The Law in These Parts
I know a Palestinian shepherd from the South Hebron hills who was out in the hills with his sheep and goats, some years ago, when Israeli settlers brutally attacked him. There is nothing unusual about that. After a while some soldiers turned up and arrested the shepherd when he dared to complain. This outcome is also entirely normal. Then the real nightmare began. He was held for some three weeks before being charged and brought to court—a court that conducted itself entirely in Hebrew, a language he didn’t understand.
I first met him near Susya just before he was sentenced. He was living in a tiny, vulnerable khirbeh, or cluster of tents and sheep pens, on the edge of the desert, and he knew he was likely to be sent to jail for many months on the basis of the soldiers’ false testimony. He was terrified and also bewildered, unable to make any sense of what had happened to him and, of course, utterly unable to seek legal redress. Palestinians living in the occupied territories have, as a rule, no effective legal recourse, though not for lack of courts or judges.
Anyone who attends the trials in the military court at the major army camp of Ofer, just north of Jerusalem, rapidly comes to the conclusion that most Palestinian civilians who have the misfortune of appearing before that court have almost no chance of finding justice there. (It’s true that occasionally, very rarely, miracles do occur.) The chances improve slightly if the Palestinian happens to come before an Israeli civil authority such as the Jerusalem District Court or, indeed, the Israeli Supreme Court, as we will see in a moment. In matters of land ownership, over the last ten years or so Palestinian claims in the South Hebron hills have quite often been recognized by the civil courts, usually after an extended process—though getting the soldiers in South Hebron to bow to the authority of the court and to allow the farmers and shepherds access to their lands is another matter.
The soldiers and bureaucrats of the Civil Administration—that is, the army unit responsible for administering the occupied territories—often have to be forced to honor the courts’ rulings by acts of Gandhian-style civil disobedience. Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership, has successfully carried through many such cases, restoring lands to the original Palestinian owners. It’s a tedious, dispiriting business, but we have nonetheless managed repeatedly to block, and in some cases even to reverse, the general, remorseless processes of dispossession and expulsion that constitute the primary reality and the true rationale of the Israeli occupation.
It’s easy to get arrested in the course of defending Palestinian fields and grazing grounds; we’ve all experienced this…
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