Jailed Palestinian MP's Trial Demonstrates How Much the Game Is Fixed

Khalida Jarrar ultimately had no choice but to agree to a plea bargain.

Palestinian Legislative Council member Khalida Jarrar in Ofer military court, May 2015.
Alex Levac

When she was detained, Khalida Jarrar could have declared that she does not recognize the military court of the occupying country, and enabled the military prosecution and judges to convict her and send her to prison as they wished. Jarrar, like the huge majority of Palestinians since 1967, chose the second option: to participate in the fixed game. It’s a fixed game (in a military or a civil criminal court) because the representatives of the state, which forces its foreign rule on a civilian population, have decided by means of orders and laws that resisting them and their forced rule for almost 50 years is a crime.

When Jarrar decided to play the game she had the two options open to thousands of Palestinians every year. One – to instruct the defense attorneys to accelerate the process and reach a plea bargain; the second – to make things hard for the system by means of a precise questioning of prosecution and defense witnesses. In other words, to grant the military court a façade of professional respectability that the Palestinians, the attorneys and independent legal scholars are convinced it does not have.

Here too Jarrar chose the second option. Had she been released on bail until the conclusion of proceedings, as ruled by military Judge Maj. Haim Balilty, it is very likely that the trial would not have ended this week but would have continued for many more months. Jarrar would have arrived at the court in the morning and returned in the evening to her home 10 kilometers away in El Bireh; the state would have continued to spend a great deal of money on meetings, summoning Palestinian witnesses and sending soldiers to bring them, allocating interpreters and security guards.

The prosecution would have continued to squirm regarding the problems that were exposed during the questioning of the witnesses: for example, that they were interrogated under torture and that the signatures on the confessions taken from them at the police station (after the interrogation by the Shin Bet security service) were not theirs; or that in the photo line-up an investigating policeman presented a detainee who became a witness for the prosecution with seven pictures, from which he had to point to Jarrar’s. Six of the seven pictures were of men. We can reasonably assume that with time additional inbuilt omissions would have cropped up.

Another problem facing the prosecution was its inability to bring its witnesses – young Palestinians for the most part, who were arrested in recent years and most of whom had already been released. Because they did not come of their own volition, a military force had to be sent to arrest them. When they weren’t found at home, the force was sent to search for them. Of those 14 witnesses only four were heard. In light of details that were revealed in their testimony, the defense requested that their interrogators be summoned as witnesses. The testimony of additional Palestinians therefore would also have involved the summoning of additional police and Shin Bet interrogators.

But Lt. Col. Ronen Atzmon of the Military Court of Appeals ordered to leave Jarrar in detention until the conclusion of proceedings. In doing so he demonstrated that he doesn’t care whether his court will be granted the cover of professional respectability; in doing so he also determined in advance that in the end Jarrar would have to agree to a plea bargain, in other words pleading guilty and a compromise, so that her period of detention would not be extended, regardless of the severity of the accusations.

The threat of the chief military advocate in the West Bank, Lt. Col. Morris Hirsch, that if she were released on bail, an administrative detention order would be served against her, also worked: Why make an effort if the result in any case is unlimited detention? A third tool that helps the system to force a plea bargain on Jarrar, or on any other Palestinian defendant, is the suffering involved in attending the military court sessions: She left prison at 3:30 A.M. and returned at 1 A.M., was dragged around in handcuffs for hours in a vehicle that transports detainees, waiting in it or in distressing waiting rooms.

Due to its failure to bring its witnesses, the prosecution needed a plea bargain as much as did Jarrar. Jarrar insisted that not she, but attorney Khaled al-A’araj would admit guilt in the two indictments that remained out of the 12 in the original writ of indictment. Hirsch wanted Jarrar herself to admit guilt, but Judge Lt. Col. Zvi Heilbron said that was not necessary. But in the end the system got what it wanted: another neutralization of a political activist from the Palestinian public arena. And Jarrar, in agreeing to the plea bargain, was unable to behave differently from hundreds of thousands of other Palestinian defendants since 1967. Her trial, which received more publicity than others, at least revealed to what extent the game is fixed.