Illustrative photo of handcuffs.
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Israelis are pretty good at thinking that as long as there’s no immediate security crisis – a terrorist attack, a bombardment of rockets from Hamas, saber-rattling from Iran or Hezbollah threats – things are pretty good.
Sure, we don’t have a political solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but everyone seems to have reconciled themselves to the stalemate and status quo in the West Bank. Then something like the Mahmoud Katusa case comes along and shatters any illusions that the situation is tenable.
The case brought out some of the worst of Israeli society, highlighting the separate legal processes for Palestinians and Israelis. It also displayed how some of our political leaders resort to forms of fear-mongering to pander to their constituencies.
Katusa, a Palestinian from a village near Modi’in Illit in the West Bank who worked as a manager in a janitorial business in a settlement, was released Tuesday after an indictment against him for the rape of a seven-year-old child from the settlement was dropped. He had been in police custody for nearly two months.
IDF Military Advocate-General Maj.-Gen. Sharon Afek withdrew the indictment following numerous failings of the police investigation that led to his arrest. It also became clear early on that the family and ultra-Orthodox community to which the child belonged had delayed the investigation in key ways that may have prevented collecting important pieces of evidence.
When news of the indictment was published earlier this month, it shocked the country. But politicians who previously never commented on rape cases suddenly couldn’t wait to exploit the pain of the girl and her family by turning the case into a Palestinian vs. Israeli issue.
“This is not pedophilia, but plain terrorism,” Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman said, arguing in favor of sentencing terrorists in such cases to death.
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich concurred, saying, “If only we could impose the death penalty on this vile person. Nothing less. A monster like this doesn’t deserve to breathe air in our world.”
If a Jewish custodian had been accused of the rape, would Liberman, Smotrich or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who also released a statement after the indictment – have made such bold proclamations? We know the answer.
Their tactics, like Netanyahu’s trademark ploy of pitting Left against Right and Arab against Jew, is to foment distrust and hate – a conquer-by-dividing approach that plays on the fears of the populace.
The Katusa case put the spotlight on another glaring blemish on the status quo structure of Israel’s rule of Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israelis – whether they be Jews or Muslims – are tried for crimes in civilian courts. Palestinians are tried in the Israeli military’s West Bank Courts. As The Jerusalem Post’s legal correspondent Yonah Jeremy Bob pointed out, Israelis and Palestinians are judged in different court systems, and those systems have massively different approaches to keeping suspects in custody pending trial.
Most crimes, besides theft and some light border-violation offenses, lead IDF West Bank Courts to decide to keep Palestinians in police custody until trial.
The courts explain this anomaly by accepting the IDF’s argument that it is far more difficult – and sometimes impossible – to arrest Palestinians in the West Bank, compared with the relative ease of arresting defendants on the Israeli side the Green Line.
Everyone agrees that this separate system of justice is bad. Some people, like settlement leader David Ha’ivri, told the Post that the solution is for Israel to take full responsibility and sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, and establish one governing body for Israelis and Palestinians.
However, that would only deepen the Israeli rule over millions of non-Israelis. Another solution would be to explore every possibility – whether it be the Bahrain economic workshop, or direct contacts and negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders – to reach a political solution that would afford the Palestinians the right to self-determination, the stated policy of all Israeli governments, including Netanyahu’s, since the 1990s.
We do not know if Katusa is innocent and if the police still consider him a suspect. But he is innocent until proven guilty, and the handling of this case by the police is an example of the sometimes toxic results when politics, race and class get mixed together. For the sake of Israel and future Katusas, the country needs to do better.
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