West Bank law loaded against Arabs

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THE LAW does not hurry for Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Yesterday Palestinian families waited for hours, caged behind a tall wire fence, to hear if their sons' cases would be heard at the military court in Hebron.

In a small room inside the fortified barracks which houses the court, young soldiers picked over dog-eared files. Some cases had been awaiting trial for months, some for years.

Mohamed Shweiki, a mathematics teacher, was hoping to see his son, Abed Algani, who was jailed five months ago for alleged membership of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. 'I want to hear what the charge is. I want to hear the evidence,' he said.

But there was no sign of his son, nor of any evidence. At midday, a military judge, a 35-year-old major, and a military prosecutor, a 24-year-old captain with a law degree, took their seats. There were lawyers in suits and defendants in leg chains. But no charges were read or witnesses heard. There were no law books to refer to. Just the files, opened and discussed for a moment, then closed as the defendants were returned to their cells.

Hebron military court is only for Arab 'crime', committed against Israeli soldiers or settlers. Although 6,000 settlers live in Hebron, they are subject to different laws.

The Hebron massacre has turned a spotlight on the legal discrimination that has operated in the occupied territories since they were seized by Israel in 1967. The Israeli government claims that it fulfils its obligation as an occupier, under international law, to protect 'the local population'. But there is no equality before the law.

The commission of inquiry into the massacre has heard that the Israeli army never considered the possibility that Jews could commit crimes against Arabs, only that Arabs would commit crimes against Jews. Army orders said soldiers could not shoot a settler, even if that settler was killing Arabs.

A report issued by B'tselem, the Israeli human rights group, after the massacre, has produced the first detailed study of the law governing settlers. It shows that crime by settlers against Palestinians is common, but rarely prosecuted. If charged at all, settlers are tried inside Israel proper in civilian courts that treat them leniently. Sixty-two Palestinians have been killed by settlers since 1988, according to the report. Only one settler has been convicted of murder.

To the Palestinians of the occupied territories, it has always been clear that there is one law for them and one for the settlers. 'Laws in the occupied territories are not based on what a human being may do or not do, but on whether he is a Jew or not,' says Raja Shehadeh, a leading Palestinian human rights lawyer.

Outside the courts, Palestinians are punished collectively every day, by curfews, mass arrests and house demolitions. The families of Palestinians charged with serious offences often have their homes demolished. Jewish settlers are never punished in this way.

In Hebron, as elsewhere, there had been hope that such oppression might end with the signing of the Oslo peace accords. But since the massacre the town has been a victim of the most blatant of all parodies of justice: on the order of the army, the 150,000 Palestinians of Hebron have been 'collectively punished' for the massacre, which was carried out by a Jew. The Arab town has been placed under curfew, but the Jewish settlements are under no restriction.

In Hebron military court yesterday, therefore, it was hardly surprising that expectations of justice were low. Defendants who wished to call witnesses could not, as the curfew had prevented people from travelling. Most, however, knew that in this topsy-turvy court, witnesses do not help. 'If I call witnesses, they will double my sentence,' said one defendant, charged with stone-throwing.

Defendants never walk free, say lawyers. They invariably admit the charge, in order to 'plea bargain' the best deal on their sentence. Palestinian lawyers who work here have taken degrees in Jordanian law, which used to apply in the West Bank, and they have studied the Geneva conventions. But their studies have been worthless: the only relevant 'law' here is Israeli military law, which changes every month.

Ahmed Rwaidy, a 26-year-old Palestinian lawyer, said: 'We never know what the laws are. The truth is, there are no laws in these courts. There are no judges, only Israeli soldiers.'

(Photograph omitted)