First Druze chief IDF prosecutor at one of the hottest desks in the IDF

How is the first Druze chief IDF prosecutor charged with deciding how to handle Palestinian terrorists, minors' rights issues faring?

AN ISRAELI and a Druze flag hang from the ceiling of a store in the Druze town of Daliat al-Karmel. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI and a Druze flag hang from the ceiling of a store in the Druze town of Daliat al-Karmel.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Around two years into his role as the IDF’s chief West Bank prosecutor, Lt.-Col. Asim Hamed, the first Druze to hold the top post, has managed to keep a low profile at one of the hottest desks in the IDF.
As chief prosecutor, Hamed not only is the final word on how to handle most prosecutions of Palestinian terrorists and administrative detentions, but also decides how to handle major cases involving Palestinian minors.
Although he is recognized as a serious and professional lawyer, there was still speculation from the beginning about how his unique ethnic background and native-Arabic speaking abilities might change the tone of how the prosecution and the courts operated.
While Hamed refused to interview for this article, The Jerusalem Post spoke to four leading defense lawyers, his British-Israeli predecessor, Lt.-Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch, and other sources close to him about his impact.
GENERALLY SPEAKING, it appears that most view Hamed as a man of the system who was not trying to make fundamental changes to the prosecution or the courts, but who succeeded in making relations with defense lawyers smoother than in the past.
One of the most memorable Palestinian cases on his watch was the prosecution of Ahed Tamimi.
The red-haired iconic activist was controversially indicted and sent to prison for eight months for irritating some soldiers who were much larger than her by hitting and kicking them and for incitement in December 2017.
Another case that broke into the news during his tenure was the Judea Military Court’s mixed ruling in October on Mamdoach Yusef Muhammad Amaro, who was acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter in the killing of IDF Maj. Eliav Gelman.
Gelman was killed accidentally by fellow soldiers in a cross fire as they tried to defend themselves from Amaro, who came at them with a knife in February 2016.
The case against the alleged Palestinian murderer of American-Israeli Ari Fuld is currently ongoing, and an increasing number of Jewish families of victims are pressing for the death penalty on Hamed’s watch. He and the IDF have declined.
In mid-January, there was a battle at Ofer Prison, next to the IDF West Bank Court’s primary offices, between the Prisons Service and prisoners over confiscating concealed cellphones. This eventually even spun off into a legal conflict between the Prisons Service and the Palestinians’ defense lawyers.
But most do not seem to view these issues and other big cases as having Hamed’s particular signature.
Rather, the emphasis appears to be on his positive impact on interpersonal relations and steady managerial style, which many defense lawyers contrasted to the combative relationship they had with Hirsch.
Leading defense lawyer for Palestinians Khaled al-Araj told The Jerusalem Post that Hamed is “different than Maurice, who was aggressive and a man of war. Asim is the opposite. He never gets in a fight with anyone. He is a good manager and lawyer.”
He noted that Hamed spent many years as a prosecutor, which gave him a better than average understanding of how to best manage the prosecution and relations with the defense lawyers.
In negotiations over plea bargains, Araj said that Hamed “always tried to reach a compromise solution which worked for everyone.”
Because of Hamed’s stability, he said, his reign has been calmer than his predecessor’s.
He said that Hirsch enforced stiffer than regular jail sentences and was harder to negotiate deals with.
Regarding whether Hamed’s Druze and Arabic-speaking background is an asset with the many Arabic-speaking defense lawyers, Araj said that it did give Hamed “a better understanding of the Arab lawyers and the ability to talk to them in a different way.”
At the same time, he said that Hamed “is a man of the system” whose final loyalties are always clearly to the IDF.
Pressed that other defense lawyers had said that though Hamed was more open to deals, in cases that went to court he was enforcing even stiffer jail sentences, Araj blamed this on Hamed’s deputies.
He said that Hamed is not dealing personally with many of the individual cases, but that when he intervenes “he can help prevent misunderstandings.”
ANOTHER TOP defense lawyer for Palestinians, Gaby Lasky, complimented Hamed to the Post as an individual for being “very approachable and ready to listen – this is an improvement over earlier eras.”
Regarding his Druze identity, she said it made no difference and that she is not interested in a person’s ethnic background, “and I do not want to judge a person.”
But Lasky quickly switched directions, saying that her objections to the military courts “is not a personal problem. The courts are still occupation courts which believe it is acceptable to keep children detained until the end of their trials – even if they are very young children.
“The whole idea that a military court can provide justice, I think, is dubious,” she said.
Lasky maintained that even if Hamed was nicer interpersonally, most of the major policies in the IDF West Bank Courts which she objects to as treating Palestinians different than Israelis, such as stricter detention policies, have continued.
Further, she argued that law enforcement often tramples on Palestinian minors’ rights during interrogations. She added that it is a substantial injustice that Palestinians do not get a social worker to weigh in, pretrial, about whether they could be released, when Israeli minors get one.
In 2015, IDF West Bank Court president Col. Netanel Benishu ordered the state to start providing Palestinian minors with more pretrial social worker evaluations about the possibility of being released.
However, Lasky said that the state and the IDF have stalled on the issue and currently are saying that no complete change in policy will come before June – four years after Benishu’s ruling.
However, such policy shifts are not made by the chief prosecutor alone, but in consultation with his superiors.
Defense lawyer for Palestinians Lea Tsemel told the Post that Hamed was easier to work with than his predecessor, who she said “was super ideological.”
She said that Hirsch’s current work with right-wing victims’ groups shows his true colors and that previously he had used his military power to enforce his ideology.
Asked about Hamed’s background, she said that while his unique background could be an asset, it could also be problematic.
She said that “sometimes liberal judges will not go as far” to help defendants, “and less liberal judges feel freer” to help defendants.
Tsemel said that Hamed “could not act like an ‘Arab-lover’ when he needs to guard” how he is perceived and remove any doubts that his primarily Jewish colleagues might have about his loyalties.
The senior defense lawyer did say that during Hamed’s term, a Muslim prayer space was set aside for the first time for defense lawyers, just as there had been a prayer space for Jews for years – though the West Bank Courts’ Office was heavily involved in that.
Discussing Hamed with the Post, defense lawyer Merav Khoury concurred with some of the above mixed characterizations.
She said that his ability to speak Arabic as his native language had no special impact, but that he was very good to work with, “very professional and more practical” than Hirsch had been.
“I cannot say if he is more lenient with us, but because he is not ideological, if you make strong legal arguments, he will listen” seriously, she said.
At the same time, she said that Hamed “needs to satisfy the system” he works for, and, like other defense lawyers, spoke of Hamed needing to prove his loyalty to the IDF by being extra tough in some cases.
She said this was at least part of why in some cases the IDF Prosecution during his tenure has sought more severe jail sentences.
THE POST has learned that the IDF would reject any attempt to characterize Hamed’s actions in light of his Druze background, saying all that matters is his high level of professionalism.
Incidentally, Hamed is slated eventually for promotion to the rank of colonel and to take over the high-powered office of IDF chief legal adviser for Judea and Samaria.
Some in that position have even risen to become the army’s top lawyer, the military advocate-general.
Finally, the IDF would agree that, overall, sentences during Hamed’s tenure have gotten harsher, particularly with attempted murder and other terrorist-related crimes, as compared to Hirsch’s.
But the IDF would argue that this was because of a rise in the level of violent crimes and the need to deter that rise, not something specifically related to Hamed as an individual.
In discussions with the Post, Hirsch himself had positive things to say about Hamed and his professionalism.
However, Hirsch rejected negative characterizations of his tenure.
“During my period, our relationship with the defense lawyers was excellent, until a group of defense lawyers made baseless claims that the prosecutors who served underneath me were not treating them respectfully,” he said.
He continued, “This was simply a lie, and then they started a strike because of what they claimed was the treatment by the prosecution underneath me. In a letter of complaints, they didn’t attack me at all, only my prosecutors.
“My response to the defense lawyers was that if they have a problem with the prosecutors, then they should attack me – this caused a rift with al-Araj, Fadi Kawasme” and others who previously had supported him.
Still, Hirsch said that in private many of the defense lawyers still have a connection with him.
He said that when a disagreement broke out at a recent conference at the Hebrew University, which led defense lawyer Jawad Boulos to walk out of the conference, he (Hirsch) had been the one who succeeded in convincing him to return.
Hirsch said he told Boulos, “I don’t agree with a word you say, but you deserve to be heard. Come back and say what you have to say.”
Finally, Hirsch said that he left behind a unique legacy in “developing new methods to fight terrorism,” such as imposing “legal ‘price tags’” (unusually large fines) as punishments for terrorists – “sometimes with prior permission [from superiors] and sometimes without.”
When Hamed’s appointment was announced, there were significant expectations that a first-ever Druze chief prosecutor might bring a variety of changes. It appears that Hamed has not reinvented the wheel in many areas, but he has calmed tensions in a court system that often seems like a tinderbox waiting to explode.