Punishment Depends on Nationality

A news item which was not supposed to be a news item points at a structural bias in Israeli society.

Shortly after the murders in Shfaram, it was reported that those wounded and the families of the murder victims would receive recognition as victims of terrorism, dealt with and compensated accordingly. And the question immediately arose, since when do you highlight as a news item something that is self-explanatory and common sense? Except that equality among Jews and Arabs in Israel is not something self-explanatory. Therefore the news item, which should never have been a news item, was appropriate.

The news item - and the atmosphere of disgust which led to it - can challenge bureaucrats in the ministries of finance and health and the National Insurance Institute, who operate according to customs and laws that discriminate against Arab citizens.

A news item like this affords an opportunity to examine other layers of inequality among Jews and Arabs, which undermine the definition of the State of Israel as a democracy. One such "obvious" layer of inequality is the attitude of the judicial and prison system toward Arab Israeli defendants and inmates being held on security grounds, and the discrimination made between them and Jewish defendants and inmates.

Security prisoners who are Israeli Arabs are subject to discrimination, on three levels, compared with Israeli Jews who have harmed Arabs: In the severity of the punishment meted out by Israeli judges; in their chances for early parole (as a result of amnesty or time off for good behavior after serving two thirds of their sentence); and their conditions of incarceration.

In 1993, Yoram Skolnik murdered an Arab who was bound hand and foot, and was given a life sentence. President Ezer Weizman twice reduced his sentence: first to 15 years, and then to 11 years and three months. He was ultimately released seven years after his arrest.

Skolnik is part of a list of Jews who murdered Arabs and were released by the judicial system. In contrast, Arab prisoners are sentenced to life or lengthy prison terms, even if they were not convicted of murder. For example, Mukhles Burghal and Mohammad Ziade were given life sentences 18 years ago. They were convicted of tossing a grenade at a bus carrying soldiers. The grenade failed to explode. Burghal, who threw the grenade, had his sentence reduced to 40 years. The sentence imposed on Ziade, who had signaled him when the bus approached, remained unchanged: life in prison.

David Sharvit of the settlement Bracha was sentenced in 1994 to five years in prison, after being convicted of causing grievous bodily harm to a 13-year-old Arab boy. Aryeh Chelouche was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted for attempted murder of Arabs in 1990. Menachem Livni was among those convicted for murdering students at a college in Hebron in 1984, and was sentenced to life. All are walking around free today. But Othman Meragha and Mahmoud Zahra of Jerusalem were sentenced in 1989 to 27 years in prison for throwing Molotov cocktails and damaging property. They are still in prison.

Burghal, Ziade, Zahra and their friends, who did not murder, are living under much harsher prison conditions than the murderer Ami Popper, who has the blood of seven Arab laborers on his hands: his life sentence was reduced to 40 years, he was permitted to marry, have conjugal visits, bring five children into the world, visit them, go on furlough and phone home daily. Security prisoners who are Israeli citizens and residents of Jerusalem cannot make use of the public pay phone, are not permitted to go on leave with their families, not even when a parent or other relative is dying or has died, are allotted fewer hours than criminal inmates for walking in the prison yard, their family visits take place behind iron grates and plastic and glass divisions, and they are forbidden even to hug their children and touch their wives.

A long chain of Israelis are complicit in the inequality entailed in every such day in prison: the judges, who imposed on Arabs much tougher sentences than those imposed on Jews who have commited similar and grave offenses; the members of parole boards, who reduced the sentence of Jewish murderers and know that the "time-off committees" generally refuse to release Arabs, including murderers; presidents of Israel, who reduced sentences and granted amnesty to Jews; and their advisers, the heads of law schools, who do not raise a hue and cry and demand constant reexamination of a system which has different standards of judging and imprisoning, depending on a person's nationality.

Let not the lynch in Shfaram serve as a excuse for ignoring this inherent structural discrimination within the Israeli judicial and prison system.