Palestinians denied justice in Israeli courts
Once upon a time, there were courts in Israel where Palestinians could, at least occasionally, obtain some of the justice denied to them by the might of the occupation and have their rights protected. But after 55 years of living under occupation, Palestinians have learned that it is increasingly futile for them to look for fair treatment — or to be treated in line with international law and standards, let alone compassion — in their daily dealings with Israel’s military and civil authorities in the West Bank and Gaza.
There were occasions when the High Court of Justice was the last bastion of mitigating the arbitrary nature of the occupation; an occupation that by its sheer military power continues to deprive Palestinians of their basic rights and impose on them every kind of restriction that suits it. However, last week, once again, the High Court — this former fortress of human rights — approved the eviction of up to 1,200 Palestinians from their homes in eight villages in the southern West Bank area of Masafer Yatta, allowing Israel to reassign it as a closed military zone for training purposes.
The actual act of driving so many families from their homes, of making them homeless in order to allow the army that occupies their land to train, arguably in order to improve its ability to violate their human, civil and political rights, is shockingly ironic. It beggars belief that the highest court in the country has not even nudged the state to apply a drop of common sense and humanity and support the Palestinian petitioners whose sole wish was to remain on the land where they have been living since at least the beginning of the 20th century.
Those who want to see the people of Masafer Yatta driven somewhere else would have the court believe that the Palestinians living there have embarked on an unlawful building spree. The reality is very different, as in this part of the South Hebron Hills the people the Israeli courts have almost certainly condemned to expulsion are mainly traditional cave-dwellers who built some makeshift structures and tents for public services, including a medical center, schools and mosques. None of these buildings are as fancy as those in the prosperous Jewish settlements that have come to be scattered across the West Bank and which benefit from huge government subsidies.
It is for the court to ask itself why it approved the mass eviction of people who pose no threat to anyone and condemn them to a state of destitution. Can the “most moral army in the world” not train anywhere else? Does it need to make the lives of some of the poorest people in the West Bank utterly miserable and stoke up even more anger among the rest of the population? After all, the hamlets of Masafer Yatta are in Area C, which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank and is where, under the Oslo Accords, Israel retains almost exclusive control over security, law enforcement, planning and construction.
It beggars belief that the highest court in the country has not even nudged the state to apply a drop of common sense and humanity.
In this case, the occupying force is responsible for the security and well-being of all the people who live there. But Israel has instead chosen to contravene international law and establish in this area a population of at least 325,000 Jewish settlers in 125 settlements and about 100 outposts, which enjoy excessive investment in their infrastructure and security that amounts to more funding per capita than even Israelis inside the Green Line enjoy. At the same time, Palestinians find it almost impossible for their planning applications to be approved. So inevitably they build without permission to meet the needs of their growing population and to keep their communities functioning. What else can we expect them to do?
By now, when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli courts have become a mere rubber stamp for the government, the security forces and the settlers’ wishes. The courts in these cases are guided neither by international law nor by how they would have ruled in cases brought by Israeli citizens rather than Palestinians. On the one hand, judges are complicit in dodgy arrangements between the government and the settlers by which they legalize outposts built by settlers without government approval, in defiance of Israeli law and authorities. And on the other they show no compassion in allowing evictions of Palestinians and in so doing neglect their responsibility as the occupying power to ensure everyone’s well-being, livelihood and, equally important, their dignity.
It could be expected that, in a democratic system, courts would not whitewash the misdeeds of government. How can the highest court in the land feel comfortable with the fact that it is never Jewish settlers that are ordered to evacuate their homes and pave the way for the army to train? It must surely bother those who are in charge of upholding the law that, even though their ruling is in line with the law, it is one that intrinsically favors Israelis, as laws are enacted by their representatives, while the Palestinians have no representation in this legislative process or the power to contest laws that discriminate against them.
Do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting that judges should bring their political opinions into their work. This would obviously destroy the very foundations of any justice system and further encourage politicians, not that they need much encouragement, to use their power to influence the selection of judges who will toe their own political line. However, there are times, despite the absence of a written constitution and especially when surrounded by the darkness of the occupation, when the justice system should be a beacon of light and have the courage to challenge the arbitrary nature of the two other branches of government should they abuse their powers in such an obvious and disturbing way.
The case of Masafer Yatta demonstrates once again that by such actions — as well as by turning a blind eye to regulations and restrictions on the use of firearms in disregard of Palestinians lives, by allowing lengthy detentions of children without trial and by imprisoning nearly 2 million people in Gaza within a harsh blockade — the High Court of Justice has failed Palestinians time and again, demonstrating that there is one standard of justice and morality applied to Israelis and another to Palestinians.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg