Israel’s legal system – an important basis of its claim to be a liberal democracy – acts in concert with the government to support and enable the detention without trial of large numbers of Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Territories. As of January this year, according to figures provided by the Israel Defence Forces and the prison service (thanks to Israel’s Freedom of Information Law), 794 Palestinians were being held under what is known as ‘administrative detention’. Dictators like holding referendums, and the Israeli legal system prides itself on following due process. It feels virtuous because a court hearing is needed for these ‘administrative arrests’ to be extended. The system is so efficiently oiled these days that the hearings are very brief. Any offence – getting a parking ticket in East Jerusalem, mislaying documents or failing to produce them at a checkpoint, being affiliated to a Palestinian group, having relatives who are involved with a banned group, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time – can expose an ordinary Palestinian to arrest.
Many of these detainees are classed as manua – ‘forbidden’ in Hebrew – by the Israeli Secret Service. The term is applied to those Palestinians who are denied contact with a lawyer – or with their families – while they are being interrogated. You can be manua for a very, very long time. The Knesset is debating a law that would allow detention without access to a lawyer for a month. This is a farce: detentions already go on for longer than a month. Who needs the law?
One such detainee – I shall call him K. – is a deputy bank manager from Nablus. Since K. is manua he was not allowed to appear in court when the judge was deciding whether to allow him to be detained for a further period. He did, however, have an enthusiastic young lawyer, a Palestinian from Nazareth, not yet worn down and despairing like his colleagues. The lawyer insisted on properly representing K. although he hadn’t been allowed to talk to him. K. had been taken from his office in the bank in Nablus and transferred from the Occupied Territories to a civil court and jail in Israel. When K.’s case came before the judge he had already spent a month in jail. On that day 14 similar cases were being heard. The judge was an Ashkenazi Jew and the police prosecutor a Druze. Many of the police in the Occupied Territories are Druze, as are many prison wardens and military prosecutors.
This is what happened in court, as transcribed by members of Machsom Watch.
LAWYER: What is the allegation, what did he do?
POLICE PROSECUTOR: It is all in a secret report.
LAWYER: What is he suspected of?
PROSECUTOR: It is all in the secret report. I cannot say. He is engaged with a hostile organisation.
LAWYER: Is there anything specific?
PROSECUTOR: The activity and the involvement are all in the secret report.
LAWYER: Was he in contact with a Hamas person?
PROSECUTOR: I did not say this.
LAWYER: Can you tell me what the allegations are in a way that would not harm the investigation?
LAWYER: Is it a direct activity or a suspicion that stems from his status or his presence in a certain place?
PROSECUTOR: It is what he is doing. Activity in the Hamas.
LAWYER: Did he admit the allegation?
PROSECUTOR: It is all in the secret report.
LAWYER: I would ask the court to instruct the representative of the police to answer.
JUDGE: He cannot answer as there is no yes or no answer for this.
LAWYER: I have to know whether my client admitted the allegations or denied them.
JUDGE: After looking at the secret report I find that there is no room for a reply.
LAWYER: My client has been detained for 34 days. Can I know what was done in this time?
JUDGE: Do not ask him questions he cannot answer.
PROSECUTOR: We ask for an extension of the detention for another 22 days.
LAWYER: Are you using this time to wear him out?
LAWYER: Is this why you cannot tell us what you have done until now?
JUDGE: I’m here for you. You’re lucky. Others judges would have said: ‘You have only two questions.’ Hurry up, ask what you want.
LAWYER: The actions you need require 22 days?
PROSECUTOR: This is a complicated investigation that justifies a long period.
LAWYER: What is so complicated?
PROSECUTOR: It is all in the report.
LAWYER: Is the allegation of a contact with a Hamas person because he manages a bank?
PROSECUTOR: Not directly.
LAWYER: So we are not talking about a money transfer?
PROSECUTOR: It is all in the secret file.
LAWYER (in despair): It is all in the secret file . . . What can one say?
JUDGE: You go to a closed door, then you try a window and that is closed too. You keep trying, but do not be surprised when there are no answers.
LAWYER: I thought we were in a democratic county. This is about human rights, not even civic rights. What can I ask about?
The disappointed lawyer gave in and allowed his more experienced colleagues to take over. One of them made a last effort. He noted that when the defendant had first been brought to court the judge had been unhappy about the ‘thinness’ of the evidence and wrote: ‘I am extending the detention of the defendant; but I feel uneasy about it as it may concern an innocent man.’ After this intervention the judge decided to extend the detention for only 18 days, rather than the 22 requested. The defendant remains in an Israeli prison still not knowing what he is accused of or when he will be released. His case occupied a fair amount of court time; the other 14 heard on the same day were all decided much more quickly. The numbers involved deaden the responses of everyone concerned, from the judges and the prosecutors to the defence lawyers. The collaboration of lawyers with the worst aspects of the Occupation is not much noticed, but if it ceased, or even if attention were drawn to it, Israel would find it much more difficult to continue to act as if the Palestinians had no rights.