Military court system in Israel under fire

Sunday 05/03/2017
Impunity. Palestinians take part in a protest following the sentencing of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria in Hebron, on February 21st. (Reuters)

London - Israeli military courts have faced criticism from Palestin­ians and human rights groups over two incidents in February.
Palestinian officials called for a boycott of the courts after a Palestinian freed in a 2011 prisoner exchange was rearrested and sent back to prison for life.
Speaking in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, Qa­dura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, called on detainees’ families and Palestinian organisa­tions to stop taking part in military trials and to refuse to pay fines, which he said amounted to $6 mil­lion in 2016.
Palestinians captured by Israeli security forces are generally tried in military courts, where defence law­yers say they are often not notified of the charges against their clients or allowed to meet them before trial.
“Palestinian movements and prisoners’ families must choose boycott,” Fares said at a news con­ference.
“One must take the difficult de­cision of rebellion and boycott” of the courts, Issa Qaraqe, head of the Palestinian Authority’s Commis­sion for Detainees, said at the same February 26th news conference.
The same military court system, he said, had sentenced an Israeli soldier to 18 months in prison for the killing of a Palestinian he shot as the man lay wounded on the ground.
“Such courts must be boycotted,” Qaraqe said.
In contrast, Palestinian Nael Barghouthi was sentenced to life imprisonment by Israel in 1978 for what the Israeli army said was “a series of security offences, includ­ing murder”.
Barghouthi was among more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners freed by Israel in 2011 in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured five years earlier by Pal­estinian militants and held in the Gaza Strip.
“After his release, Barghouthi renewed his involvement in ter­rorist activity, violating his terms of release,” the army told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
He was rearrested and a military court reinstated his original sen­tence of life plus 18 years.
A report by the Palestinian Author­ity and the Prisoners Club said 85 of the Palestinians freed in the 2011 swap had been rearrested by Israel with 65 returned to prison for life.
The United Nations said the Is­raeli court sentence against the country’s soldier was an “unaccep­table” punishment for “an apparent extra-judicial killing”.
UN human rights office spokes­woman Ravina Shamdasani said Israel had “a chronic culture of im­punity” regarding cases involving Israeli troops and Palestinians.
In March 2016, Israeli Private Elor Azaria was caught on video shoot­ing Palestinian Fattah al-Sharif in the occupied West Bank city of He­bron. The video showed Sharif, 21, lying on the ground after he was wounded after he had stabbed a soldier, the army said.
Azaria shot Sharif in the head without any apparent provocation.
After a months-long trial, Azaria was sentenced to 18 months in pris­on on February 21st, with a further 18-month suspended sentence.
“We are deeply disturbed at the lenient sentence,” Shamdasani said.
“While the prosecution and con­viction are very welcome steps towards accountability, the pun­ishment… is difficult to reconcile with the intentional killing of an unarmed and prone individual,” she added.
The UN human rights office said more than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank since September 2015 but Azaria has been the only soldier to face trial.
Several Israeli ministers have called for him to be pardoned. Is­raeli Prime Minister Binyamin Ne­tanyahu backed pardoning Azaria, expressing concern about the po­tential effect of the trial on soldiers facing violence who might hesitate to fire their weapons for fear of in­vestigation.
Military leaders, however, have said the conviction was important for the institution’s reputation.
Many Israelis sympathise with Azaria, who reportedly said the at­tacker “needed to die”. A poll pub­lished February 22nd by the Maariv newspaper found that 69% of Israe­lis asked said they supported a par­don, with 56% saying the punish­ment was too severe.
Palestinians and rights groups were angry and disappointed.
A spokesman for the Palestinian government told AFP the sentence was a “green light to the occupation army to continue its crimes”.
The sentence was a “farce”, Sha­rif’s father told journalists at the family home near Hebron in the southern West Bank. “What does a year-and-a-half mean? Was he an animal to be killed like this, in this barbaric way?”
Magdalena Mughrabi from Am­nesty International said Azaria’s conviction had “offered a glimmer of hope for accountability for un­lawful killings by Israeli forces”. “(But) the 18-month sentence for Elor Azaria does not reflect the gravity of the offence,” she said.
Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), called the conviction an “important message about rein­ing in excessive use of force”.
She warned, however, that par­doning him would “encourage im­punity”.
Separately, Israel denied a work permit to a HRW researcher, accus­ing the group of serving as Palestin­ian propagandists. The US State De­partment said it strongly disagreed with Israel’s characterisation of HRW, which it considers a credible human rights organisation.