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An unsettling moment of justice under occupation

Did a Palestinian activist see justice only because the soldier who shot him was an Arab?

An Israeli border policeman uses pepper spray against a protester during a demonstration marking a decade of popular struggle against the wall in the West Bank village Bil'in, February 27, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

An Israeli border policeman uses pepper spray against a protester during a demonstration marking a decade of popular struggle against the wall in the West Bank village Bil’in, February 27, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

In a rare piece of positive news, Haaretz reported Saturday that the Jerusalem Magistrates’ Court decided that 155,000 shekels ($40,200) should be paid in compensation to Rateb Abu Rahmeh, a Palestinian activist and university lecturer from the West Bank village of Bil’in.

The decision was made after Abu Rahmeh filed a lawsuit against a Border Policeman who, in 2005, shot him in the leg with a sponge-tipped bullet during a weekly demonstration in Bil’in. The court found that the policeman had given a false account of the events when he claimed that Abu Rahmeh threw stones during the demonstration; a video of the incident showed that the protesters “were not unruly,” and that the officer fired the bullet while his unit used stun grenades to disperse the demonstration.

The officer was sentenced to seven months in prison (reduced to six months community service), and the judge ruled that he — rather than the state or the security forces unit — was personally liable for the compensation payment.

A Palestinian lies on the ground, after he was injured in the head by a tear gas canister shot by Israeli soldiers during a protest against the against the wall in the West Bank village of Bilin. 23/1/2009 (Photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

A Palestinian lies on the ground, after he was injured in the head by a tear gas canister shot by Israeli soldiers during a protest against the against the wall in the West Bank village of Bilin. 23/1/2009 (Photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

The case marks a modicum of justice for Rateb Abu Rahmeh. Although it has been 10 years since the incident, the fact that the court acknowledged the truth of the shooting, and ruled that monetary compensation should be paid, is a rare accomplishment for any Palestinian demanding accountability for abuses committed by members of the Israeli security forces.

However, there is one detail that doesn’t sit quite right: the Border Policeman was Arab.

The oddity is not that there are Arabs serving in the Israeli forces; Druze and Bedouin citizens have long served in the military and Border Police units — the former being conscripted and the latter being encouraged to volunteer. What is strange is that out of the countless violent incidents that occur every year (let alone every week) in the occupied territories, one of the few to actually result in an admittance of guilt by the authorities (with a decision to provide compensation for an offense) is a case where the perpetrator was Arab and not Jewish.

This statement may very well be invoking an assumption without hard evidence. But Israel’s track record when it comes to accountability — even when extensive and undisputed evidence is available — leaves nothing but suspicion any time a decision does arise to punish an offender from the ranks of Israel’s security forces.

Bil’in alone has witnessed nearly 11 years of brutality at every one of their weekly demonstrations, which feature tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, night raids and other violent methods by the Israeli army. Even when evidence is provided, including visual documentation and eye-witness testimonies, they are almost always ignored or dismissed by the Israeli authorities. In 2009, Bassem Abu Rahmeh was killed after a soldier fired a tear gas canister directly at his chest. Two years later in 2011, his sister Jawaher Abu Rahmeh died from tear gas inhalation. None of the officers responsible were investigated, put on trial, or reprimanded.

Protesters run for cover after Israeli soldiers shoot tear gas during a demonstration in Bil'in. (photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Protesters run for cover after Israeli soldiers shoot tear gas during a demonstration in Bil’in. (photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Then there are the wider occupied territories. According to official statistics collected by Yesh Din, in 2014 the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division (MPCID) opened 229 investigations into complaints filed against the military; 67 percent of the cases were complaints of violence and injury, and 18 percent were cases of deaths. However, not only were there just 15 criminal indictments issued in 2014 (eight from cases filed in 2014 and seven from 2013), but the majority of those (nine) were for cases of bribery, vehicular damage, and stealing/looting. Less than half (six) were cases involving violence and deaths, despite constituting the majority of complaints. Since 2000, only 3.3 percent of complaints to the MPCID have ever led to prosecution.

The problem is particularly severe with the Gaza Strip. Despite massive wars in 2008/9 and 2014, the only indictments issued to soldiers were in cases of theft and looting, including one soldier who stole a credit card. None of the hundreds of complaints of unjustified bombardments, civilian casualties, and other incidents led to punishment or remedy, including the infamous case of the four Bakr boys on the beach, and the dozens of families wiped out through targeted air strikes on homes. Gazans who have tried to access the Israeli courts for compensation claims are blocked by numerous obstacles imposed by the state to prevent them from doing so, adding another layer of immunity that ensures the military does not have to pay for the deaths, injuries and damages it incurs.

A flower growing from a tear gas grenade hangs from razor wire near a memorial garden on the spot where, in a 2009 demonstration in the West Bank village of Bil'in, Bassem Abu Rahmah was shot and killed with a high-velocity tear gas grenade fired by Israeli soldiers, Bil'in, West Bank, October 4, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

A flower growing from a tear gas grenade hangs from razor wire near a memorial garden on the spot where, in a 2009 demonstration in the West Bank village of Bil’in, Bassem Abu Rahmah was shot and killed with a high-velocity tear gas grenade fired by Israeli soldiers, Bil’in, West Bank, October 4, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

So yes, we are suspicious. It is clear from years of experience that the Israeli authorities are very careful when allowing exceptions to the impunity they provide to the security forces. The facts that the convicted Border Policeman in Bil’in was Arab, and that the court demanded that he pay the compensation to the family rather than the state or his unit, may have been reasons for the authorities to consider the case a “light” one to let go of. An Arab shooting another Arab (and then lying about it) causes less of an uproar and establishes less of a precedent than if a Jew did the same. The case becomes a personalized “feel-good” distraction, and the unit and state that employed him are absolved of responsibility, allowing them to continue their repressive practices. Needless to say, an Arab shooting a Jew would have seen the offender arrested, convicted, and thrown into jail within a few months (certainly not 10 years).

And even if those factors did not play a role in Rateb’s case, the fact that many people would question the reasons for the “successful” outcome is just one indicator of how little the public trusts the intentions of the courts and state bodies that are meant to ensure accountability. History shows that justice from the Israeli authorities is not granted based on facts; it is based on discretion.

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