Opinion

The Judges Are Hurrying

The high court is poised to approve the demolition of a Bedouin village to make way for a settlement to expand – a settlement that's home to one of the justice's siblings

Dwellings belongings to Bedouin are seen in Khan al-Ahmar village near the West Bank city of Jericho February 23, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

The panel of high court justices appeared to be in a hurry to authorize the demolition of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe’s village in the Khan al-Ahmar area of the West Bank. If anyone still hoped that this impression, conveyed by the justices at a hearing on April 25, was wrong, the course of events described below suggests otherwise.

When with the approval of the High Court of Justice, a bulldozer demolishes the school built of tires and the other village buildings, the nearby Jewish settlement of Kfar Adumim will celebrate. In the wake of its persistent petitions to the high court over the past nine years to remove the Bedouin nuisance from the view of its houses, the state announced the imminent expulsion of the villagers. The plan is to transfer them against their will to the West Bank Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis and to impose a semi-urban lifestyle on them. The justices also heard two other petitions filed on behalf the Bedouin by attorney Shlomo Lecker against the demolition of the village and against the demolition of the school.

The panel that heard the petitions was comprised of Justices Noam Solberg, Anat Baron and Yael Willner. It is known that Solberg is a resident of the settlement of Alon Shvut. It is also known that Willner was one of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s candidates for the high court. In her youth, Willner took part in an attempt by the Gush Emunim settlement movement to settle Sebastia in the northern West Bank.

What was not widely known is that she has a brother and sister who live in Kfar Adumim. Before the April 25 hearing began, Willner made a statement in the courtroom in which she said: “In the interest of full disclosure, I am stating that I have relatives in Kfar Adumim. I do not know what their stance is. I do not think it should change anything. But for the record.” These remarks were not included in the court record, but they were recalled by several of those present, including the writer David Grossman, scientist David Harel, artist Hadas Ofrat and educator Alice Shalvi. From the tone of Justice Willner’s statement, they and Lecker got the impression she was referring to very distant relatives. They were surprised to learn that she was referring to a brother and a sister. This they learned at the hearing from a resident of Kfar Adumim who was part of a group that discovered (astoundingly late) that their community had lobbied in their name to commit an injustice. The justices permitted these dissenters to argue their case against the demolition and the uprooting of the Bedouin community.

Section 77a of the Courts Act states that a judge shall not sit in judgment when he knows that a relative is one of the parties to a proceeding, or if a first-degree relative has a genuine financial or personal interest in the proceeding or its outcome. On May 2, Lecker filed a motion to disqualify Willner from hearing this case. The three justices summarily dismissed his motion, and were joined last week by Justice Neal Hendel, who heard Lecker’s appeal of the three justices’ action.

Hendel rejected Lecker’s appeal on the following grounds: Lecker hadn’t asked at the time who the relatives were that Willner, in all fairness, was referring to; didn’t demand at the time that she recuse herself; and was late in submitting his request to disqualify her. Lecker plans to submit a complaint to the Justice Ministry’s ombudsman who handles allegations of misconduct against judges. The procedural and substantive rights of his clients, he says, are being undermined by the justices’ conduct.

Even before the era of Justice Minister Shaked, the high court had ignored arguments from Palestinians and their lawyers that they were forced to build without permits because the state had refused to recognize their long-time residence where they were living by preparing master plans for their communities. The high court didn’t necessarily approve their eviction, but it also didn’t order the state to rectify the injustice.

Now the high court is poised to approve a forced eviction in Khan al-Ahmar, as it did in Umm al-Hiran in the Negev. When the Jahalin village is wiped out, its land will be allocated to expand Kfar Adumim – perhaps for a sports and recreation area, for public buildings or even for a residential neighborhood. Willner’s siblings and their families will benefit from the fact that they are residents of the settlement. In today’s Israel, that isn’t considered grounds for her to disqualify herself.