Last month, Israeli authorities in the West Bank detained sixteen-year-old Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi after a video of her slapping and shoving a heavily-armed Israeli soldier went viral. The incident occurred in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, after Ahed Tamimi’s fifteen-year-old cousin, Muhammad Tamimi, was shot in the face by an Israeli soldier with a steel-coated rubber bullet.
On January 1, an Israeli military court indicted the young activist on twelve trumped-up charges dating back to April 2016, including aggravated assault, preventing soldiers from carrying out their duties, and disturbing the peace. Tamimi’s cousin, Nour, was also charged with assault, while her mother, Nariman, was charged with incitement. Ahed Tamimi could face up to fourteen years in prison, if convicted.
The high-profile case has served to direct international attention towards Israel’s deplorable treatment of Palestinian minors in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Tamimi’s detention has also shed much needed light on Israel’s legal system in the West Bank, notably its military courts, which serve as a key component of its apartheid regime.
The legal system, which was imposed after the June 1967 war, is comprised of local courts, military courts and tribunals, and Israeli civilian courts, with the Israeli military apparatus retaining decisive powers and responsibilities over the West Bank. Palestinian residents of the area are subject to Israeli military decrees and the selective application of Jordanian law, which applied to the West Bank before the Israeli occupation.
This legal regime has gone through significant changes over time. For example, Israeli judicial bodies and lawmakers have gradually extended Israeli laws and legislative articles to Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, removing them from the otherwise applicable military system. In this way, large portions of the West Bank have already been annexed to Israel. Since the 1993 Olso Accords, interim agreements between Israel and the PA (Palestinian Authority) have transfered civil authority and the power to promulgate legislation to the PA in the (limited) areas under its rule. This, however, has only served to re-configure and strengthen a legal structure that continues to advance Israel’s settler-colonial agenda. Indeed, the PA does not have exclusive governmental or legal authority in any area of the West Bank. Instead, it has only been given judicial authority over Palestinians (not Israeli settlers) under its jurisdiction. The Israeli military continues to exercise control over crucial areas of governance, such as the population registry, the economy, and the right to control movement in and out of Palestinian enclaves, which remain fractured by internal boundaries and corridors policed by Israeli forces. Israeli military incursions (or “security operations”) also occur regularly in areas under PA rule.
Instead of protecting the individual from the sovereign by securing her rights and pursuing justice, Israel’s legal regime is designed to represent the interests of settlers (and, by extension, Israel’s settler-colonial project) and subordinate the Palestinian majority in the occupied territories. In effect, then, there are two ethno-national groups subjected to a dual legal system in a single territory: an Israeli civilian legal apparatus for settler-citizens, who enjoy the benefit of a civilian court system and Israeli law, and military rule for Palestinians.
The effects of this discriminatory system on Palestinian daily life is significant. In 2010, an internal document from the Israeli Defense Forces showed that the conviction rate for Palestinians in Israel’s military courts was 99.7%. Out of 9,542 cases, there were only twenty-five acquittals. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the conviction rate for Palestinian minors in juvenile military courts is also nearly 100%. In the spring of 2017, the United Nations reported that overall conviction rates among all age groups remain above the 99% mark.
On January 7, Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din, published a report on Israeli probes into hate crimes (or “ideologically motivated crimes”) perpetrated on Palestinians in the West Bank by Israeli settlers. According to the report, which is based on 225 investigations into settler crimes against Palestinians from the beginning of 2014 to August 2017, only 11.4% of the cases studied resulted in charges filed by Israeli authorities, while 64% were “closed under circumstances attesting to police investigative failure.” By contrast, the overall rate of indictment for criminal cases during the same time frame stood almost three times higher, at 36.6%.
The legal apparatus in the West Bank is an integral part of Israel’s multi-faceted system of differential rule. Over the years, Israel has gone to great lengths to hide this fact, to avoid international scrutiny and project an image of itself as a fundamentally liberal, democratic state. The targeting of the Tamimi family, however, is helping to expose this reality once and for all.