Justice Is an Illusion in the West Bank

Jonathan Kuttab is director of Law in the Service of Man, a Palestinian human rights organization on the West Bank.

The practice of law for an attorney in the Israeli occupied territories is a very frustrating job because the vast majority of human rights violations that occur here are in fact permitted by military jurisprudence. Thus when attorneys encounter instances of clear injustice they are totally incapable of redressing them. To add to the frustration, the authorities make every attempt to give the appearance of strictly following procedure when addressing these violations.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of administrative detentions. This method of imprisonment is based on the British emergency defense regulations together with Israeli military orders; it gives military authorities the right to impose practically unlimited imprisonment on individuals without granting them proper recourse.

This method of detaining an individual without charges or trial has always been part of life in the occupied territories. However, during Prime Minister Menachem Begin's tenure there was so much international and local Israeli pressure against this patently unfair practice that the government discontinued it. The last administrative detainee from that period was released in 1982.

In August, 1985, however, in response to right-wing pressure in Israel, the Labor defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, announced that he would be taking stern measures against the local Palestinian population. He said that there would be deportations, house demolitions and renewed use of administrative detentions. Since then more than 130 individuals have been placed under administrative detention in the West Bank and an unknown number in Gaza as well.

With the renewed use of administrative detention came the application of new regulations created in 1982. These regulations were intended to meet some of the most obvious criticisms of administrative detention while in fact providing no true recourse for the detainees or the attorneys who attempt to assist them.

An elaborate charade is prepared to give the pretense of judicial review to what remains an individual administrative decision by the Israeli military commander. The decision to detain a person for six months must be "reviewed" by a military judge within 96 hours at a closed hearing. The judge is instructed not to substitute his opinion for the military commander's, but simply to find whether there is "a basis" for the commander's belief that the person must be detained for "security reasons." This is almost impossible to prove since the reasons never are stated at the hearing.

During these closed hearings the actual "evidence" is presented to the judge by the military prosecutor while the prisoner and his attorney wait outside. The defense attorney is then given an opportunity to present "arguments" but that is difficult since he has not been permitted to see the evidence. The judge then confirms, usually in a rubber-stamp fashion, the decision of his ultimate commanding officer, the military governor.

The authorities are so confident of the success of this charade that they even offer an opportunity for appeal (usually there is no appeal from a military court decision) to the president of the military courts in the West Bank. Surprisingly, in several cases, appeals have resulted in the reduction of the six-month order to three months. At the end of the six months, however, the process can be repeated again and the charade continues. One administrative detainee remained in jail for seven years before he finally was released.

This outrageous detention of individuals without informing them of the charges against them or permitting them a fair trial is now commonly used against those who are not even suspected of violent activity.

Moreover, administrative detention really is unnecessary, because laws already exist for handling individuals suspected of violent activity. The real purpose appears to be to restrict political opinions and punish suspected Palestinian activists.

This use of extra-judicial punishment not only destroys Israel's reputation for justice and the rule of law, but it deepens an incurable sense of resentment and injustice in individuals against whom it is practiced. In the words of Israel's former High Court justice, Haim Cohen, such administrative measures can only be viewed by their victims as "state terrorism."

Individuals who suffer from such measures are unlikely to have much faith in Israeli protestations of their willingness to live in peaceful coexistence with Palestinians. For the attorneys who continue to work within this system, there is frustration often mingled with feelings of shameful complicity, ineffectiveness and the forced lending of legitimacy to blatant injustice.

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