Inside Israel's Kangaroo Courts, Where Children are Held and Sentenced
I have often felt that the worst aspect of Israel’s prolonged military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip is how official procedures strip people of their dignity. Oppressive processes have become so routine that people just expect them. People tell me “This is our life” when I express outrage at the system of Israeli military checkpoints, permit and military courts lacking fundamental due process protections. Israel’s Ofer military court provides a singular vantage point from which to observe the human impact of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
I knew the military court was not going to resemble a “Law and Order” courtroom or be like one of my visits to Chicago’s Cook County courtrooms, but as I saw Ofer’s barbed wire and concrete walls I knew I was stepping into the heart of the occupation. This was where the state of Israel put children on trial after they were detained by heavily armed soldiers, and it was where Israeli military law allows potential maximum sentences up to 20 years for a charge of stone throwing. A new law enacted recently inside Israeli targets Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem and allows for similarly harsh penalties.
To enter Ofer military prison, all Palestinian visitors must walk a nearly half-mile stretch between military checkpoints. I went to Ofer accompanied by a lawyer from Defense for Children International Palestine (DCIP). As an American with a U.S. passport, I was allowed to ride in a car down this stretch, reinforcing the fact that the no-car rule applies only to Palestinians.
After parking our car in the space reserved for legal staff, we proceeded to the court entrance, which resembles a military checkpoint. Families and friends wait outside near a small building in an open area with a tin roof. Israeli soldiers sitting behind tinted bulletproof glass summon visitors to approach and have their identity cards checked. Visitors are then unhurriedly ushered through a series of other checkpoints.
My name was called and I walked through a locked steel door to a metal detector. I was then subjected to a body search. I could carry nothing beyond this point except a notebook and pen. I walked down a barbed wire alleyway to meet the DCIP lawyer who would accompany me to the court proceedings.
In front of me were several small trailers, numbered to indicate which “courtroom” one was entering. I entered trailer number four. Inside the small air-conditioned space, I was asked to sit in the back, which had six chairs allotted for family members. I settled in to observe the proceedings.
I was struck by the youthfulness of those involved. The Israeli army judge could not have been 30 years old, and the stenographer and prosecutor (both women) looked like they were still possibly doing their military service (18-21 years old). The detained young men, all clad in brown prisoner uniforms except one young man (who I told was just taken out of interrogation and thus has not yet been in prison), were the same age of the people handing out their sentences. Private security guards — many, I am told, Palestinian citizens living in Israel — were stationed in the corners of the small room and accompanied each shackled prisoner as he entered.
Lawyers arrived in the trailer holding sheets of paper listing the names of the clients they were to represent that day in court. This is often the first time the lawyer sees the client, and while talking is prohibited in the court, the lawyers typically try to whisper questions to the prisoners to get any relevant information that might help their cases. The proceedings took place in Hebrew with a translator reading from the stenographer's notes (posted on a computer screen) in Arabic. The cases were read out by the judge, who then immediately made a sentence, sometimes with a quick plea from one of the lawyers to lessen the fine or sentence.
As I watched this surreal scene, in walked the mother of the detained young man dressed in civilian clothes. She gasped as she saw her son and was quickly ordered by the guards to sit in the corner next to me. Her son looked our way and began to mouth words of encouragement: “I’m OK,” “Thanks to God, he will protect me, don’t worry,” “Send my love to my sisters and brothers.” She anxiously replied in a whisper, “But are you OK?” “Are you eating?” “Do you see anyone you know?” As her questions continued, the young man’s eyes turned red and began to water, and within minutes I noticed that the mother sitting beside me was silently weeping, tears streaming down her face. No one seemed to notice. The court cases continued without interruption.
I was relieved when it was time for the judge to take his lunch break, as I don’t think I could have kept silent much longer. All detainees were led handcuffed back to the holding cells or back into detention (none were released that day; the young man in civilian clothes was remanded to another 15 days of interrogation, then he will be brought back into the court for sentencing). The trailer was cleared and we were escorted back through the maze of barbed wire alleys to the entry point, where we received our identity cards on exiting. The mother of the detained son from our courtroom made her journey back to Jericho, telling us she hopes she has the funds to travel to return to see her son again.
As the coordinator of a new campaign, Israeli Military Detention: No Way to Treat a Child, I knew it would help my advocacy efforts if I actually witnessed the process that Palestinian children, some as young as 12 years old, go through if they are detained and brought to a military court, often on the charge of throwing stones. Our campaign has highlighted the five stages of detention (arrest, transport, interrogation, sentencing, imprisonment; see graphic here) to show the way the Israeli military routinely violates the rights of Palestinian children. Military courts, not civilian courtrooms, are where all Palestinians living in the West Bank are tried and sentenced by army judges and then locked in detention centers and prisons, often inside Israel in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
According to Addameer, a prisoner support and human rights association based in the West Bank, “Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in 1967, over 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel. This forms approximately 20% of the total Palestinian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Considering the fact that the majority of those detained are male, the number of Palestinians detained forms approximately 40% of the total male Palestinian population in the OPT.”
Aside from the tears shed by the detainee’s mother, the entire experience at the military court was devoid of any human compassion. Welcome to life under military occupation. May we all resolve to bring its end.