Opinion |

Israeli High Court's Ruling on Palestinian Hunger Striker Is No Surprise

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Maher Akhras at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot last month.
Maher Akhras at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot last month.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Every petition to the High Court of Justice that challenges the decrees of authorities regarding Palestinian matters sparks secular anticipation of a miracle. A miracle entailing the liberation of the judges from the yoke of the army and Shin Bet security service. Every petition makes one forget for a moment the bitter disappointment of the one preceding it.

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This happened on Sunday, when the judges considered a petition in the matter of Maher Akhras, 49, who has been on hunger strike for three months to protest his detention without indictment, trial, evidence or the right to defend himself. No miracle happened this time either. For the second time in a month the justices evaded taking any principled stand regarding such a shameful type of detention. They proposed a half-and-half solution, the suspension of administrative detention while in hospital.

Akhras was detained on July 27. He was subjected to a general and superficial interrogation, and an administrative arrest warrant was issued, valid up to November 26. He began a hunger strike which he has continued until this day. Since September 6, he’s been hospitalized at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot. His physical condition, as expected, is deteriorating. His pain is increasing. The damage to his health may be irreversible, but his mind is clear. He insists on continuing the strike, till death or his release.

On September 23, in response to Akhras’ first petition asking for his release, the judges found a formula allowing a temporary suspension of administrative detention, since his health condition negated his being “a security risk.” Out of detention, he will be allowed to receive visitors in the hospital. If his condition improves, the Shin Bet and army can resume the administrative detention, the judges ruled. Indeed, last Friday the Shin Bet and IDF determined that his condition had improved, enabling them to renew the administrative detention and transfer him to an Israel Prison Service clinic in Ramle. Following an urgent petition, the High Court stopped this transfer and suspended his detention again.

The Shin Bet says that the 49-year-old Akhras is dangerous. If so, why not submit a detailed indictment against him?

Akhras was arrested and tried twice before for offenses related to membership in the Islamic Jihad. He served sentences of 11 and 26 months. So why opt for administrative detention this time? Sometimes the Shin Bet doesn’t want to expose collaborators who have provided information (true or distorted). Sometimes, apparently, the Shin Bet is embarrassed by the weak evidence or flimsy suspicions, preferring to blur these as much as possible.

The number of administrative detainees has been more or less constant over the last few years, about 350. It’s a convenient arrangement: It saves the system the headache of convening a military court, the calling of witnesses, providing evidence, moving people around. But this can’t be stated openly. Even in today’s Israel, more complacent than ever with regard to the implications of ruling over another people, the Shin Bet cannot openly declare that this is what security forces do in every military, dictatorial, authoritarian regime that rules over subjects who did not elect it. That’s why the Shin Bet poses as an omniscient god. And with god, you don’t argue.

As an omniscient entity, the Shin Bet knew in early October that by November 26 Akhras would no longer pose a danger to security. How? On October 12, it suggested that he stop his strike in exchange for a promise to release him in two months, unless “new information” about him showed up. Akhras rejected the offer, and no miracle happened. Apparently the judges never wondered what kind of security risk includes an expiration date.

The Shin Bet is digging in. Its built-in imperiousness does not allow it to give up in the face of the only weapon available to a detainee without trial: self-starvation. The judges could have extricated all of us from this horrific scene of a man dying in front of cameras, and ordered his release and transfer to a West Bank hospital. But it was naïve a priori to expect that this time the court would show some courage.

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