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What happened to the refugees while the state lied and the court dithered

How the state lied to the highest court in the land, how the court lapped it up, and who is really guilty here.

Last Thursday, says Adv. Omer Shatz of the Anu Plitim (We Are Refugees) NGO, he showed up at the Supreme Court with his colleague, Adv. Yiftah Cohen, to ask for an injunction ordering the 21 refugees caught between the borders of Israel and Egypt to be brought into the country. Surprisingly, he said in a phone conversation, the process went well: the judges asked the state’s counsel some difficult questions, at one point asking her whether she would agrees to the injunction.

Common court courtesy says that when the justices suggest an injunction, you cordially accept. The state’s counsel bucked protocol, and refused – and furthermore, asked for a secret session with the justices, invoking “secret intelligence” surrounding the refugees. The secret session, to which only the state’s counsel and the justices were privy, ended with the justices postponing their decision to Sunday. Several hours later, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that a “solution was reached,” as part of which two women and a boy entered an Israeli prison, and the rest of the refugees “turned back.”

This was a lie from start to finish. The state lied when it told the Court it supplied the refugees with food. It only supplied them with water – and very little water at that. Adv. Shatz interviewed the three refugees allowed into Israel – he noted he interviewed each of them separately, not as a group – and was told the soldiers only gave them three 1.5 liter bottles of water a day. That’s 4.5 liters of waters a day – for 21 people. In the desert heat. That’s about 214 ml a person per day. Less than a small soft drink bottle, which contains 220 ml.

The refugees noted that bread was thrown at them twice – a bag of sliced bread. This was probably due to a single soldier disobeying orders. The bread was thrown in the early stages of the incident, before the media and the NGOs understood what was going on. One of the bags was caught on the fence, and the refugees looked at it, unable to reach it. The second one sailed clear over the fence. The famous cloth to provide shade, supposedly supplied to the refugees by the IDF gunmen, wasn’t, actually. It was, one of the refugees said to Adv. Shatz, “a gift of God”: it blew to them with the wind. From time to time, in order to keep the refugees from the fence, the gunmen fired in the air; sometimes they fired tear gas canisters at them.

None of the refugees wanted to return to Egypt. They knew they were destined for torture and death. Two or three days before it all ended, five of the men, who were stronger than the rest, dragged themselves to the Egyptian fence and asked the Egyptian gunmen whether they could return; the reply was that if they did, they would be shot. But, the Egyptian gunmen added, should they attempt this, they should bring the women with them, as the gunmen wanted to rape them.

And then the High Court of Justice decided to postpone its ruling to Sunday. A short while afterwards, IDF gunmen cut through the fence, crossed it, pulled the two women and the boy inside, and dragged the rest of the refugees on the cloth towards the Egyptian fence. The refugees, few of whom could move at this stage, screamed and begged to be shot, telling the gunmen they preferred this to a return to Egypt. The gunmen of the army famous for being more moral than Hamas ignored their cries, dragged them to the Egyptian fence, lifted the ramshackle obstacle, and pushed them through. Their fate is unknown. Maybe, as the Egyptian gunmen promised, they were shot; maybe they are in some dungeon; maybe they were sold to the notorious Bedouin tribes of Sinai, already making a brisk business of torturing refugees and demanding ransom from their relatives. Nobody knows.

All this is encapsulated in the PM Office’s statement that the refugees “turned back.” Netanyahu’s antiseptic, careful phrasing makes you think some deal was made with the Egyptians, or at any case that the IDF wasn’t actively involved in the deportation. Yet another lie. Not that anyone expected anything else from Netanyahu.

On Sunday, Shatz and Cohen went back to the HCJ. The state’s counsel said that, as the refugees were no longer on the border, their petition ought to be declined. She presented a very short text, very similar to Netanyahu’s. Shatz and Cohen tried to tell the court that it is unheard of for people whose case lies before it to simply disappear; that the court ruled in the past against precisely this sort of action; that it is unheard of that… but they went unheard. The HCJ ruled that if they want an investigation into the fate of the people it refused to defend, they will have to begin a whole new process, which would take years.

The famous selective blindness of the court worked overtime. No one knows what happened during the secret hearing on Thursday, when the state claimed it had “secret intelligence.” But I am willing to hazard a guess: the state’s counsel hinted that if the court would only grant it some time, and refrain from issuing an injunction, it wouldn’t have to deal with this mess any more. And the court got the hint, and agreed.

To sum: we had gunmen supplying 214 ml of water per person per day to refugees, firing tear gas canisters at them, throwing them two loaves of bread in eight days; an army that declared the area a closed military zone in order to prevent journalists and human rights activists from finding out what was happening in real time; a state attorney lying to the Supreme Court; a Supreme Court breaking its own record in turning a blind eye while procedurally washing its hands, not even trying to maintain its honor while being lied to; a prime minister who lied to the public and to the court; and a soldier telling Yedioth Ahronoth a week ago that “it’s true that sometimes it’s somewhat unpleasant seeing people with cuts, thin like skeletons, but they may endanger the state’s security, and what we do is very important to us.”

Behold the brave sons of the Maccabees, shaking in their boots from 21 people “with cuts, thin like skeletons”; behold a country whose security will crumble at the sight of refugees being treated humanely. Responsibility, of course, lies with the country’s leaders: this time the order seems to have come directly from Netanyahu. But the guilt lies with the gunmen – whose eyes are blind and their hearts closed and corrupt – who obeyed it.

And why wouldn’t they? They’ve already grown accustomed to consider unarmed demonstrators protesting the theft of their lands as a “risk to state security,” and they don’t bat an eye while firing tear gas canisters at them. For the last year, they were exposed to a systematic incitement campaign, led by the prime minister and the minister of the interior, who spoke of the refugees as a “risk to the Zionist state.” The common Jewish gunman does not understand that “a risk to the Zionist state” is code for “a risk to the Jewish regime of privileges,” and he decodes – as he is expected to – “risk to the Zionist state” as “risk to state security.” And then, it becomes “somewhat unpleasant,” because he cannot help making the obvious comparison (you mustn’t compare! You mustn’t compare!), but then he hardens his heart, and drags screaming human skeletons towards their fate, comforting himself with “what we do is very important.”

In Israel’s case, history repeats itself not as a tragedy or farce, but as grotesque.

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    1. Brian Smith

      I would love to comment on these actions, but they would probably be removed very quickly as the facts of the story are obscene. It’s the sort of thing we expect of some despotic dictator who cares not what the international community thinks as long as he gets hs way and can continue living his privileged lifestyle …. Oh, hold on a minute, that does rather decribe Netanyahu, doesn’t it?

      Reply to Comment
      • One difference null-Natanyahu is not a dictator, he was elected fair and square and the public loves him. This just makes it much worse.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Philo

      Has this been raised with the UNHCR? This is a blatant violation of agreements Israel is a party to. My stomach churns every time I think about this. I really don’t know how to internalize what has become of this country. In a few years it has truly become vile.

      Reply to Comment
    3. For a while now I have viewed the Israeli “unwritten constitution” as a war council. In such a council all sitting are necessary against the greater enemy, so each member has a kind of veto when actions are seen as too invasive of its turf. The “courtesy” of asking the State if it will obey an injuction against itself (bizarre!) suuports my surmise. Here, the State employed its veto. Justice becomes a compromise subject to veto, much as in the P5 of the UN Security Council.

      The Justices allowed the State to remove the subject of petition from its cognisance. This violets the core power of the Court–the writ of Habeas Corpus, which pulls subjects into its jurisdiction. A closed “security hearing” absent defense attorneys is just a War Council session. That the Court agreed to hear the peition at all means they accepted custodial care for the petitioners, yet the Court agreed to allow these to starve yet two more days in the desert. Your rule of law is gone. These 21 were innocent of any direct danger to the State; the Court played its part in your unwritten War Council constitution rather than being the last defense of simple justice.

      Reply to Comment
    4. In a time of turmoil in the Arab World the Israeli leaders should be trying to take advantage of the situation. Personally I think that past injustices including the heavy attack on Gaza (Cast Lead) have created a ‘Culture of Impunity’ which has strengthened the likes of Hezbollah and the Bashir Assad’s Syrian Ba’athist party.
      ‘Pure Arab State’ has been terrible for minorities such as Jews, Kurds, Turks etc. ‘Pure Israeli state’ is just a means of going to hell.

      Reply to Comment
      • I read the piece, Joel, and will try replying. First, the supposition that the IDF will turn refugees away on Egyptian soil is confirmed. This is legal I guess, as such have neither entered Israeli territory nor arrived at a port of plea. I have no doubt the caught are often gaurded all night and given food, the former out of compassion, the latter to insure they do not try to enter again. The interviewed soldier has no factual basis, however, to counter Yossi’s reporting, and I have found him reliable for some time; the soldier was not there, nor cites any source there.

        I now understand the State’s reasoning to the Court. If these 21 were admitted, more would come, perhaps including terrorists, which would endanger the IDF patrolling in Egypt. The Court allows soldier risk to trump justice, projecting a future. Justice is, however, in the now; it is risk itself. The rule of law is abandoned (treaty violated in this case) to prevent risk. I understand this. But justice is risk, now trumping fear. I guess the Court is not ready for that–and thereby there is something to mourn.

        Reply to Comment
    5. My question to the editor of this report: what kind of “gunmen” on the Egyptian side conducted this dialog with some refugees? are they soldiers or just armed Bedouins? thanks

      Reply to Comment