IDF Court Tosses Evidence Given by Israeli With Poor Arabic

Researcher finds that for decades, police who interviewed Palestinians needed only spoken Arabic.

The military court at Ofer Prison has invalidated testimony from Palestinian prosecution witnesses because it was gathered by a police investigator with substandard knowledge of Arabic. Questions about the interrogator's language abilities were first raised by Aadel Khamaisi, the attorney representing Arafat Abu Sha'ira, who is charged with 30 offenses related to his activities with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades between 2000 and 2006.

On August 9 the court convicted 24-year-old Abu Sha'ira, of Bethlehem, on 25 of the counts - finding him guilty of shooting a firearm at Jerusalem's Gilo and Har Homa neighborhoods, and at the Israel Defense Forces base at Beit Sahour, as well as hurling explosives at IDF soldiers in Bethlehem.

He was also found guilty of planning to kidnap a female Israeli teenager who frequented the Palestinian village of Beit Jala, and to blow up a gas tank in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market.

Four of the five counts on which Abu Sha'ira was ultimately cleared were based on testimony gathered by police investigator David Mizrahi from four witnesses.

Mizrahi was an investigator at the Israel Police's Judea and Samaria District for 13 years, until the end of 2007. One of the military judges on the panel, Maj. Amir Dahan, said Mizrahi's "knowledge of Arabic, which is the primary tool for complex questioning, is under serious doubt, and the remarks he collected during those proceedings do not reflect what was said in the interrogation room."

Khamaisi's own research for the case indicated that for decades, police officers who had questioned hundreds of thousands of Palestinian suspects and witnesses in spoken Arabic (after their initial questioning by the Shin Bet security services) were not required to know how to read or write in the language.

The interrogators would record summaries of their sessions in Hebrew, at the end of which the transcript would be read aloud, then re-translated into spoken Arabic so the individuals being questioned could sign them.

Only in recent years have police officers collecting testimony from Palestinians been required to record the sessions in the speakers' native tongues. Five of the six investigators who conducted questioning related to Abu Sha'ira's case are unable to read and write in Arabic.

Khamaisi told Haaretz that he began inquiring into the Arabic proficiency levels of police interrogators after his client and other witnesses told him they had never made the remarks later attributed to them in Hebrew. The attorney said several investigators did not know how to translate key words that appeared repeatedly in the indictment, such as "[militant] cell," "nature of the crime" and "aggravated circumstances."

In response to Khamaisi's inquiries, several police investigators said they had not recorded their interrogations, nor were they required to. The judges in the case recommended that questioning sessions in security-related cases be recorded on tape, as is required in criminal cases.

One of the judges, Maj. Menachem Lieberman, said, "There is significant doubt in my opinion as to whether there is any justification for such a sweeping exemption from tape-recording suspects' interrogation for investigators dealing with security violations."

"This relates to legislation passed by the Knesset of Israel," Lieberman continued, "and I am not, God forbid, casting doubt on the Knesset's authority to legislate the stated exemption, but is there no need for objective documentation when we're dealing with security investigations?"