How Israel’s military courts conspire to keep Palestinians in prison

An Israeli military judge ordered Abdullah Abu Rahme released, saying there was no reason to keep him behind bars. And yet for the next month, the military justice system conspired to keep him in prison.

By Edo Konrad and Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man

Illustrative photo of Abdullah Abu Rahmeh in court at the Ofer Military Prison, September 15, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Illustrative photo of Abdullah Abu Rahmeh in court at the Ofer Military Prison, September 15, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Imagine you are arrested for a nonviolent property crime. After a few days in jail, a judge decides that you do not pose a threat to society, that you’re not a flight risk, and so he or she orders you released on bail.

So you post bail and go home, right?

Not if you’re a Palestinian living under Israel’s military regime in the West Bank.

Not if you’re Abdullah Abu Rahme, an EU-recognized “human rights defender” and one of the more prominent Palestinian nonviolent leaders in the West Bank.

Not if the Israeli military prosecution is on record describing your non-violent activism as an “ideological crime” and insists that, despite the judge’s orders, you should be kept behind bars. In the military court system, when the army wants you behind bars, the judge and prosecutor, dressed in identical uniforms, conspire to do just that.

On November 21, 2017, Maj. Ben-Zion Schaeffer, an Israeli army judge at the Ofer Military Court in the West Bank, ordered Abdullah Abu Rahme released on bail. There was no reason to keep him in custody, Maj. Schaeffer ruled. And yet, despite the judge’s order, Abu Rahme wasn’t released for another month.

This is how a Kafkaesque military machine masquerading as a justice system operates.

Abu Rahme was arrested on November 20, 2017. A few weeks earlier he had allegedly been seen on camera trying to pry open the separation barrier during a protest in his home village of Bil’in, which has held weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the wall and the occupation for over a decade.

File photo of Israeli Border Police officers arresting Abdullah Abu Rahmah in the West Bank village of Bil’in, May 13, 2016. (Activestills)
File photo of Israeli Border Police officers arresting Abdullah Abu Rahmah in the West Bank village of Bil’in, May 13, 2016. (Activestills)

The day after his arrest, Abu Rahme was brought before a judge at the Ofer Military Court, who agreed to keep him in prison for one day further. Unsatisfied, the next day the military prosecution demanded that the judge keep Abu Rahme behind bars for an additional six days. The judge refused, reiterating that there was no reason to keep Abu Rahme in prison, but nevertheless ordered him held one additional day.

Instead of releasing him then, however, a different military court judge gave the prosecution time to appeal — during which time Abu Rahme would stay in prison. At that point, the prosecution asked another judge to delay the release again and hold Abu Rahme in prison until the end of legal proceedings — a process that can last up to a year.

The judge did not acquiesce, but he did give the prosecution a tip, according to two people who were in court that day. If you cannot legally keep the defendant in prison based on the evidence in this case, the judge suggested, try looking to see if he violated the terms of a previous arrest. Maybe that will convince the court to keep him in prison.

Yes, having already ordered Abu Rahme’s release because there is no reason for him to be in prison, the judge voluntarily gave the prosecution suggestions for how to keep him in prison.

Over the coming weeks, various judges bounced the case back and forth between different military courts, each time delaying the implementation of Abu Rahme’s release as the prosecution filed failed appeal after failed appeal.

Only on December 21, a full month after Maj. Schaeffer ordered Abu Rahme released, did he finally walk out of prison.

The international community was up in arms earlier this year when the same military court at Ofer denied bail to Ahed Tamimi, the 17-year-old Palestinian who was arrested for slapping an Israeli soldier. The decision to deny the teenager bail, keeping her in prison until the end of legal proceedings, was widely viewed as unnecessarily harsh and taken in retribution for her humiliating the IDF.

Ahed Tamimi is seen before her hearing at Ofer Military Court near the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 17, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Ahed Tamimi is seen before her hearing at Ofer Military Court near the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 17, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Much was written then about how the systemic denial of bail, keeping Palestinian suspects in prison before they can even be tried, stacks the system against them — particularly for minors. Abu Rahme’s case shows perhaps an even more sinister aspect of the military court system: even when bail is granted, and a semblance of judicial normalcy descends upon the shipping-containers-turn-courtrooms of Ofer, the uniformed judges and prosecutors still conspire to keep Palestinians behind bars.

“The Israeli military justice system wants to go after the leaders of the nonviolent struggle, since the army has no real answer to nonviolence,” said Gaby Lasky, Abu Rahme’s attorney, referring to the myriad ways and instances the Israeli army has gone after her client and other Palestinian nonviolent leaders. “We have seen this kind of thing in countless cases in Ofer.”

The Israeli military court system in the West Bank does not serve the same role as civilian judicial systems in democratic societies. The law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges in the military system all belong to the same body whose primary mission is maintaining the military occupation of the Palestinian people — an enemy population. What kind of justice can you expect from a judicial system whose embrace of the scales of justice is little more than a tool for subjugating its enemies?