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Israeli Justice System Tested as Court Weighs Right of Arabs to Appeal in Security Cases

Times Staff Writer

In a test of the Israeli justice system in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Israeli Supreme Court is scheduled to consider next week whether Palestinian Arabs convicted of security offenses in the territories should be granted the right to appeal.

As an indication of the importance the government attaches to the case, it was disclosed last week that Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin had called together at least 10 of the state’s senior legal advisers and security officials to consider what position the government should take.

According to an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, the officials decided that any change in the current procedure, which denies judicial review of West Bank and Gaza security cases, “would have a negative psychological effect” and could undermine security and public order in the occupied territories.

‘Sign of Weakness’

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“Even if objectively and logically there is no reason to see it thus, security authorities are unanimous in their feeling that it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and an absence of self-confidence,” the affidavit said.

International bodies have frequently criticized Israel’s administration of the territories because of the absence of any right to independent appeal of military court verdicts.

There is also an Arab-run, civil court system in the territories, but its jurisdiction is severely limited. Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both of which have been occupied since Israel seized them in the Six-Day War of 1967, are subject to Israeli law.

Palestinians accused of belonging to subversive organizations or of attempting to undermine the occupation authorities are usually tried before a single military judge. Often, this judge is a reserve officer. The judge can sentence an offender to up to five years in prison.

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3 Military Judges

More serious cases are heard before a panel of three military judges. Only one of the three need be a trained jurist, except in capital cases, in which all three must be lawyers.

The only appeal is to the Israeli military commander of the area, not to another court.

Within Israel proper, there has been a military appeals court since 1963, when it was established by an order of Parliament. Shimon Peres, who was deputy defense minister at the time, brought the issue before the lawmakers. Peres is now the prime minister.

Darwish Nasser, an East Jerusalem lawyer who has challenged the system, said: “Military courts have the power to impose stiff sentences, including the death penalty. It’s unreasonable and unjust for (those convicted) to be denied the right to appeal.”

Tale of Two Brothers

Nasser petitioned the Supreme Court to review the situation last April on behalf of Jamal and Ismail Arjoub, brothers from the West Bank town of Dura, southwest of Jerusalem, who were convicted in 1984 of membership in an illegal organization and possession of illegal arms. The brothers were among nearly 3,000 West Bank Palestinians sentenced by Israeli military courts that year.

In response to Nasser’s petition, the Supreme Court ordered the Defense Ministry to show cause why it should not be ordered to establish military appeals courts in the territories.

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The Defense Ministry responded with a one-page memorandum that the court dismissed as inadequate last Sept. 22. It gave the ministry more time to deliver a satisfactory response, leading to last week’s affidavit. On Monday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to rehear the case.

The Defense Ministry affidavit said it would be particularly damaging to undermine what it called the deterrent effect of the current system when the army is faced with “a relative resurgence of terrorism unknown in the past” in the occupied territories.

17 Israelis Killed

Seventeen Israelis have been killed this year in terrorist attacks in or near the occupied territories, the most in any year since 1979, according to Israeli figures. The authorities have responded by reinstituting long-unused legal sanctions, such as expulsion from the territories and administrative detention without trial for up to six months.

Another West Bank lawyer, who requested anonymity, said he is skeptical of Nasser’s chances, given the tendency of Israeli courts to defer to the military in security issues.

“I do not believe that the appeal really has a chance because the affidavit . . . makes it very clear that the country’s top security and legal experts concur in the opinion,” this lawyer said. “This is to take the case out of the hands of the legal system for security reasons.”

But Nasser contended that “just about every lawyer wants an appeals court” as a simple matter of justice.

“Even the military prosecutors,” he said, “are keeping their fingers crossed for me--but in their pockets.”

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