The fight against the military court system in the West Bank is a familiar one for Israeli leftists. The system’s image is tarnished. It has been said that the courts are a rubber stamp, that they sentence people to years in prison without trial, that they accept any claim by the Shin Bet security service, even that the title “court” is used in vain.
My colleague Amira Hass summed up this perception in her article last week “A copy-and-paste verdict for every Palestinian.” She wrote that “the military courts are a conveyor belt that convicts every Palestinian in advance, because every Palestinian, in advance, opposes the military regime that has been imposed on him and that has given rise to the military court system.”
I admit, I once also succumbed to this one-dimensional view. But over the past two years, as I have reported on the West Bank’s military courts for Haaretz, I have realized that the reality is much more complex. There are competent judges at Ofer and Salem, the military courts for Judea and Samaria respectively. As in every court system, there are lenient judges and strict judges. It would be a shame to tarnish them collectively.
Some military judges are even worthy of merit. I’ve seen such examples over the past two years: holes in the police’s testimony leading to acquittals of Palestinians accused of throwing firebombs; incriminating evidence against Palestinians disqualified due to the Shin Bet’s unauthorized pressuring; Palestinians convicted of murdering collaborators winning their appeals; and a man accused of stabbing five Israelis acquitted on murder charges due to the police’s unscrupulous investigative methods. And this is just to name a few.
According to the court reports from 2010 − the most recent year providing a full legal analysis − 25 out of 82 cases that went to trial resulted in a full acquittal. Meanwhile, 56 percent of the charges became convictions, 44 percent became acquittals.
Palestinian lawyers tell me a civilian court, the Be’er Sheva District Court, is the worst of all. In recent years, Palestinians from Gaza accused of engaging in actions against the state have been tried there. There have been no acquittals on these charges over the past few years.
Basically, it all depends on the judge. Maj. Amir Dahan, the most even-handed judge I’ve ever reported on, currently presides over the Ofer court. It was Dahan who demanded that the military advocate general continue investigating a gang-rape case in the South Hebron Hills; his efforts led to the release of a wrongly convicted young shepherd and the arrest of other suspects. Many people accused of crimes would probably prefer to stand trial at Dahan’s court, or at the courts of judges like him, than at certain Israeli civilian courts.
Criticism of the military court system is tainted and hypocritical, especially regarding administrative detention. Every warrant for administrative detention must be approved by a military judge. Last week it was published that only 2.6 percent of requests for such warrants were turned down.
Of course, administrative detention is a riddle; we’ll never know what’s in the classified material. But let’s not forget that every year hundreds of petitions are filed with the High Court against administrative detention. Never has the court canceled the administrative detention of any Palestinian (the court did cancel the detention of a Jew, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg from the settlement of Yitzhar).
But the High Court is “ours,” according to the liberals who advocate for human rights. Only the judges at Ofer are a conviction conveyor belt.
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