Thousands of Palestinians go on trial every year in the Ofer military court for offenses like illegally entering Israel or demonstrating against the separation fence. No one really wants to know what goes on there. So is there any point at all to telling this story?
The entrance: You stand alongside a metal fence; there is no one around. Three meters away there's a sealed glass booth. You don't know who is looking at you right now; in fact, you don't know whether anyone is looking at you. Held somewhat in suspense, you wait. A few seconds go by. When the seconds turn into minutes, you shout, "Hey, is anyone there?" When nobody answers, you wait a few more minutes. It's still quiet. Now you start hitting the metal fence. Once, twice, three times. Suddenly you hear a shout: "Wait a minute." Another few minutes go by. You pound the metal fence again. "What do you want?" someone asks. You bark that you've come for a trial, that you have to enter. A soldier in uniform comes out to you, jots down your details, and returns. Finally, you enter.
A few long moments have gone by since you entered, and nothing happens. You look from side to side. There are some people on the other side of the nearby fence. You don't understand what they are doing there. You think they are already in the court area; you suspect they are prison detainees. Later it turns out that they are not detainees, that they live in another country. You don't look them in the eye. You are embarrassed.
That other country is a meter away from you. The fence, which divides the court area in two, is a miniature representation of the separation fence. A Palestinian who is summoned to the court cannot arrive by traveling on the main road, Highway 443, the route you followed just an hour ago. That road is limited to ordinary travelers, like yourself. The High Court actually ruled that Palestinians can travel on it, but they can only travel on its less useful stretches. In order to reach the court, Palestinians must travel on a different, longer road, which features two checkpoints (Bitunia and Qalandiyah ).
A Palestinian reaches the court and is placed on the left side of the fence. An Israeli who travels to the court on the fast highway, positions himself on the right side. Right now, the Palestinian and the Israeli stand relatively close to one another; neither looks the other in the eye; each tries to stay in his own world.
An attorney stands close to me. He too has been waiting for several minutes. He is angry; his client's trial is set to start in another few minutes. He calls to someone who is on the other side of the glass booth, and asks that the door be opened. Nobody answers him. He yells, but is greeted again by silence. More shouts; more silence. In the end, he loses patience and pounds on the fence angrily. The person behind the glass booth cries out to him: "What's happened, what's happened?" The lawyer responds: "I've been here for half an hour, I am a lawyer, I have a trial to go to, let me pass through." The lawyer speaks in a voice filled with frustration and disgust. There is a pause for several seconds; apparently a consultation is being held.
"Why do you act like a bulldog?" The lawyer is asked, as he passes through the court gates. "I am a bulldog? You are a bulldog!" The person in the glass booth laughs, but the lawyer is not amused.
I wait for my own bell to ring. The time comes: I pass through the gate, but my way is blocked by a big blue door. I wait. After another few minutes, a warden comes out and asks tersely what I want. I tell him that I've come to cover a trial. "Whose trial?"
"I hope they throw 40 years in his face."
The blue metal door opens, and I reach an inspection point. You take off your shoes, your jacket; you empty your pockets, and are asked to pass through the security machine. It beeps. "Go back - do you have something else in your pockets?" There is a pen. I take out the pen, and make it past the detectors, but the security check hasn't ended. There are two small booths, for men and women, where hand-checks are conducted. The two inspectors call me into the booth. They are instructed to make a perfunctory check - "He's a journalist." Hands to the sides, pockets emptied out. "What are you covering?" I'm asked. "For which newspaper? You have no camera, correct?" Correct; everything is correct.
This is the Ofer military court. Its purpose is to enclose the occupation within a defined, justiciable framework. At night, IDF soldiers enter villages and arrest Palestinians; in the morning, Palestinians are brought, handcuffed, to Ofer, and sent to a jail located a few meters from the court. Hearings about the detainees are held on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday of each week in seven trailers called "halls." In 2009, 12,428 persons were detained; in 2008, the figure was 13,003; in 2007, 14,198; in 2006, 16,451. This is a factory for detainees. I've come to observe this factory, to see how it works.
A few words about the problem. The biggest problem is that most people don't care about the Ofer military court. They don't care about its activity or its meaning. My sense is that the moment an Arab name appears on a document - Abdullah, for instance - interest levels plummet. Apathy reigns, because the dispute has become a mechanized routine. There are "leftists," and "rightists," and any new fact is processed according to such categories. The automatic branding spares people the need to wrestle morally with hard facts, and relieves them of considerable heartache. Yet the automatic branding perpetuates the situation and renders invisible anyone who doesn't want to perpetuate it. Writing about the military court at Ofer is like transcribing reality in invisible ink. The ink is wrapped in paper that declares "only for leftists; only leftists will see this ink."
I have some questions:
Am I the only person who feels this way?
Are the statements wrapped around the ink correct?
Is there a point to telling this story?
Perhaps the names of the Palestinians should be erased, and we should use numbers instead?
After asking these and other questions, I decided to tell everything exactly as I saw it.
A woman, 19 years old I don't know what sort of trial is being held in hall number 3, but it doesn't really matter. After eight visits to the Ofer military court, the conclusion is inescapable: In every hall, at all times, an interesting trial is being held. The interesting aspect does not always derive from the facts of the case; sometimes the trial situation itself is what creates a Kafka-esque atmosphere, one that leaves you speechless. I go in.
A 19-year-old woman is standing in the hall, declaring "I am sorry, your honor, I've learned my lesson. I won't do it again." I look at her; she has put on a lot of makeup and is holding a handbag. She looks like an Israeli teenager a few months before her army service. I wonder, what is she sorry about? What lesson has she learned?
The judge says: "I accept the plea bargain. I believe that S. has decided to rehabilitate herself and go on with her life. She expresses regret about what she did, and claims that she has learned her lesson. For this reason, I sentence her to a month's suspended sentence, and an NIS 800 fine."
Here's the story: It turns out that S. has a Palestinian father and an Israeli mother. One day, loneliness overcame her, and she decided to visit her mother in Jerusalem. She traveled there and was apprehended by security forces. She was put on trial for this offense. The judge now trusts that she will rehabilitate herself, that she will change her ways. If not, next time she will spend a month in prison.
Orange boy The "orange boy" enters hall number 4 with a few other people, all older than he is. The orange boy is 14 or 15; he has a baby face, and is called "orange" since his uniform is that color, unlike the gray and black uniforms worn by the other prisoners.
When he enters hall number 4, the orange boy suddenly sees his parents. His mother wears traditional dress; the father has on an old jacket and is missing two front teeth. I look at the orange boy, and notice that his face is twitching uncomfortably. It appears that he is trying to brush something off his body, or refrain from some action that his body is forcing on him. It seems that the orange boy is excited. When his mother waves at him, he can't control his emotions any longer, and bursts into tears.
Within seconds, he grasps that the situation is problematic - some older prisoners are standing around him. These are ill-shaven, battle-worn men; what do they make of the orange boy's tears? Using his orange shirt, he tries to wipe the shameful tears from his face. Yet despite his desire to stop crying, the tears keep streaming down. I look at his parents; they don't know how to respond. I try to ask them why their son was arrested; but they don't understand a word I'm saying.
They read out his name. He doesn't know that he's supposed to stand up. His attorney gestures to him, using his hands. "Stand up!" He stands up. The attorney is dressed in an expensive jacket and wears fancy shoes; his hair is carefully combed to conceal his bald pate; he has designer sunglasses. The lawyer is everyone's friend in the trailer, including the prosecutor. He goes to the prosecutor, who represents the police in this case, and taps him on the back; the two lawyers conduct a short discussion, and the trial is set to start.
But it doesn't begin. It turns out that there is a more important detainee to take care of, ahead of the orange boy. The boy is told to sit down. Right now he points to his mother, and wants to say something, but anything that comes out of his mouth is drowned out by the commotion in the trailer. The judge raises his voice, declaring: "Three of you in the back, I'll expel you from the hall. I'm warning you this one time: I'll expel the lawyers if I have to." The boy starts crying again.
It turns out that he has been in prison for six days. According to legal procedure in the West Bank, a person, including a child, can be held in custody for eight days before being brought before a judge. Within the Green Line, the law says that a suspect has to be brought to a judge within 24 hours. In the West Bank, a child is anyone under the age of 16. In Israel, a child is anyone under the age of 18. Different laws for different folks. Now, here's the trial scene featuring the orange boy, with the well-outfitted attorney and prosecutor as supporting actors:
The prosecutor, aged 50, in civilian dress, wears reading glasses, and speaks in pithy sentences. It should be borne in mind that each time he says "it appears in the report," he is referring to an account that was relayed to the court, but whose contents have been shown neither to the defendant nor to his attorney.
The orange boy's attorney: "How many times have you interrogated him?"
Prosecutor: "It appears in the report."
Defense attorney: "Were the offenses carried out, or not?"
Prosecutor: "It appears in the report."
Defense attorney: "Are there confessions."
Prosecutor: "It appears in the report."
Defense attorney: "Is there more than one confession?"
Prosecutor: "The interrogation reports are with the court."
Defense attorney (despondent ): "Do you intend, after interrogation, to submit an indictment against him, or transfer him to the civil administration?"
Prosecutor: "Everything will be decided at the end of the investigation."
Defense attorney: "Why are you asking for an arrest remand of 21 days; he has already been in custody for six days."
Prosecutor: "It appears in the report."
Defense attorney: "Are you trying to tell me that your investigation needs 21 days?"
Prosecutor: "As it appears in the report."
Defense attorney: "Do you question him during day or night?"
Prosecutor: "It appears in the report."
Defense attorney: "Did you investigate him yesterday in the nighttime?"
Prosecutor: "Defense is repeating the same questions."
Subsequently, the orange boy's lawyer delivers a speech: "Your honor, my client is being interrogated in a cruel, undignified fashion, and I intend to lodge a complaint about this procedure. During the interrogation, questioners hit him, and yell at him, trying to force a confession. I ask that he be released from custody, even if the bond is a costly sum - whatever bond you set [will be met]. He was a minor at the time he acted. I ask that you review carefully the classified materials, and strike a fair balance."
The judge's decision: "The suspect has been in custody since December 23 [six days]. I have found that there is reasonable suspicion that the suspect is involved in grave offenses injurious to security in the region. Interrogators should be allowed to complete the investigation. Yet I do not believe that the request [for 21 days in remand] ought to be met in full; this is a very long period. I rule in favor of an extension of the remand for 10 days."
A soldier translates these words to the orange boy, and his parents listen as well. The bottom line is that he won't be brought to trial for another 10 days - that will be after a total of 16 days in custody. Then he will be sentenced to another few months in prison. The orange boy cries. His mother joins with tears of her own. The father keeps all emotion off his face.
In a car, en route to Tel Aviv. On the way home, with hot air blowing into your face and the radio blaring music, you forget quickly. It's very easy to forget, because you haven't seen troubling events firsthand. Your eyes saw a military base, and people sitting on benches, and speaking. You tried to process second- and thirdhand information to get a sense of what was going on; but in order to be shocked, you need to fully understand what was happening. And at Ofer, you need to understand what is going on before you can feel what it means.
Here's an example of the way you forget: At a certain point on the journey home, a car behind me flashed its bright lights, urging me to switch lanes. I drive pretty fast, at 100 kilometers an hour at least. It was hard to move into the next lane, because there were too many cars around. I stayed in my lane for another few seconds; the car behind me started to flicker its lights and pulled up right behind me in the way Israeli drivers love to have their cars kiss the bumpers of the vehicles in front of them. In the end, I moved into the right lane. He passed me, and fired off an angry look. I was angry. For the next few seconds, I'll think about the barbarism of the driver who used the bright lights. That's where my thoughts will be. And then someone will call, and we'll talk about sports until I get home and park. When I enter my house, I'll give my child a bath and then I'll lie down to go to sleep. Later, I'll fall asleep. Tomorrow is another day.
Abdallah Abu Rahmah The Ofer military court is located close to Jerusalem's Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood. In winter, harsh winds blow and temperatures drop. It's very cold. In hall number 3, the warden is frustrated. Relating to the next prisoner on the docket, he wonders, "Why didn't they bring his grandmother here?" He can't understand what so many people are doing in the trailer. He also doesn't understand why they are wearing expensive jackets, and why the women look as though they have been photographed for fashion magazines.
One soldier, who stands next to where the defendants enter the hall, says, "We'll be here until 5 P.M." A woman soldier standing next to him, corrects that assessment - "at least until 7 P.M." Another woman soldier moans, "I have a problem, I have to go home."
There is one photographer in the hall, and he keeps shooting pictures. He is taking photos of a defendant who has an embarrassed smile on his face. Some soldiers roar with laughter: They can't understand what is worth all these photographs. At the end of the day, it's just another trial.
In fact, it's not a trial, it's an appeal. The case: the IDF vs. Abdallah Abu Rahmah. The 10 soldiers in the hall don't really care about Abu Rahmah. They don't have any idea who he is; they want to go home at 5 P.M., and they can't figure out why so many people have come. They express frustration, but the drama in the hall makes them forget their desires to go home, and they try to understand why this trial has attracted so many well-dressed people.
These well-dressed people happen to be diplomats - the British consul-general, the Spanish deputy consul-general, other diplomats from Britain, Germany, and France, and four European Union diplomats. They are here because Abdallah Abu Rahmah has been designated a human rights activist by the EU. The guard at the door doesn't understand what all the discussion about human rights is about. He thinks the dignified visitors are journalists. "What newspaper are you from?" he asks me.
Haaretz, I answer.
"That only proves what I always say," quips the soldier.
"What is it that you always say?" I ask.
"That it's a leftist newspaper."
"Why is that? Is there no need to cover what happens here?" I query.
"No. Look around, do you see a reporter from Israel Hayom, Maariv or Yedioth Ahronoth?"
"I don't know why they aren't here. But don't you think that what happens here should be covered?"
"They aren't worth the cost of the paper used to write about them."
A woman soldier chimes in, saying: "They're not worth it: nobody needs to know anything about them."
A worker in the cafeteria wonders why so many people have come today. I explain that there's a hearing about a Palestinian who has been declared to be a human rights activist, and who has been held in confinement for a year. The cafeteria worker nods his head, serves me coffee, and continues making an omelet for a soldier who serves on the base. It's still very cold out, and three groups of people huddle inside the cafeteria: Palestinians, Israelis and diplomats. It's a strange scene: people dressed in expensive jackets sit on cheap metal benches alongside Palestinian mothers in traditional garb. There's no connection between the groups - the diplomats sit on the right, the Palestinian families on the left. The cultural gap is huge, and it's hard to bridge it in the few minutes allowed by a trial recess. So the groups sit on different sides, and nobody says anything.
The other law Abdallah Abu Rahmah was convicted a year ago on four counts connected to demonstrations against the separation fence in Bil'in. The counts: incitement, involvement in unauthorized demonstrations, stone throwing and illicit use of firearms. He was arrested and sentenced to 12 months in prison. The sentence was delivered a few days before he completed 12 months in custody. Exactly at the moment he was to be released from prison, the military prosecutors decided that an additional punishment should be meted out. He appealed; Abu Rahmah remained in prison, and right now the judge is reviewing claims made by both sides.
The case against Abdallah Abu Rahmah is based on testimony given by some small children who were arrested in the middle of the night. Abu Rahmah's attorney, Gabi Lasky, tells the judge: There is a law for the protection of minors. Children cannot be whisked from their homes in the middle of the night by soldiers who wield rifles; notification has to be given to their parents before they are questioned; this is all inadmissible evidence.
The judge explains to Lasky that the law for the protection of minors does not apply in the West Bank. He is right. Under the law in this other land, children can be taken from their homes at gunpoint in the middle of the night, without their parents being notified about the intention to interrogate them.
The attorney counters, claiming that children under such circumstances suffer from post-traumatic stress, and their testimony has to be seen in this light. The judge says that there is no scientific proof of this claim.
The translators The cafeteria is 6.6 meters wide and 10 meters long. Chairs are arranged along the walls. There are a number of signs in Arabic - "Smoking is forbidden," "Please don't touch." There are rosters listing the names of prisoners whose hearings will be held during the day. A group of Palestinians from the territories sit on the cafeteria floor, praying. There are eight trash cans in the cafeteria. When it is cold, everyone waits inside the cafeteria; when it is hot, people wait outside.
There is no way of knowing when the hearing I have come to cover will be held. The families of prisoners are told to come at 9 A.M.; sometimes they stay at Ofer until 4:30 P.M. This is a wearisome business; the tension is debilitating; everyone smokes. The people who determine when, and in which trailer, hearings will be held are the translators. The translators - all Druze, with one exception - have the function of mediating between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The task of translation sometimes appears to be a burden they do not want to assume. Sometimes they translate as though they are saying something incidental, as though they are being forced to utter some words. During some hearings, they have trouble looking the accused in the eye. The fact that they know Arabic creates a link of sorts between themselves and the stigmatized population of the Ofer court, the Palestinians.
Some translators, however, create a different sort of impression: They translate the words clearly and look straight at the accused. I noticed a young translator with the rank of private who was roaming around the prefab structures that are called "bathrooms." Usually I don't have a chance to speak with the soldiers, but taking advantage of our secluded position, close to these dismal restrooms, I decide to initiate a conversation. I won't cite the translator's name. He enlisted in August, and intended to serve in the Israel Prison Service. Why the prison service? I ask.
"I'm from the north," he explains, "and in the prison service you do a day on the base, and then go home for 48 hours. You also have a career after your service."
How did you become a translator?
"They just told me I'm going to be a translator. I didn't understand what that meant. They told me that I would be assigned to Ofer; I didn't know what that meant."
Are all the translators here Druze?
"All are Druze, other than one Jew who immigrated from Syria."
What do you do here? It looks as though you run the place.
"Our work is very important. First of all, there's the translation itself. It's important that the defendant know everything, along with the defense attorneys who often don't know any Arabic. We have a lot of responsibility."
Do you translate every word, every remark?
"Everything, other than jokes, and things that are said that have no connection to the trial."
You need to concentrate carefully.
"That's what is so hard. Do you know what it's like translating for a whole hour? It's exhausting. So we rotate among ourselves during long trials."
Why do people come to you to ask where the trial will be held, in which hall? You are, after all, the translator.
"True, but we more or less set the agenda. We consult with the judges, see what is more important and less important - depending on the level of importance, we set [the schedule]."
At this stage, Hamdan, also a Druze soldier, who is generally responsible for keeping order in the court and has specific authority to deal with journalists, notices that I am speaking with a soldier. He is furious, and approaches the soldier. "Why are you talking with him," he growls at the soldier. "He is a journalist. Did anyone give you authorization to speak with him?"
I tell Hamdan that he is yelling for no good reason, that I am the one who initiated the conversation, and that it's not clear whether the soldier noticed that I am a journalist. Hamdan, normally a pleasant fellow, is not convinced. He dismisses the soldier, and gives me a nasty look.
A slice of life in Israel, March 2011: On the dais there are three judges, all male Ashkenazi officers. To their left is a female stenographer. One judge tells her, "Not there, you erred on the 14th line; go down a line, write this and that." Below this stage sits a Druze translator, working as a liaison between a Jewish attorney and Arab defendants. The defendants are Palestinians from the territories; behind them is the prosecutor, the Israel Defense Forces. Here is Israel in a nutshell: an officer who makes the decisions, a young woman stenographer, a Druze mediator and an accused Palestinian.
A comment on 'envelopes' Officials at the Ofer military court make frequent use of the term "envelopes." Repeatedly, during hearings, the judge uses the term to create a link between the incomplete evidence and the inevitable decision to hold the detainee in custody after the hearing. The connotations of the term suggest that confinement or punitive action can be warranted, even in the absence of proof of specific activity. Here's an example: A Palestinian says he is 17 years old. It turns out that he is 19. He left a box of fireworks in an area that was liable to explode whenever people walked by it. The prosecution also claims he is guilty of stone throwing, but it lacks proof of this. It is stuck with the firecrackers. The defense counsel says he objects to an extended remand; his client denies the charges, and the single offense in question is not a grave matter, since we are talking, after all, about firecrackers.
The decision: "The defendant laid a bomb; there is evidentiary foundation for this offense; the offense is enveloped within the evidentiary materials; under these circumstances, in light of the danger posed by his actions, the accused should remain in detention until proceedings in his case are completed."
In actual fact, our own existential fears are "enveloped" within the use of this term. By using the term, we silence these fears, at least temporarily. Perhaps that is the reason why our existence here is enveloped within strange, uneasy feelings.
An example of discrimination The picture appears in each trailer: a soldier prosecutor and a soldier judge. The fact that in 2004, the military courts were separated from the IDF advocate general in order to strengthen the judges' independence does not eradicate the structural conflict of interests. The army is the legislative, judicial and executive branch here. Even if the judges try to render straightforward, well-reasoned verdicts, they are nonetheless acting within a legal framework that is unlike the system of justice that obtains in Israel. Each time a persuasive argument is made by defense counsel, it suddenly turns out that the claim is not valid, because it relies on norms and procedures that apply only in Israel's judicial system. It is extremely confusing and troubling. In the state you live in, there are two separate legal systems, for two different populations.
In most cases, the discrimination precedes the stage in which the detainee is brought to court. For example, when Abdallah Abu Rahmah was arrested several years ago, during a demonstration in Bil'in, six persons were detained - Abdallah Abu Rahmah, Ratab Abu Rahmah, and four Israeli Jews. All were charged with disturbing public order. The two Palestinians were interrogated, issued denials, and were imprisoned. Ratab was held in custody for two weeks. An indictment was issued against him, along with a request that he be held in remand until proceedings in his case were completed. Abdallah was held for a similar period, and an indictment was filed against him.
In contrast, the four Israeli detainees did not cooperate with investigators. In the police station, investigators offered to release three, with restrictive conditions. One agreed; two refused the offer, as an act of solidarity with their Palestinian comrades. The three Israelis who were held in custody were released by the courts after spending one night in jail. Files on all four were closed.
The car, and home On January 11, I arrive once again at Ofer. A verdict is supposed to be delivered today on the army's appeal of the decision to release Abdallah Abu Rahmah. The diplomats reach the court entrance. Unlike previous episodes, this time the court is prepared for the visitors. A delegate from the IDF Spokesman's office is on hand to deal with the foreign media; the inspection booths are manned; soldiers in the glass booth show signs of life; and so there is almost an atmosphere of celebration in a place that is the antithesis of joy.
There is commotion in the compound around the court. Human rights workers discuss matters with Palestinians; and foreign journalists (only foreign journalists, since in Israel, there is no interest in this case ) talk among themselves, waiting to be called to the big trailer. The cafeteria worker asks me what's going on, why there are so many people. I explain to him that a verdict is due today in the case of a defendant who is defined as a human rights activist. He nods his head, as though he understands, and asks whether I want anything. I order a coffee (NIS 7 ). Before I can take a sip, Hamdan - today he is exceedingly pleasant - signals that we can enter the hall.
The courtroom is chaotic. A photographer who has taken a picture of Abu Rahmah is reluctant to leave the trailer and one Prison Service official yells to another, "He's not listening, get him out."
At the end of a relatively short discussion, the judge announces that he has decided on a 16-month sentence for Abu Rahmah. Since Abu Rahmah has already been behind bars for 13 months, he only has three months left. Given the general absurdity of the situation, this is a reasonable verdict: the expectation was an 18-month sentence.
Outside the trailer, 10 foreign journalists are straining to hear attorney Gabi Lasky. She explains in fluent English the meaning of the verdict, and her reservations about it; an IDF spokesman heads toward her, and asks her to speak into the cameras. She responds: "I'm speaking right now to people, not to cameras." The IDF man cracks a confused grin, and leaves the scene. After a few minutes, Hamdan signals that we should leave the compound around the trailer.
Presents The way out is like the way in, although there are fewer delays for security checks. You have to pass through some electronic devices while the man in the glass booth watches you. Then you have to go up to a plastic window and receive your identity card. Eventually, you wait by a metal door, until the man in the glass booth pushes a button; usually it takes him a few minutes to carry out this action. After the metal door opens, you find yourself in the Palestinians' compound, the spot you noticed to your left when you entered the facility. This is, in effect, a different part of the land of Israel. You stand there with your back to the Palestinians, who look at you somewhat incredulously, as though to say, "Well, we have to be here, but what's your excuse?"
The person in the glass booth has forgotten about you; you have to shout to get him to move, or you can knock on the metal gate; after you pound on the gate, you should hear a buzzer. When the buzzer sounds, you have to move fast, because the man in the glass booth has a short attention span, and he'll forget about you after a few seconds. If you've moved quickly, you are in another compound that is fenced off by bars and an iron fence. You knock on it, and the chances are you'll be able to get into your car after a few seconds. You put on a CD, and sing along with Eviatar Banai: "When I get out of this, I'll buy presents for everyone."