For West Bank protesters, legal knowledge is power

Anyone who’s been to a checkpoint or a protest in the West Bank knows how arbitrary military rule can be. For the activist on the ground, some specific knowledge of the occupation’s byzantine legal framework can make a real difference.

By Raghad Jaraisy

IDF soldiers clash with demonstrators in Nabi Saleh, December 11, 2011 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
IDF soldiers clash with demonstrators in Nabi Saleh, December 11, 2011 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Youtube is rife with videos of daily life in the West Bank – home demolitions, violent suppression of protests, unchecked settler violence, arbitrary arrests, etc.  But this video, from the organization Ta’ayush, is a little different. If other videos play out like action films, this one is more of a drama. No fisticuffs, no bulldozers, no tear gas or rubber bullets. It’s just talking. The army personnel barely even raise their voices. So what’s happening in this video?

A soldier walks up to a group of activists and tells them they are in a closed military zone. An activist asks, “Who issued the order?” and the commanding officer answers, “the general.”

“The general?”

“My mistake,” says the commanding officer, “it was the brigade commander. There’s an order-”

“I’d like to photograph the order.”

“You can’t photograph the order. You can see the order.” The commander then tells the group they have five minutes to leave the area because it’s a closed military zone. The activists ask to see the order, and the officer shows it to them (and us). It’s signed by “Dan.

“Who’s Dan?” the activist asks.

“I signed [it].”

“You signed [it]? You’re job is… a captain?”

“Yes.”

“Dan what?”

“Dan.”

“That’s your name?”

“That’s the name.”

Captain Dan shows the activists the map, but only for a few seconds and doesn’t really give anyone an opportunity to understand where exactly the area becomes a closed military zone.

“Do you know the order is illegal?” the activist asks.

“There’s an order.”

“Do you know it contravenes the directive of the Military Legal Advisor?”

By now Dan and the other soldiers are walking away. “Do you know the directive of the Military Legal Advisor? Let me read it to you. The soldiers walk further into the distance. They pause for a second when the activist calls them lawbreakers, and then continue on. The video ends.

Anyone who’s been to a checkpoint or a protest in the West Bank knows how arbitrary military rule can be. The chaos is apparent and systemic. It begins with the contradictions inherent to the use of military law in a civilian context, which themselves are clouded by anomalies specific to Israel’s military law in the occupied territories, and then further muddied by inconsistent application of the law and inadequate oversight. Organizations like ACRI challenge these policies on an ongoing basis – in correspondences with military officials, by impact litigation, through public outreach campaigns, advocacy and lobbying.

But for the activist on the ground, some specific knowledge of the occupation’s byzantine legal framework can make a real difference. Take the example in the video. The military declares areas as closed military zones all the time, many times in a clear violation on the rules and instructions set by the High Court of Justice and the military legal advisor regarding the use of closed military zone orders. Soldiers must present an actual valid order, without which they cannot legally prevent activists from being in a given area. Of course not all commanding officers will respect and abide by the law, even when the law is made apparent to them.

This, in and of itself, is another example of knowledge as power in the West Bank. The military used to prohibit filming and regularly confiscate cameras. After years of legal battles and complaints, the army has finally internalized the fact that activists are allowed to film. Today cameras are very rarely confiscated and activists and human rights organizations like B’Tselem are able to document human rights violations more effectively than ever.

So in the spirit of empowering (as much as possible) activists and protestors in the West Bank, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel is proud to announce the launch of its tri-lingual information center for protesting in the West Bank. The site contains information about the legal basis underpinning the right to protest as well as a range of practical information about the rights of protestors during demonstrations that take place in the West Bank.

In the Occupied Territories, protestors can and need to stand up for their rights and fight for the opportunity to demonstrate. When the automatic suppression of protests is the norm, it is important to know when the army is legally utilizing military law and when it is illegally ‘taking the initiative.’ We can and should fight over the minor details. Even if the struggle does not yield immediate results, it can have a cumulative effect.

The information center answers questions like:

• When is it permissible for the army to disperse a demonstration and when have they overstepped their legal authority?

• What legal means can the IDF use in order to disperse demonstrations?

• What is the difference between a valid legal closed military zone and an illegal order?

• What can we do when the army prevents protestors from accessing a certain area?

• When are soldiers allowed to arrest or detain a protestor?

• Where can we lodge formal complaints, and to whom can we turn when our rights are infringed upon?

Despite the risks and dangers that come with protesting against the occupation in the territories, demonstrations are one of the most effective ways to take a stand and make a difference. In the case of the West Bank, demonstrations are one of the few legitimate ways in which residents, together with Israeli and international activists, can protest against the occupation and fight against the oppression and discrimination that emerges from military rule. These actions are essential to trying to improve the lives of Palestinians living under occupation.

We invite you to enter the Information Center and make use of the vast range of materials contained within it. Knowledge is power, and we must use it, especially when facing off against a military authority.

Information Center, English
Information Center, Hebrew
Information Center, Arabic

Attorney Raghad Jaraisy leads the Freedom of Protest in the Occupied Territories program at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.