses committed by minors.”
He also said that even if the policy is deemed a success, “if an immediate danger is posed by a suspect we will still employ nighttime arrests.”
In the framework of the same interview, which covered numerous issues, Hirsch also made reference to accusations of “widespread, systematic and institutionalized” Israeli mistreatment of Palestinian minors.
He said this phraseology was intentional and part of a possible campaign to bring Israeli officials before the International Criminal Court, since Article 7 of the court’s governing Rome Statute uses the same phraseology in describing the elements for allegations of various “crimes against humanity.”
He insisted that such accusations “misinterpret and misunderstand international and domestic Israeli law” and the West Bank’s “criminal justice system,” and are akin to accusing Israel of actions similar to those of the Nazis at Auschwitz.
He added that such analogies were intolerable in any event, but the pilot program could potentially assist Israel in moving away from such controversy.
Responding to a query by the Post regarding the planned change in IDF policy, UNICEF said: “We are happy it is happening.”
UNICEF noted that it had suggested the idea in a July 2013 meeting with the IDF.
“We want to see changes which are in the best interest of children, and want to help and facilitate that in any way we can,” the organization said. “We hope for further changes in line with our report, such as changes to the treatment of children” as reflected in affidavits that UNICEF collects as evidence.
Jessica Montell, executive-director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, said that while the new program would help, it would not go far enough.
“We have documented a long list of concerns regarding the military justice system’s treatment of minors,” Montell said.
“Certainly, the nighttime arrests are a problem, along with violence during the course of arrests and in detention. But there are major issues this pilot doesn’t address. A central problem is the fact that children are interrogated without their parents being present, are not released on bail, and many serve jail time for offenses for which an Israeli child would not even be detained.”
Hirsch addressed some of these allegations in remarks that will appear in an additional report.
Michael Sfard, speaking on behalf of the rights group Yesh Din, said of the pilot program: “We’ll believe it when we see it implemented. Night raids in Palestinian villages were used in recent years to terrorize the civilian population and as a means to crack down on civil unarmed protest in many villages. Yesh Din will follow closely the change in practice, which we truly hope will be implemented fully.”