The Ofer Military Court as an Allegory of the Occupation

Those who enter the gates of the Ofer military court aren’t certain to find their way out again – and not necessarily because they’re guilty

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Entry to the court compound at the Ofer Camp.
Entry to the court compound at the Ofer Camp. Credit: Emil Salman
Avigdor Feldman.
Avigdor Feldman

It’s a familiar phenomenon – one that I’ve written about in the past: The spirit of the law forces itself on the courthouse in which it resides and shapes it according to its twisted, deceptive image. Recently, I made several visits to the military court on the Ofer army base northwest of Jerusalem, and it struck me that it deserves to be studied according to the scientific method of “discourse and space.”

Here’s how you enter the military court at Ofer, if you’re coming from the direction of Tel Aviv: On Highway 443, a little past the checkpoint that announces that you’ve passed from the area of occupied territory into Greater Jerusalem, you turn left, follow the arrow that directs you to a huge parking lot and enter through the gate that faces Israel. The occupied enter by the gate that faces the areas of the occupation; the occupiers, residents of Israel, enter through the gate that faces good old Israel. They encounter each other midway, in the Ofer military court, which is part of a large compound adjacent to the Ofer military prison. These Ofers are named for Israel Defense Forces Lt. Col. Zvi Ofer, who was awarded the Medal of Valor for the raid on Nuqeib in 1962 (an Israeli army reprisal operation in Syria). What’s the connection, you will ask, between him and the court? And what’s the connection between justice and military justice? You’ll be answered by a Palestinian lawyer, his neck wrapped in a warm scarf to protect him against the bone-chilling cold.

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After you pass through the gate you find yourself facing a large window, which serves as one of the allegories that the Ofer military court constitutes. The window has one-way glass: sealed and dark from one side, transparent from the other. Inhabitants of the occupied territories also stand before a dark window – not seeing but seen by policemen and Israel Prison Service guards.

I’m standing opposite the shaded window and from the other side I hear a friendly voice, a veteran IPS official who remembers me from years past. The voice says, “Attorney Feldman, it’s been a long time since you visited us.” He activates the electric buzzer, I push the gate open and I enter the military court compound. To get to the individual courtrooms, which are housed in seven mobile trailers, I enter a narrow corridor enclosed by an iron fence. The corridor is like a labyrinth into which researchers release laboratory mice – where, if they succeed in finding the right way, the mice are rewarded with a slice of cheese, but if they fail and choose a turn that leads to a dead end, an electric shock awaits that’s strong enough to spur them to learn the twists and turns properly. This, too, is an allegory for the trials that take place in the military courts in the occupied territories: They’re all constructed like a kind of nasty labyrinth, whose mysteries are extremely difficult to penetrate and where one’s wanderings most times ends with an electric shock – only rarely will a bite of cheese await a particularly agile inhabitant of the territories.

Here’s an allegory concerning my recent visit to the Ofer court. The occupied territories are ruled by orders issued by the military commander. The orders are issued daily, on a wide range of subjects and include instructions involving movement, roadblocks and bans on locals from using roads marked in purple on the map and on wearing masks – and possibly also on wearing a wig. These directives are aimed exclusively at the original residents of the territories, the Palestinians, and not at the others who recently arrived and settled among the occupied, whose center of judicial life is in the land of the occupiers.

The orders of the military commander are the law in the territories, and ignorance of the law does not liberate you from responsibility from observing it. According to a basic rule that even the military court can’t evade, however, the law must be published. Accordingly, the clever jurists in the military prosecution set up a hard-to-find website called Kamtzam (a Hebrew acronym for “Compilation of Proclamations, Orders and Appointments”), where the orders of the military commander are published. The military court has long since ruled that publication in Kamtzam is sufficient to constitute presumption of knowledge of the law. However, the site is entirely in Hebrew and is immune to a search based on using keywords. The prospect that locals will be able to learn via the site whether the military commander has by chance declared that those who employ them are considered to be part of a terrorist organization, is nonexistent.

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Which is exactly what brought me to Ofer military court earlier this month. Two people were working for an organization that we’ll call “Mother Teresa’s Disciples,” which distributes food and medicines to the needy, and which is known by all and sundry as “Mother.” Three years ago, the military authorities decided to declare Mother a terrorist organization. The declaration was apparently misfiled by Corp. Carmela in the filed intended for papers connected to the “Discharge Party for Maj. Uzi.” After half a year, the industrious Sgt. Olga, Carmela’s successor, found the statement. She showed it to commanding officer Gadi, Uzi’s successor. Gadi, without lifting his eyes from Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” which he was reading, said: “Send it for posting on Kamtzam.” “And that’s it?” Sgt. Olga asked. Maj. Gadi didn’t respond – he’d reached the harrowing passage about the Sacrifice of Isaac – and he didn’t say to PFC Yosef, “Take the jeep, Yossi, and drive five minutes to the offices of Mother and stick the declaration that they’re a terrorist organization on their window, and on the way back get me a pita with shawarma, hold the onions.”

So it was that two months ago, about two-and-a-half years after the Mother was declared a terrorist organization, soldiers showed up in the dead of night and arrested two of the organization’s 15 employees, an accountant and a clerk. After they’d been in custody for a month they were charged with the serious offense of providing services to a terrorist organization and a few other offenses. In order to appear at the hearing where the prosecution requested that they continue to be remanded, until the conclusion of the proceedings against them, I walked the labyrinthine path last week asking myself what awaits me at the end – an electric shock or cheese?

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