West Bank legal system tough for Palestinians to navigate
During his 10-month sojourn in Pittsburgh, human rights attorney Nery Ramati is hoping to bring awareness of the disparate treatment of West Bank Israelis and Palestinians to those “who are not convinced.”
Ramati, an attorney at the Israeli law firm Gaby Lasky and Partners who is in town for an extended stay while his wife works on academic research, addressed a group of J Street supporters on Sunday, Jan. 10.
He intends, though, to expand his reach.
“I wish to speak as much as I can — not so much to the already convinced — that this is wrong,” he said in an interview following the 90-minute program at the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill. “I want to speak to people at Hillels and federations, to give them good answers to their questions.”
Ramati, who works to inform the public about the treatment of Palestinian minors in the West Bank under the Israeli military court system, also provides legal counsel to various civil rights groups, including B’tselem, a Palestinian human rights organization that has in the past accused Israel of being “reminiscent of the apartheid system that existed in South Africa.”
Ramati’s work to adjudicate for Palestinian rights is financed by NGOs, he said.
A native Israeli, Ramati explained the complicated court structure in the West Bank, focusing on the legal aspects and implications in the region and intentionally foregoing the imposition of moral or ethical judgments in his talk.
In four years of law school, Ramati received no instruction about the legal system in the West Bank, he said. Instead, he became aware of the complexities while serving as an apprentice to human rights lawyer Gaby Lasky.
He explained the history of that legal system beginning with the period immediately following the Six Day War.
In 1967, Israel “controlled a few areas that didn’t belong to her before,” he observed, adding that legally, those areas were “declared as occupied.”
“The term ‘occupation’ is a legal term of international law,” he said, and under international law, the occupier is mandated to protect the civilian population on the land that is occupied and to maintain the law of the land already in place.
While Israel since has returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem and withdrawn from Gaza, it still occupies the West Bank, he said, which is problematic.
“The West Bank has been occupied for 49 years. Those laws of war are not meant for holding on for so long. You cannot stay in a state of occupation for so long, but somehow in the West Bank, it continues and continues.”
Upholding the pre-1967 legal system in the West Bank is not easy, Ramati said, as those laws are a combination of Jordanian laws, laws of the British Mandate and laws of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, the Israeli military commander who is the sovereign of that area has legislated more than 1,751 additional laws.
This complex legal system, noted Ramati, is only applicable to Palestinians living in the West Bank and not to Israelis.
“Those settlers,” he said, “are Israelis, and are carrying with them the backpack of the laws of Israel.”
Following the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, the West Bank was divided into three areas: Area A, which is entirely under Palestinian rule; Area B, where civil issues fall under Palestinian jurisdiction, and security issues are under Israeli jurisdiction; and Area C, which is entirely under Israeli jurisdiction.
The Israeli courts that try Palestinian cases are military courts and are under the control of the military commander, or “sovereign,” Ramati said. Thirty percent of the cases each year concern Palestinians “who illegally entered Israel in order to work.”
Ramati finds it curious that cases in which Palestinians are charged with “going out illegally from [their] land” are prosecuted in the West Bank.
“If you are caught in Israel,” he said, “Israel has more lenient laws. Only if they catch you three times, they indict you. But in the West Bank, if they catch you coming back from Israel, they put you in the court system.”
The legal system set up in the West Bank is “taking care of the interests of Israel,” he contended, and is not concerned with the well-being of the Palestinians.
“We want a court system to keep our society safe,” he said. “But the military court system has nothing to do with keeping Palestinians safe.”
Military courts in areas B and C, for example, do not generally pursue cases of domestic violence or drug dealing — although they fall under the jurisdiction of those courts — leaving Palestinians with no recourse for those crimes.
Another problem, he charged, is that “the whole system speaks Hebrew,” and Druze youth, with insufficient language skills, are hired to translate on behalf of Palestinian defendants.
Moreover, there is a double standard in the treatment of Israelis and Palestinians who are accused of the same crimes in the West Bank, he said.
If an Israeli child and a Palestinian child are throwing stones at each other, for example, and the army comes to intervene, “the army can arrest the Palestinian boy, but only the police can arrest the Israeli boy. Sometimes they call the police, and sometimes they don’t. In most cases, they just hold the Palestinian boy. If they do hold both, there are two different legal systems.”
The Palestinian boy can be held for three days, according to Ramati, before he sees a judge for questioning, while the Israeli boy will see a judge within 12 hours. And although a Palestinian child has a right to a court-appointed attorney, he will be unlikely to know how to exercise that right. For an Israeli child, on the other hand, “immediately they will notify the public defender.”
The legal system in the West Bank “is not working as a legal system anymore,” Ramati said. “It is working as a tool to oppress the civil society of Palestine.”
Ramati admitted that “the official Palestinian organizations also are not promoting civil society in Palestine.”
“A lot more could be done by the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “But I don’t care. I’m not paying taxes to the Palestinian Authority.”
Although Ramati did not address Israel’s security concerns during the J Street program, he did touch on the issue during an interview following the event.
“Even if there are security issues,” he said, “80 percent of cases have nothing to do with security. If you look at them, only a little are hardcore security issues. So, it has nothing to do with security.”
Ramati already is planning to bring his message to more venues, including a Jan. 27 program at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Pittsburgh and a Feb. 25 address at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law. He is also scheduled to speak at an upcoming event in Boston.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.