From the Belly of the Beast: An Inside look into the Israeli Justice System

Looking mighty dangerous from where I'm standing..

“Sorry baby, I won’t be able to make it tonight, I’m in the police van.” A sentence every Israeli pro-Palestinian activist will utter soon enough, just as I have, this Friday afternoon. Already 70 activists have been wrongfully arrested during the weekly protests in Sheikh Jarrah, under the charges that we riot, conduct unlicensed demonstrations and assault officers.

Demonstrating in Israel 2010
Our day started at Al-Ma’asara village, where the army has escalated its repression of the local popular struggle [1,2]. Fortunately, this week’s demonstration was as calm as a demonstration can be, when you’re surrounded by hostile armed forces, and we were relieved that there were no incidents out of the ordinary occupation. (Unfortunately, the one week I don’t go to Bil’in, an escalation occurs, and I wasn’t there alongside my friends.) The protest was kept short and we all hopped in the cars to get to Sheikh Jarrah.

As we reached the neighborhood, it was still early and the protest watch hasn’t begun yet, but word that people have been detained and released was already spreading. This week, the police flatly rejected our applications for a demonstration license (usually there’s a struggle, but we manage to obtain it in the end), so we cancelled the march, but carried on the non-license-demanding act of protest watch. Yes, it looks similar to a licensed demonstration, but we’re law abiding citizens:

As you can see, the police has learned something from its mistakes and instead of rioting in a crowd of unarmed civilians, it decided to wrongfully arrest us in a relatively calmer fashion. My own arrest was practically gentlemanly, as I was told I was under arrest and asked to “please come with us”. Maybe next time, they’ll learn not to arrest us at all.

The Attempted Stabber Was Released Before Me
As the police van was filling up, I made my last phone calls, before they confiscated our cellphones. The back was already full, so I sat in the front with 3 more people, on a 3-seat bench (unpadded metal, goddamnit why?!), right on a plastic knob, that has absolutely no useful purpose, but digging into my back. That’s when another fellow concerned citizen joined us, and I volunteered to sit on the floor, being the smallest. Once the van was full they drove us to the Shalem police station in Jerusalem, where we were gradually all assembled in a boardroom. All in all 17 people, who committed absolutely no crime.

From the boardroom, we were moved to a stairway, where we could only seat on the stairs (unpadded rock, which gets very cold as the night sets on Al-Quds). We had to debate the police, to take the plastic cuffs off of several arrestees. That was the beginning of my crash course in the Israeli justice system, where my rights are partially respected and are always subject to the authority of someone who’s been taught to think only in terms of “good” and “bad” and that bad can only be dealt with violently.

We sat on that staircase for about 5 to 6 hours, and many things happened, during that time. Most memorable were the following two:

#1 Sometime, when there was still light outside, a man was brought in, on charges of attempted stabbing. We had the pleasure of watching him leave the station, a free man, a few hours later.

#2 When the police discovered that among its arrestees was Association for Civil Rights in Israel director, Hagai El-Ad, they called him aside and said:

Here’s your cellphone, there’s been a misunderstanding, you’re free to go.

We were all ecstatic to see him come back to us.

Inside the Women’s Prison
It was very clear we were going to be held over night. The law enables the police to hold an Israeli citizen for 24 hours, before their case comes before a judge. In our experience of the Sheikh Jarrah arrests, this was the procedure. After we were all interrogated, finger printed, searched, and saw our lawyers (provided by groups involved with the struggle and in this specific case the Association for Civil Rights in Israel), the women were separated from the men, because law prohibits that men be incarcerated with women in the same cell. This makes sense, generally speaking. But in our case, I think that we would have all felt safer together, especially the married couple. Systems don’t think.

The men stay at the Russian Compound, at the station, while the women are taken to Neve Tirza, the women’s prison, in Ramle. The five of us were seated in the police van again, with those damn cold, unpadded metal seats and no matter how much we knocked on the metal barrier between us and the driver, he just wouldn’t turn off the air conditioning that was coming through six unfiltered holes in the ceiling of the van.

At our arrival, we’re processed. Which means our belongings are looked through, we’re strip searched, asked personal questions about our social status/drug abuse/feuds/criminal activity and given a nylon bag full of 3rd aid goodies. All this can be conducted in a professional manner, but it all depends on the police personnel handling the task. So while, luckily, the strip search was as quick and almost harmless as such an unpleasant experience can be, the questioning was done in a rather abusive manner, in the presence of a bored Border Patroller, who along with the interrogating officer made snide comments, such as “yeah right, you don’t use drugs” (which has legal implications in this setting) and “who would marry you?” Next stop was the infirmary. Which went almost smoothly, accept for that bit where your weight is being shouted out loud between a warden and the medic.

Going through the hallway, where the cells are, you can’t help but conjure up the image of a dog pound. A line of heavy metal doors, with bars on the windows. Some screams from one of the rooms. Fortunately, we weren’t separated and were put in a cell labeled “day incarceration”, for people awaiting their trial. You’d expect the terms to be better for the innocent-until-proven-guilty, but in fact, we’d find out otherwise.

As we entered the cell,we realized we were given only four blankets. The warden’s solution was that we take one of the two blankets covering the sick young woman, in bed, in the cell. As the warden was pulling the blanket off of the woman, we told her that we’ll work it out among ourselves, to which she replied “suit yourselves” and left.

As the hours passed, we got to know our cell mate. A Palestinian Israeli citizen, who apparently smuggled an “illegal stayer” (=West Bank Palestinian in dire need of a job). She came in very ill, 4 days ago, and has been taken to interrogation every day. She hasn’t been outside, until the following morning, with us, she was reduced to asking for used tea bags from other prisoners and just for fun, they confiscated her cigarettes. Her fiancé wasn’t allowed to visit and she sat alone in the cell for 4 days. All we could do for this “security prisoner” is take her fiancé’s number, so we could later on call him, and let him know she’s alright and what she needs from him.

The following morning it was mainly a battle for proper food, with two of us being vegan and one vegetarian. And after that we waited the extra time it would take them to finally take us to see a judge, as is our right.

Menace to Society
We said goodbye to our new friend and went to wait in the reception area of the prison. Another search and about a half an hour’s wait, in which we moved around freely. Then they shackled our hands and feet, so we were ready to go to court. This time the seats in the van were padded and we weren’t air-conditioned half to death, but no windows. So I guess you win some you lose some.

At the courthouse we were put in a cell that’s a disgrace to any state that deems itself democratic. Beyond a heavy metal door with bars, there were two more heavy metal doors with bars. Beyond one of those doors was a cell with dim lighting that had an adjacent crouching toilet, which hasn’t been cleaned lately. The cell smelled of feces and the most well-fed cockroaches I’ve ever seen were climbing the walls. We waited there for hours and again, had to debate to go to a more suitable bathroom and be fed, and explain to the men of law that all these are our rights.

Hours later, we could hear our friends outside, doing what we did for them; Protest our unlawful arrests. Our lawyers paid us a visit and explained our situation. The police wanted to ban us from the neighborhood for 60 days. We all agreed that we don’t agree to any conditions as we are guilty of nothing. Finally, we were cuffed again and taken upstairs to the courtroom.

The Legal Circus
I recommend you empty your mind of the respectful court scenes you see on TV. Close your eyes and imagine a small room, a third of which is used up by the judge’s bench. For each of us menaces to society, there must be one warden and one extra. So that’s 11, add to that two more armed security guards, so that makes 13. In this way, there’s not enough room to have all 17 of us in the room at once, let alone room for our families or the press. Again a debate began when we demanded one member of the press be let in. All the while, during the trial, police people continue shuffling in. The security forces keep on babbling among themselves and I actually have to quiet them down like a preschool teacher, so I can hear my own trial. All this and the trial didn’t even begin.

Our lawyers started with the fact that we didn’t get to see a judge in the legal period of time. The judge claimed that it was technically impossible, because there were other trials and because we are 17, and the room can only hold 5-6 of us. Though our lawyers mentioned that basic rights are not to be violated under any technical circumstances or otherwise, the judge dismissed this motion.

The next debate was over why we were arrested. At this point the police claimed we were demonstrating without license [limited by my translation 1,2]:

Demonstrating at a place such as this without police authorization constitutes a danger to the public safety. They are dangerous. People who do what they want are dangerous people that are a danger to themselves and the general public.

Indeed, in a fascist police state, people who do what they want are dangerous. Our lawyers explained the law to the police and why a protest watch, which was what we did, is legal, but it didn’t seem to penetrate. Apparently we were all charged with assaulting a police person, but according to the police representative that wasn’t the main issue:

Defense: According to the request, you are attributing assaulting a police man to all 17 defendants.
Police Rep: I mentioned, orally, that that isn’t the heart of the request.
Defense: You hand the court a document that implies that there’s a band of police assaulters.
Police Rep: There was police assault by a number of people. The heart of the request is the principal of the matter.

At which point I almost jumped at the bastard, who dared call me a principle. I just spent the night in prison and my person is not a principle! But just so I don’t leave you with only my personal indignation, here’s how we deal with this “principle”:

We asked the police for a license for a march of 180 people from the mall (where we usually start) to Sheikh Jarrah. The police cordially suggested we march the other way around- from Sheikh Jarrah to the mall. As such, we can only conclude there’s no security problem with 180 people assembling at Sheikh Jarrah.

That’s the gist of this case and now we await sentencing. Await a very long time. Meanwhile, one of us dehydrated and we asked the wardens for water. After 20 minutes of waiting and debating why we can’t just pass the bottle of water that one of the family members had in her hands, the water had finally arrived. Meanwhile, word came that the men, whom we hadn’t seen since yesterday, weren’t fed for over 9 hours. After a half an hour of the wardens not giving our lawyers a straight answer about why the food hasn’t reached them yet, our lawyers wrote up a paper demanding they be fed. To our astonishment, the typist (who had incredible control over the trial, because she was too slow and everybody had to speak in a rhythm she can keep up with) refused “bothering” the judge in the middle of the sentencing. It would take another half an hour to get her to do that, and it was only because she had to go inside the judge’s chamber anyway (and even then, a 5 minute debate ensued!). Five minutes later, the men were fed.

We sat for over an hour and still no word from our ring master, so the wardens decided that we should be taken back down to their filthy cage. We were cuffed hands and feet again and led back down stairs. It took another hour or so, and we were cuffed again and led back upstairs. Another half an hour and finally the judge came out:

Under the circumstances, even though the suspects perpetrated the criminal offense of illegal gathering for the purpose of their protest, I am not of the opinion that there’s a cause for arrest because they are dangerous, under the circumstances, only because they refused to disperse, when the actual reason of their dispersal hasn’t been proven to me. As such, and in light of all of the above, I order the release of the suspects with no preconditions.

Free at last!
So now that I apparently violated the law, but nevertheless deemed not guilty, you’d think I could run out the courtroom, like in those movies. Not so fast. We were asked to accompany the wardens down stairs and that it should take a couple minutes to get our things, sign out and leave. They were kind enough to leave the cuffs off, but then we were told to go back into their dungeon. Because we were told by one of the women with us this was what happened a month ago, when she was wrongfully arrested, and apparently it was nasty procedure, and because the wardens promised it would only take 5 minutes, we agreed to walk inside. After the door was shut behind us, we were told “a half an hour”. This is when one of us went into a full-blown panic attack, crying until she couldn’t breathe. We jumped on the bars and banged on the doors demanding they let her out, demanding to see our lawyer. At first the only reply we got was a slamming of the window over the bars, but when the lawyer had finally arrived yet another debate began, whether the innocent woman, sprawling in tears on the floor, should be allowed to wait outside the cage, where over 10 wardens are sitting. She was finally let out and it took another 20 minutes to start our checking out process. For no good reason, we were let out one at a time. As if any of us would make a mess or run around when all we want is our valuables back and to get out of there.

After each one of us got our things, we were firmly ordered to get the hell out of there, which I would have gladly done, if they had bothered to unlock the door. Another pathetic hurdle on the road to my freedom. As I walked outside, I could see the illegal gathering of over a hundred people, that made so much noise they sounded like a football stadium for over seven hours, and they just wouldn’t leave until every last one of us was free.

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