Judge: Equality in the West Bank, just not for Palestinians

A Jerusalem judge acquits an Israeli man who broke through an West Bank checkpoint into Palestinian-controlled territory, ruling that it’s unacceptable for an Israeli citizen to be discriminated against by virtue of his religion. (Arab — but not Jewish — citizens of Israel are allowed to enter ‘Area A’.) But the ruling means nothing for the vast majority of West Bank residents who face discrimination on a day-to-day basis.

By Hagai El-Ad

An Israeli soldier checks a Palestinian man’s documents at a checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Hebron on June 17, 2014, as the hunt for three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by militants entered its fifth day. (Photo: Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)
An Israeli soldier checks a Palestinian man’s documents at a checkpoint leading to Palestinian-controlled Area A, June 17, 2014. (Photo: Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

In a refreshingly bold statement, an Israeli court recently seems to have firmly upheld the core values of justice and equality: the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled a few weeks ago that the law “must be uniformly enforced upon all members of the population, regardless of nationality, religion, race, or any other distinction.” (Hebrew)

Moreover, he wrote, any action taken by the Israeli army that discriminates between Jewish Israeli citizens and non-Jewish Israeli citizens “contravenes the principles of justice and equality enshrined in Israeli law, and the Court will not allow such discrimination to be practiced, nor will it convict or punish the victims of this discrimination.”

“When a major-general’s order [the commander of the West Bank military regime] applies to all Israeli citizens, no Israeli citizen should experience the degradation of discriminatory [restrictions on using] a road based on his nationality, religion, race, or ethnic appearance,” the ruling continued.

Thus wrote Judge Dov Pollock in his acquittal of an Israeli settler who broke through an army checkpoint that prevented him from entering Area A in the West Bank. The ruling did not mention the word “Palestinian” even once.

The principle is indeed admirable: all should indeed be equal before the law. But what if “all,” in this case, excludes an entire population, apparently so invisible that a ruling upholding equality does not so much as acknowledge their existence?

It takes a truly surreal distortion of facts to refer to Israelis alone as “the population” in the West Bank and utterly ignore the Palestinians who live there. If the Palestinians in the West Bank are not the “population,” what exactly are they in the eyes of the court?

Apparently, an Israeli citizen can break through a military checkpoint and be acquitted of all charges under the principle of equality. A Palestinian who does the same thing will likely be shot and killed. That is one possible answer to the question of what the lives of Palestinians under occupation mean to the army, to the State Attorney’s Office, and to the courts in Israel.

In reality, equality cannot be further from the reality of Palestinian and Israeli daily lives in the West Bank: the two groups live in the same territory under separate legal systems, are subject to separate law enforcement practices and enjoy separate planning systems and resource allocation. Military, judicial and economic power is employed together in the West Bank to promote the interests of one population over the rights of another.

There can be no equality in occupation. The hypocritical judicial debate over relative equality between occupier and occupied demonstrates how the pretense of legitimate judicial considerations deprives the word “equality” of its very meaning.

The oppressive regime that Israel has instated and maintained in the West Bank will topple one day. In the annals of the occupation, the role of the Israeli judicial system in preserving this injustice will play a central part, and Judge Pollock’s ruling will be one footnote among many.

Until then, it is the Palestinians who currently live as a footnote to “the principles of justice and equality enshrined in Israeli law.” Not even a footnote, or words on a page – just air.

Hagai El-Ad is executive director of B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. This article first appeared in +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it here.

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