By EA Zoe, Southern West Bank
Issa Amro, a 37-year-old Palestinian human rights campaigner from Hebron, has just completed the first hearing in his trial at Ofer military court. He was arrested for participating in a peaceful protest in 2016.
Ofer military court does not resemble a typical house of justice. It is nestled on a barren plane outside Jerusalem and shielded by miles of electric fencing and concrete watchtowers. Issa says that justice is not an outcome he expects it to deliver.
“Sitting in the dock makes me question what I did in my life to be treated like a criminal,” he says. “The same soldiers who should be protecting me are punishing me.”
Issa is now facing an additional 18 charges, for alleged crimes dating back to 2010. Among these are demonstrating without license, entering a closed military zone, obstructing an officer and damaging settler property. If convicted, he could face up to three years in prison.
International rights groups like Human Rights Watch have condemned the trial, noting that Israel’s military court system falls far short of standards of justice. Amnesty International has also stated that, if convicted, Issa will be considered a prisoner of conscience. Despite this, the odds are stacked against him.
Israel’s military courts, which deal with all criminal and security cases involving Palestinians from the West Bank, have an almost 100 per cent conviction rate. The military justice system operates differently from the civilian law applied inside Israel. Rather than independent professionals, all judges, prosecutors and translators in military courts are members of the Israeli military and so trials lack impartiality.
The UN has repeatedly stated that this system violates international law. For example, regular practices of arbitrary arrest, undue periods of detention, denial of access to lawyers and physical and psychological mistreatment contravene guarantees in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
So too, the military courts’ prosecution and detention of minors has been described by UNICEF as a grave violation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Indeed, in Hebron EAs have met a number of teenagers who have been detained or imprisoned in military courts without fair trial. Among them was one 14-year old boy, who was imprisoned at Ofer for six weeks for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. He says he was afforded no access to relatives or legal advice throughout his term. At the end of his sentence he was left alone outside the prison gates as his family had not been advised of his release date.
In military courts, certain forms of political and cultural expression, association, movement and nonviolent protest can also be considered crimes, with serious sentences. The system thereby provides an effective mechanism for suppressing the activities of Palestinians like Issa who are campaigning peacefully against Israeli violations of international law.
Issa heads Youth Against Settlements, a nonviolent direct action group based in Hebron’s Tel Rumeida district. The neighbourhood and nearby Al-Shuhada Street was under a Closed Military Zone in 2015 which was lifted in 2016, however, residents still face many of the limitations on their movement, as well as regular intimidation and violence by settlers and Israeli soldiers. Issa and his group are prominent in calling for an end to illegal settlements, organising peaceful demonstrations, and campaigning internationally against human rights abuses. For example, the protest for which Issa is facing charges was organised to coincide with a visit by Barack Obama to the West Bank. Participants wore Obama masks and T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘I have a dream’.
These activities reflect a progressive and peaceful force for change in the often violent environment of Hebron. Yet unfortunately they are also activities that are coming under ever greater physical and legal restriction by the Israeli occupation.