The Israeli Military Justice System — an Assembly Line for Mass Detentions

It’s also an integral part of the mechanism for quashing a people’s desire and ability to win back its land and freedom.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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A military tribunal at the Camp Ofer prison near Ramallah
A military Tribunal at the Camp Ofer prison near Ramallah.Credit: JINI
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Man bites dog — that’s how the matter of Mohib Zagharna came to our attention. There’s a judge on the Ofer Military Court who considers equality an acceptable value.

Lt. Col. Shmuel Keidar ruled that Zagharna should be released on bail after he and others scuffled with Border Police forces and Civil Administration inspectors who had come to dismantle a power line in his neighborhood in the southern West Bank village of Ramadin.

“When the security forces come to destroy the infrastructure of a person’s home, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which that person will stand aside and merely wave posters against the demolition, and that tempers won’t rise, particularly when it comes as a surprise,” Keidar wrote in his June 29 ruling.

“We cannot expect a person not to resist the destruction of his home, just as people from all sectors in the country have done, as in the examples of Yamit, Gush Katif, Amona, Givat Amal [in Tel Aviv] and elsewhere. In all these instances there were (several) homeowners who took violent measures and were arrested, but it doesn’t seem to me that they were held longer than a few days for questioning and not until the end of legal proceedings against them.”

The prosecution says Zagharna attacked a border policeman with a stone the size of a grapefruit and he is still dangerous to the public. The defense says he came to the aid of his father, who was being hit by the policemen.

Any joy at Keidar’s ruling was premature; the usual order of things was restored immediately. The military prosecutors appealed his release on bail, and the deputy president of the Military Appeals Court, Lt. Col Zvi Lekah, decided that Zagharna, who was arrested on May 7, should remain in custody until the end of the legal proceedings.

This is the way the military justice system forces plea bargains on Palestinians. The defendant pleads guilty because if he waits for a trial at which witnesses are questioned properly, he’ll probably end up in jail for longer than whatever sentence he would have received if convicted.

Exceptions like Keidar make headlines, and the headlines make us forget that the military justice system is an assembly line for mass detentions, an integral part of the elaborate and sophisticated abuse mechanism for quashing any desire and ability of a people to win back its land and freedom.

Unlike at Amona and the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza, the Sidri neighborhood where Zagharna lives wasn’t built on land stolen from others. Most of its homes were built before 1967 or soon afterward. Israel has no excuse for demolishing them, but it can make the residents’ lives pretty miserable.

Examples include not including them in the village’s master plan, forbidding them to expand their homes or build new structures, and refusing them permission to link up to power and water mains. While the village of Ramadin is designated Area B, under Palestinian civilian control, the Sidri neighborhood is designated Area C, under total Israeli control. Why? To keep as much land as possible available to annex to Israel.

Only a few hundred meters from the Sidri neighborhood is Sansana, an unauthorized, illegal outpost built in 2000, on which the government bestowed official approval in April 2012. Sansana, now authorized and illegal, will need room to grow, and Sidri is in its way.

In 2008, the Palestinian electric company hooked up the neighborhood to the 20th century, putting up 40 poles and stringing a power line to the homes. This, too, is resistance to the occupation.

But in April 2012, the Civil Administration issued a demolition order for the electricity poles. Hoping the Israeli establishment would show a tiny bit of fairness, the residents launched an administrative and legal procedure to win a retroactive building permit for the poles. The demolition took place in the middle of this process. A detention such as Zagharna’s is aimed at making the others submit.

Military judges may be mere cogs in the wheels of the big bulldozer, but they’re cogs with freedom of choice. Someday they’ll have to defend their choices in court.

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