Incarcerated Palestinians Push for Boycott of Proceedings in Israeli Courts

Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli jails are trying to include fellow inmates in a petition announcing that they do not recognize the authority of Israel's courts to judge them. Up to now, some 25 persons, including West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, detained at three prisons in the country while awaiting indictments and court proceedings, have decided to boycott their trials.

The 25 detainees represent a small number compared to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israel, and in light of the intensive efforts made to sign inmates to the declaration of non-recognition. These efforts include discussions in the various jails, the sending of secret messages to some prisons, and cellular phone calls (the cell phones are carefully hidden, lest they be confiscated).

An unstated goal of the non-recognition declaration is to "confuse" and encumber Israel's judicial system, Palestinian sources suggest.

Nasser Abu Hamid, from the Al Ama'ari refugee camp, is accused of involvement in the Al Aqsa Martyrs brigades, and of sending persons to murder Israelis. Attorney Leah Tzemel was appointed by the Public Defendant's Office to represent him.

But on September 10, while indictments in his case were being read in Jerusalem District Court, he declared that "the court lacks historic, legal and moral authority" to judge him. He refused to grant Tzemel power of attorney.

Prosecutors for the state asked the court not to grant Tzemel's request to be released from representing her appointed client. Tzemel subsequently clarified that she hadn't asked formally to be released from the designation as Abu Hamid's attorney; but she said that she has no mandate to represent him.

For his part, Abu Hamid says: "an attorney can represent me, but the trial will not be just. My claim is against the State of Israel, against the occupation. I have been brought here at the hands of military force - not because I did anything wrong, but because I believed in something. History will judge me, not this court. I don't want my lawyer to say anything about my case."

Tzemel has requested that the court confer with the district's Public Defendant Office regarding the case. Overriding the prosecutors' objections, the judge in the case has agreed to defer trial proceedings.

A week ago, another prisoner, Lou'i Ouda, refused to stand up before the judge in his case. Another prisoner, Wail Jarub, received a half-year prison sentence for contempt of court - he told the judge in his case that Israel Defense Forces commanders who perpetrate "state terror" ought to be put on trial.

Palestinian human rights organizations which address prisoner issues stress that these cases involve individual decisions reached by prisoners.

There was discussion among Palestinian prisoners in Israel of boycotting court proceedings before the arrest of Marwan Barghouti. Yet Barghouti's behavior since his incarceration has accelerated these discussions.

In a petition circulated by Palestinian prisoners two weeks ago, signatories called on fellow Palestinians who are incarcerated in Israel to follow their example, and boycott the country's judicial system.

The petition argues that since Israel's conquest is illegal, its courts lack validity. Signatories also claim that Israel's courts operate in violation of the Geneva Convention, which stipulates that they are to be treated as prisoners of war who cannot be interrogated or put on trial.

Tzemel says that the boycott decision is just and correct, since Israel's court system does not offer Palestinians a fair trial, particularly under current circumstances.

Tzemel, who has represented Palestinian defendants for a quarter century, says that there were boycott efforts of this sort in the past, but these did not become a widespread phenomenon. One obstacle, she adds, is that the "Palestinians always end up facing their attorney[s] alone." As Tzemel, and also Palestinian organizations which lobby for prisoner rights, see it, private attorneys have a financial stake which makes them favor the holding of trials; and so some attorneys point to what appear to be purely legal reasons to convince their clients not to boycott trials.

L., a Palestinian security prisoner and long-term inmate in an Israeli prison, told Ha'aretz that motivation among Palestinians to boycott Israeli courts is higher today than ever before because awareness of international law is high. He indicated that Palestinians who are likely to receive longer prison terms tend to be more inclined to choose the boycott option.