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A Question for Lea Tsemel

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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From the documentary "Advocate" about Lea Tsemel.
From the documentary "Advocate" about Lea Tsemel.Credit: Philippe Bellaiche / Courtesy of
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Why don’t the Palestinians boycott Israel’s military courts? That’s a question that arises after watching “Advocate,” the recent documentary about human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel. After 52 years, there is sufficient knowledge and understanding showing that what happens in the military courts is one big show of legality, protocols and fairness. Underneath the costumes is an apartheid regime that enforces military law against one population, which has no rights, and civilian law justice against the supreme nation. Why agree to be actors in a play that strengthens the image of the occupation as legitimate and normal?

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Military law defines the struggle against the occupation as a crime. There has not been, nor will there be, a serving Israeli judge, military or civilian, who will say that throwing stones or shooting at a military vehicle that’s protecting the theft of water and land is justified self-defense. There is no Israeli judge who will say that every person has the right to join a national liberation movement (unless we’re talking about Jews who were formerly members of organizations such as the Haganah, Lehi or the Irgun). When a Palestinian stands before a military judge and agrees to relate to his indictment, it is tantamount to agreeing that the acts he is accused of are in fact criminal offenses.

This fundamental question also pricks after every visit to the Ofer Military Court, which is located on the land of the Palestinian town of Beitunia, when you wait for hours with family members for a short hearing at which they will be able to see their son from afar, exchange smiles and hide their tears. “Volunteered to read verses from the Koran,” was one of the absurd charges filed against a young man who was recently sentenced to seven months in prison. “It’s like 70 years,” said his mother. “He threw stones at vehicles in the area between Beit El and Eli, in the period between November 2016 and December 2018.” While that specific “allegation” is the product of my own imagination, it’s based on the usual loony wording of an indictment in military court.

It’s a question that is easy to ask, but difficult to answer. First of all, there can’t really be a boycott. The military court has been imposed on the Palestinians exactly like the illegal settlements and the surveillance systems that surround them. The fundamental question – why not declare in advance that they do not recognize the legality of these apartheid courts? – can be expressed by only one practical act: refusing to be represented by a lawyer, thereby disrupting the system.

But only when this nonrecognition is done en masse would it have a chance to make a difference. This would be possible only if there were a centralized organization that could impose discipline on all its members who are arrested. At the start of the occupation, everyone thought it was temporary. The fundamental illegality of the Israeli military courts didn’t immediately yield ideas for unified tactics. The Palestinian organizations are less centralized and disciplined than their image suggests, and in the meantime everyone became accustomed to the routine of having legal representation.

Most of the detainees, especially the younger ones, acted in the past and continue to act on their own initiative or through local initiatives. Even if they identify ideologically with a certain stream, organizational discipline and consciousness develop during the period of imprisonment. During the trial one’s family turns out to be more important than any organization. And what a family wants is to reduce to the minimum the number of months their son spends in prison, even if it means paying a higher fine, that will put them in debt.

Everything about the military courts, as with our rule over the Palestinians, is illegal and improper. The possibility of not recognizing the military court contains within it the hidden assumption that one can still get Israelis’ attention, educate them and remind them what law and justice are all about. It’s an illusion the Palestinians no longer harbor.