Ofer, Military Court and prison halfway between Ramallah and Jerusalem
Why Yehuda and Shomron have their own Military Court? Until 1948 this area had British law, afterwards until 1967 Jordanian law, since then Israeli law.
Following an occupation or change of authority, laws which were binding must be recognized as long as they are conform with basic democratic jurisdiction. In our case it means, that Britain had to recognize Ottoman law and Israel British law as bindingly.
Legal cases in the area of Yehuda and Shomron are as a principle subject to military jurisdiction. One further condition is, that the place of the Military Court must be physically in the area of the administrated land. Conforming to the 4th Geneva Convention, a criminal, also a terrorist, who is indicted, convicted and imprisoned, may not be brought outside of the land, also not to Israel.
About this point Marwan Barghuti, in the trial against him, aroused a lot of attention. Barghuti considered himself as the natural successor of Arafat. Since many years he held important positions in the PA. When Israel had proof that he was responsible for bloody terror acts he was arrested in 2002. The case generated international attention because of his double role, as politician and as terrorist. Therefore it was decided to hold his trial in a district court of Tel Aviv. He fought against this decision by pleading the convention of Geneva and his status as a diplomat and refused every active co-operation during the trial. Neither his lawyer nor himself asked witnesses a question. Only during the final summation, lasting more than one hour, he said something. In 2004 he was condemned to fife times life plus forty years prison.
The Military Court in Ofer has 17 regular judges, supplemented with several dozen judges, military reservists. The court is absolutely free of directives.
The area in the north has two courts of the first level of jurisdiction, in Ofer and Salem. Additionally special courts are for juvenile criminal offenders, which are trying twice per week. The court in Ofer is also second level of jurisdiction for Ofer and Salem. Every year 700-900 cases are tried first level of jurisdiction.
Another special prison, for preventive custody only is in the south. Preventive custody is a means of deterrence against criminal acts. If it helps to prevent criminal acts is arguable. Before a suspect may be taken into preventive custody he is passing a procedure taking several days checking the allegations against him. An other reason for the often extended preventive custody is the lengthy preparation time for classifying it as a court case. The length of the custody is usually at most six months, but may be extended at anytime. Juveniles may be put into custody as well. After age of 12 in Israel juveniles are already within the age of criminal responsibility. According to Israel critical NGO’s, preventive custody for juveniles in Israel is too hard. However, for the same offenses the same equitable jurisdiction is applied, regardless if for Palestinian or for Israeli juveniles, including the accompanying procedures such as the preventive custody.
From the moment a Palestinian Arab defendant is retained in prison he is automatically a salaried employee of the PA. All need is that his family notifies the PA about his arrest. During his detention and prison he receives up to US$ 3000.- per month, paid into his own account. If it is a life sentence his family receives his „salary“. No wonder that during bad economical times the motivation for acts of terror is very high in the Palestinian-Arab population.
Negotiated are criminal acts of Palestinian Arabs in the territories. Whereby it is irrelevant if the acts of crime have been carried out in Israel or in the territories, or abroad. Essential is for the choice location of the court that the crime is related with the security in the territories. Excluded are petty crimes such as theft and burglaries.
The two terrorists, aged 11 and 13 years, who tried a knife attack on 10.11.15 in the Light Train, are from the Jerusalem suburb Shuafat. Because of security reasons it has a wall which is inside the „green line“ and belongs to West-Jerusalem. Their case is in a court in Jerusalem. Shuafat is within sighting distance of the headquarters of the border police, who are responsable for the border crossing in Kalandia.
Our ShuratHadin group visited a court case involving four persons: a middle aged man, in his house a large number of weapons have been found, partly purchased and partly self constructed. We were present during his questioning. Also present were three young men, accused of throwing stones at settlers and at IDF soldiers.
Apparently life in prison did not harm the accused, no wonder, the service and food there is excellent. They may catch up on their education and in special cases finish university studies.
The accused has been repeatedly requested by the judge to stand up. If glances could kill!
The visitors range was full, because beside our group of 60 also family and friends of the accused were present. Contrary to other information from critics of Israel, I must insist, that the accused are not chained, not on their hands nor feet.
Also as falsely reported, no guard was watching us and we could take pictures without problems. Even a contact with the mother of an accused was possible but because of lack of a common language was not continued.
Every single sentence during the session has been translated into Arabic for the accused,
So no one could claim afterwards not to understand something. Naturally every accused had the right of a defense lawyer of his choice. If he had none the court provided for it.
The court sector in Ofer is as shielded and protected as I have seen in a STASI-jail in Berlin. Narrow gangways, barbed wire fences and ceilings, everything electronically supported. Knowing I could leave anytime did not help, I could not get enough air.
The area in front of the prison in Ofer is frightening. If in this ocher yellow with barbed wire armed building something like hope exists, I cannot imagine. About 600 convicted Palestinians are jailed here. Visits of relatives possible anytime, a request is required and receipt of a permission is usually rather fast.
Since its establishment in 1967 the court has tried about 800.000 cases. Among the accused are about 500-700 children and juveniles per year.
The court is a construction of corrugated sheet huts. Nothing is modern, costly or fancy. Everything is absolutely prosaic and minimalistic. Gangways between the container huts are narrow, no chance to escape. Ceilings are protected with barbed wires and insurmountable. The acclimatized court rooms may be entered and left without problems, after a control at the main entrance. No café machine is bubbling, no water cooler, normally everywhere present against thirst. Instead lukewarm water bottles.
Our visit takes places in November, a cool and cloudy day. How is it in summertime, when the heat is reflected from the stones and buildings? For convicts, without hope of acquittal, Ofer must be the forecourt of hell.
When on the way to the armored car taking them to the prison 100 meters away, they can see on one hill Ramallah in the front and also on one hill, Jerusalem, in the back.
And around the new Israeli settlements guaranteeing for the security and the life of Israelis.
With all possible compassion, we must not forget that men as the detained here, are those who are carrying out acts of terror against innocents, without considering age and gender. No one is enforcing them to commit murder. To search for reasons and guilt in the alleged occupation of their land, is wrong. It is not the alleged hopelessness and lack of prospects which is driving them. Responsible are their political and religious leadership, which is inciting to kill Jews. And for every Jews murdered promising them honor, status of martyrdom and a generous financial support.
© esther scheiner, israel