Everything outside of the Ofer Military Court was too-loudness. Too loud speakers, too loud crashing of metal doors, too loud buzzers to allow one through the spinning iron gates, too loud silence of the Palestinians staring at the walls and the ground, waiting for their sentences. Missing was the bustle of other court houses I’d been to: lawyers consulting with each other, defendants looking hopeful and scared, talking loudly or shuffling in silence. Ofer, Israel’s main military court in the occupied West Bank, has a conviction rate of somewhere around 99.74%. On the door outside was a sign that read “Entrance is forbidden to children under the age of 16.” Except, of course, if the child is here to be sentenced. Drained from the dusty air was any hope for justice.
We looked odd when we walked in there: a group of Israeli and British Jews, dressed in civilian clothing. A member of the group nudged me: explain to them in Arabic why we’re here. “Um, Salam Aleikum,” I said, to whoever was listening, which seemed to be basically everyone in the courtyard, “Our group is here, some of us are from abroad, to observe what happen’s in the occupation’s military courts.” Immediately people began speaking, and rapidly.
One man said: “Ask the group: Can they change the situation here?”
I translated, and everyone stammered and mumbled about how maybe more people learning about the situation could slowly bring about some shift and um so but like uh. I don’t know whether the man knew English, but he understood the answer, probably before he asked his question. He clucked his tongue and walk away.
Another tall man introduced himself as Khaled, and said he was there to support his brother who was in trial. “I’m a freed prisoner myself,” Khaled said, “I can tell you what it is like. I can tell you about the particular suffering inflicting on prisoners.” He explained to us that he’d been in Israeli prison for 30 months, and said that what happened inside of the prison was too long a story for now. Instead, he said, he’d rather just focus on the transport from one prison to another. “We were held on the bus for twelve hours, with our hands and feet tied. Not allowed to eat, not allowed to smoke, not allowed to use the bathroom. It was awful.”
Next, we spoke with Neri, a curly-haired Israeli lawyer from a human rights-oriented law office. Aside from members of our group, he was the only Israeli on the premises not in uniform: Ofer’s prosecutors, judges and clerks are all Israeli soldiers, either conscripts or reservists, and the defense lawyers for the accused Palestinians are mostly Palestinians from Nadi al-Asir, the Prisoners Club, a private organization largely funded by the PA. Many of them have up to 100 cases going at once, Neri explained, and can barely keep afloat. He introduced us to his client’s brother, Ismail, a man with a small goatee and a shaved head.
“My brother was sitting in a coffee house when they came for him the third time. They chased him and shot him,” Ismail explained, “Eight times, in his torso, and all over his body. He’s paralyzed now, he can’t walk.”
Why was he shot?
“Because he ran away from the police, three times. Each time, they came in civilian clothing, in an unmarked car. My brother… has some tension with some other people in our area, so he thought that these were other guys, Palestinian guys, coming to beat him up or kill him. So he ran.”
Was he wanted by the police for something?
“For running from the police.”
But at first?
Neri elaborated the police’s perspective: “They didn’t have a warrant out for his arrest at first, but the more he ran, the more they wanted to stop him. They claim they identified themselves as police, Ismail’s brother says they didn’t.” Even if there were 100 Palestinian witnesses, their testimonies would not trump the word of an officer or soldier. Aside from that point, the police don’t dispute the facts of the case. Ismail’s brother, now in a prison hospital, is being charged with three counts of running from the police.
Is there a way to complain? Someone in the group asked.
“There is,” Neri responded, “But if it’s a military or security operation, they are immune to prosecution.”
So are you trying to get him released on bail? Another one asked.
“Not really,” Neri sighed, “They have evidence that they pursued him on multiple occasions, they’ll say they shouted ‘police, police…’ My technique is to tire them out. To exhaust them, to exhaust the judges by bringing extra evidence, laboring each point, et cetera. I can’t get an acquittal, so I’ll make a lot of noise until they say, ‘OK, OK, what do you want?’ Then, the hope is for a shorter sentence.”
Inside one of the court rooms, the young judge -probably doing his reserve service here- dictated sentences to a bored black-haired typist chewing gum. Translation into Arabic was intermittently blurted out by a guy slumped over in his chair, picking his teeth. He was wearing a uniform and a necklace whose shape indicates either Historical Palestine or Greater Israel. By his position, and the white kippah on his head, one had to assume his intention was the latter. But his Arabic is flawless. It turned out he is a Jewish guy who moved here from Syria in 2000. The Palestinian prisoners were alternately silent and joking around with each other. No one is paying attention to the court proceedings. The “court proceedings.” As we go to leave, an older woman with a round face and wearing a gray hijab approaches us (perhaps because we look “official?”) She smiles sadly, and asks if we know whether her son is here. She hadn’t heard from him in the nine days since he was arrested, and got a call yesterday from the Prisoners Club to come here, but she didn’t know where to go, or what to do. We said that we didn’t, but that we hoped that her son was freed soon. She smiled sadly again, “Inshallah.”
A morning in Ofer.
To learn more about the conditions in and details about the Ofer Military Court and the Israeli military court system, see:
Watch The Law in These Parts: