Israel goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate that it administers the occupation, now going on fifty, in a way that does not involve systematic abuse of the human rights of Palestinians, the residents of the occupied territory. One area in which such attempts are focused is the military court system in the West Bank.
However, in a new report we issued last week on remand to custody by military courts, B’Tselem shows this system to be little more than a façade. There are prosecutors, defense attorneys, rules of procedure, laws, regulations, and judges who hand down rulings and verdicts couched in reasoned legal language – yet all these are essentially actors in a well-crafted charade.
The report probes the workings of the military courts by examining their routine practice of remand in custody, i.e. holding a person in detention for the duration of legal proceeding in his or her case. Although people who have been formally charged and are awaiting trial are presumed innocent, the courts treat Palestinians in that situation as guilty from the outset. With the exception of cases involving traffic violations, the prosecution regularly asks for remand in custody and the courts approve the vast majority of the motions. All this is based on a series of presumptions that the defendant has almost no way of countering.
One of the outcomes of this policy is that the vast majority of military court cases end in plea bargains. Defendants know that if they go to trial while in custody they may ultimately spend more time behind bars than in the prison sentence they would receive in a plea bargain.
In Israel’s military court system, the prosecutors and judges represent an occupying regime whose interests are at odds with those of the defendants’ society. Such a system cannot mete out justice – no matter how convincing the setting.
The UN report on the 2014 Gaza conflict rejects Israeli government and military officials’ view of what is permissible in combat in densely populated areas. The UN commission’s premise differs from that of these officials, seeing Gaza as the home of over 1.5 million civilians where combat took place, not as a battlefield on which civilians live. The report states that the immense harm to civilians during the fighting cannot be justified nor can IHL be interpreted so as to legalize it, even considering the modus operandi of Hamas and other armed groups. The commission also found that the responsibility for violating IHL rests with the senior political and military officials who drew up the policy and did not change it even when its lethal consequences became clear.
In 7 days throughout June, Israel temporarily displaced hundreds of Palestinians in the Jordan Valley from their homes in order to hold military maneuvers, bringing the total since the beginning of 2015 to 20 such days. The displacements disrupt the residents’ lives and cause various difficulties, including burnt farmland in some cases, as part of a deliberate effort to pressure the communities to leave the area permanently. Israel must halt this policy immediately and enable Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley to live undisturbed.
B’Tselem has recently documented dozens of cases near Ramallah in which Israeli security forces injured Palestinians, some of them severely, with live gunfire. Most injuries are apparently the result of 0.22 inch bullets, whose impact is less than that of “ordinary” bullets but can still cause grave, even fatal injuries. The regular use of live fire against demonstrators in breach of regulations indicates that it is part of a policy, an unlawful policy. B’Tselem calls on security forces to stop firing live ammunition at unarmed civilians, except in extreme cases of immediate mortal danger.
On several nights in April and May 2015, soldiers entered the homes of 20 Palestinian families in the villages of ‘Awarta and Madama. In each home the soldiers, some of whom were masked, ordered that everyone there be awakened, including children. They wrote down the details of the family members and the house, and took photographs of the building. Military officials told the media about training in the area which included this type of activity. B’Tselem documented four separate incidents of this type, indicating that this is a policy of blatant disrespect for Palestinians’ right to live undisturbed.
On Friday 19 June 2015, a Palestinian shot two Israelis in their car by the ‘Ein Bubin natural spring near Ramallah, killing one and wounding the other. The man killed was 25-year-old Danny Gonen, a resident of the city of Lod, Israel. B’Tselem expresses shock at the killing and conveys its sincerest condolences to the Gonen family and its wishes for a speedy recovery to the wounded man. B’Tselem harshly condemns any deliberate attack on civilians.
In March 2014, soldiers killed Yusef a-Shawamreh, 14, as he crossed the Separation Barrier to pick edible plants for his family. He was shot although he posed no danger, in broad daylight. In July 2014, the MAG Corps declared the investigation closed with no charges. Examination of the military file revealed a sloppy investigation and corroborated B’Tselem’s suspicion of unlawful conduct in the incident. The MAG Corps effectively sanctioned this conduct by accepting a flawed investigation and releasing the commanders from accountability.
On 7 April 2015, during the Passover holidays, hundreds of settlers accompanied by Israeli security forces came to Birkat al-Karmil, a natural pool recently renovated by the Yatta Municipality as part of a new park in Area A. The troops instructed Palestinian bathers to leave the pool and the center of the park, clearing it for the exclusive use of the settlers. The incident illustrates the conduct of the Israeli authorities in the West Bank: catering to almost every settler whim at the expense of Palestinians. B'Tselem wrote to the IDF Spokesperson requesting a response to the incident, including a series of detailed questions. The IDF Spokesperson replied with a laconic response that offers no explanation for the authorities' conduct in the incident.