Although it is officially subject to the open court principle, the public is rarely allowed a glimpse into the Israeli military tribunal at Ofer (near Ramallah), one of the pillars of the occupation in the West Bank, which denies the basic human rights of the Palestinian population. At a time of general despair and loss of way for the Palestinian resistance, the trial of Ahed Tamimi is repositioning the Palestinian struggle in its original context: a confrontation between a mighty oppressive apparatus and a people aspiring to basic freedoms. The trial has also momentarily shed light on the military court at Ofer.
Much has been said regarding the court’s decision to hold Ahed’s trial in camera, denying her request for an open trial. The judges claimed to be protecting her interests as a minor. But they certainly were not protecting her from public disgrace, as her actions have been lauded by both Palestinian and international public opinion. Obviously the judges were trying to protect themselves from disgrace and farther public outrage.
But even the trial of Nariman Tamimi, Ahed’s mother, was not really held in an open court. The military court allows the presence of only two family members for every Palestinian defendant at best. It offers a certain advantage to supporters in possession of an Israeli ID who wish to enter the compound: they may be allowed to attend trials, subject to special authorization issued by the military, after sending a formal request by fax.
Despite these restrictions, Yifat Doron has been a regular visitor to Ofer. She is not a lawyer or a member of a human rights organization, but for over ten years she has regularly participated in Palestinian protests: protests against the separation barrier where there is an organized effort to include non-Palestinian supporters, and Palestinian-only protests which take place regularly across the West Bank, far from the eye of international media. In the wake of these protests, she found herself time and again attending court sessions for friends and acquaintances standing trial for their involvement. Naturally, she could only enter the secure compound upon receiving proper authorization. Now that she has slapped a military prosecutor, she fears she will never be allowed back in again.
I met with her shortly after her release in an attempt to understand the motivation behind her unusual action.
Mainstream media will, as always, attempt to fit news events into well recognized patterns, thus it mentioned an incident which took place during Ahed Tamimi’s trial. It spoke of an Israeli-Jewish supporter who got up and slapped an officer. By meeting Yifat and reading the court papers for her remand, I learned that both the facts and the political perspective behind her actions differ from those first offered by the media.
First, as mentioned, Ahed’s trial took place in camera, so the incident could not happen within it. The same Wednesday, March 21, 2018, another trial was held at Ofer, that of Ahed’s mother, Nariman, and her cousin, Nur Tamimi. Due to the decision to hold them in remand until the end of the proceedings, faced with the possibility of being held in prison for a longer term until the trial concludes, both Ahed and Nariman were forced to accept a plea bargain which includes eight months jail time for each. The court was in session to formally sanction these pleas, including that of Nur, who had been previously released and whose punishment did not include further jail time. Although obviously a mere formality, the military judge took her time during the hearings to contemplate whether or not to sanction the agreed upon terms. Finally, just before 7 pm, the judge rose and left the hall after sending Nariman to eight months in prison. That was the moment when Yifat approached the prosecutor, a high ranking officer, and expressed her protest.
Yifat explains that not only did her protest technically take place at the end of Nariman’s trial; it was in fact motivated by the distress caused to her by Nariman’s arrest. She kept close contact with Nariman throughout years of political struggle and feels strong friendship and deep appreciation toward her.
She speaks of a sense of kinship brought about by difficult experiences. She remembers the time when Rushdi Tamimi, Nariman’s brother, was shot by Israeli soldiers just behind the family home. When news came that Rushdi’s physical state was deteriorating, she, along with other people from the village, went to the hospital and were gathering there when the news came out that he “istashhad” – became another martyr of the struggle. She sat by the hospital bed of another family member, Mustafa Tamimi, whom she describes as “kind hearted and a true gentleman”. The soldiers shot a tear gas grenade directly to Mustafa’s head; he was fatally wounded and died the following day.
She accompanied Nariman when her husband, Bassem, was arrested and consequently tried for organizing protests in their village of Nabi Saleh. She recalls how Nariman was shot in the leg by a live bullet during a protest, an injury which shattered her bone and took her down a long road of recovery. She was with her and felt her pain when her children were beaten by soldiers and at times arrested. For years Nariman and Bassem’s home has been a safe haven for her.
Now, with Nariman herself in prison, Yifat felt that she could not just pretend that matters were business as usual. She felt the need to act, to protect her friend, to cry out against what seemed to her to be so utterly unjust, an additional pain inflicted on the least deserving of all women. For her this is not about solidarity in its abstract form, or a mere political statement, it is rather a more personal involvement, the politics of non-separation, of being connected organically. In this sense she was no stranger to the thought of spending some time in prison, as she has seen many of her friends do throughout the years.
Just as pilots lay their murderous bombs through the impunity afforded by distant heights, so does the military court system, judges and prosecutors, cause the deepest distress and injustice under the guise of sterility with a feeling of impunity verging on complacency.
The remand request against Yifat, which was submitted to the court on the following day, under the title “the facts”, describes the act in one simple sentence: “The suspect assaulted the military prosecutor at the Ofer court, at the end of a hearing in the case of Nariman Tamimi.” On this one fact, the prosecution seeks to base five different offenses: “criminal threats, assault of a public officer, plain assault, obstructing a public official in the course of his duties, insulting a public official”.
In court, seeking her remand, the police representative tried to show the gravity of the incident: “…inside the courtroom, while prosecutors and the chief legal counsel for Judea and Samara were present, the suspect slapped lieutenant colonel Rasem, after blaring at him that they had no authority to judge her” (Nariman).
In the appeal submitted to the district court against the decision to release Yifat, police representative claimed that “she assaulted the chief of the prosecution of Judea and Samara during the decision about the sentencing of a Palestinian defendant, resident of the village of Nabi Saleh, also suspected of assaulting IDF officers. The suspect began shouting in the court room at the military prosecutors: ‘Who are you to judge her?’, and at the same time slapped an IDF officer, a lieutenant colonel, who acts as the chief of the military prosecution in Judea and Samara.”
In attempting to prove the element of risk to the public posed by Yifat, the appeal further states: “In her actions the suspect attempted to undermine the authority of the military court… The magistrate court erred in disregarding the element of risk to public order posed by the actions of the suspect against uniformed IDF officers who represent law authorities, actions which could discourage emissaries of the law in Judea and Samara, a fact that in itself constitutes an element of risk.”
Many television crews were present in the courtroom that day. Rules of the court dictate that they may not film while the judge is still present. Since the judge left they were all getting ready to start filming. It is unclear whether any of them caught this rare moment on camera, but no video documentation had been published in the media. The courtroom itself has security cameras, so it is very likely that the police are in possession of the full documentation of the incident.
Although the room was full of soldiers and security personnel, they did not jump upon Yifat but asked her to leave the hall, most likely so as not to provide the media with more graphic materials. As media and supporters were quickly ushered out, Yifat managed to sit on a vacant chair in the courtroom. Eventually soldiers took her out of the back door, the same door through which the judge had previously left. The judge, still not far from the scene, stared terrified at Yifat, despite the fact that she was handcuffed and surrounded by soldiers.
Away from the courtroom and far from the media, Yifat was now officially under arrest, stripped of her rights almost like the ones whose fate she protested. She began growing accustomed to the idea of spending long months without freedom, between courtrooms and jails.
From the Ofer compound she was taken to Binyamin Police station near the settlement of Ma’ale Edumim. In a room inside the building she saw two Palestinians prisoners, their eyes blindfolded and their hands and legs in handcuffs. They were guarded by soldiers. At late night, after her interrogation ended, Yifat was placed for a while in the same room with the two. It appears they were held there for quite some time and taken into interrogations intermittently. Pain and exhaustion were evident on their faces as they were moving uncomfortably on their plastic chairs. The older appeared to be about 20, and looked like a poster boy for everything we hear about torture. His shirt was stained with blood. The younger was merely a child. When the soldiers came to take him to interrogation, they momentarily took off his blindfold and Yifat managed to ask him for his age. “Thirteen”, he replied. “Don’t be afraid of them”, she said, “God will keep you strong”. She was swiftly taken out of the room.
Her interrogation started about midnight and continued until half past two in the morning. She was confronted with a complaint lodged by the prosecutor and the testimonies of two eye witnesses. She refused to cooperate with the interrogation; a matter of habit and of principle. Their job is to uphold the repressive order and she didn’t feel there was any reason she should ease their task.
Due to the lateness of the hour the police officers in Binyamin asked and received special authorization to hold her in the police station rather than transfer her to jail. For a while they kept her sitting handcuffed until a cell was free for her. She spent the rest of the night in a narrow dirty cell, one meter by two. There were no mattress and naturally no blankets. The only furniture was a short uncomfortable metal bench. When she remembered the two Palestinians with whom she had recently shared a room, she realized that even under these conditions she was privileged.
The next night she spent under “normal” conditions, as far as the Israeli jail system allows, at Neve Tirza women’s detention center.
On Thursday morning she was brought to the magistrates’ court in Jerusalem. The police applied for remand by five days. The causes stated were obstruction of justice and risk to public safety.
Yifat told the judge that she does not wish to be represented by a lawyer, and intends to represent herself. Talking to me in retrospect she explains: “There is no legal question involved for me. This trial is political and politics is something I do understand. Representing myself I can express myself in the clearest manner.” The court was somewhat dismissive of her decision. Attorney Lea Tsemel, who came to the hearing to express support, was, at the request of the judge, listed in the protocol as “present (not representing)”.
During the hearing, Yifat forwent her right to interrogate the police prosecutor and instead announced that she does not object to the request for remand. She went on to say: “Concerning the risk, I agree with them that anyone who does not toe the line with your apartheid regime, who thinks independently, must necessarily prove a risk to that very regime.” (The protocol mistakenly states “apartheid police” instead of “regime”; in Hebrew ‘mishtar’ was substituted by ‘mishtara’).
The judge, however, remained unconvinced and ordered her release. He stated in his decision “I find no cause for remand, despite the vileness of her actions”. He ordered her release on bail and added a six month stay away order from all military courts. The police asked for an adjournment to base an appeal which was granted.
On the appeal notice, police superintendent Yousef Amoyal emphasized the political nature of the protest. He writes: “the magistrates’ court did not give due consideration to the fact that in her actions the suspect attempted to undermine the authority of the military court and disrupt the proceedings of the prosecuting and adjudicating authorities in the zone”. Thus he concurred with Yifat that she must be rendered dangerous by her decision to challenge the foundations of the regime.
In the hearing in the district court, the following day, Friday, March 23, a representative for the police emphasized again the political nature of the act and said: “the element of risk stems from the very act. One cannot overlook the place where the act was committed, a military court. Israelis and Palestinians come to this place which constitutes a corner stone, a ruling body which delegates authority in Judea and Samara to all law enforcement agencies in the zone.”
For her own part, Yifat, having resisted another attempt by the court to have attorney Tsemel speak for her, reasserted that she does not object to the request for remand. She added: “I will not willingly participate in your game of ‘democracy for Jews only’”. The district court judge rejected the appeal stating: “The actions allegedly committed by the suspect do not pose a risk which mandates further remand”. He also addressed the common police practice of adding on allegations regardless of the nature of the offense, saying that he fails to understand why the suspect was interrogated under suspicion of criminal threats when nothing in the investigative material suggests that. With the appeal denied, Yifat was released. She still does not know if she is going to be charged.
Attorney Gaby Lasky, who represented the Tamimi women, fought a hard legal battle demanding their release on bail before the trial. Her failure to achieve this mandated the plea bargains, since the period of their arrest during a long trial could have easily exceeded that of the plea bargains. In contrast, Yifat was not represented by a lawyer, did not object to the demands for remand, yet was released within two days on similar charges. The result was determined by a regime which makes distinctions according to race, which could only be called an apartheid regime. All Israeli courts view any Arab-Palestinian opponent of the regime as a dangerous enemy to be deprived of basic human rights. Democracy in Israel is reserved for whomever is perceived as part of the nation of rulers.
In retrospect, and although it was not Yifat’s intention, the court’s decision gave good service to the struggle which she acted to support. As the eyes of the world turn to Ahed Tamimi, a girl imprisoned for slapping a soldier, Yifat’s swift release supplied the utmost proof for the real reason behind Ahed’s arrest. Ahed, like thousands of other Palestinians, is under arrest for the worst crime in Israeli law books: that of being Arab.
Yifat is frustrated by the fact that not only the courts but other well-meaning folk relate to her as that “Jewish Israeli activist”. “If what they want is to label us according to sectors and not based on our humanity, they might as well write that a woman protested on behalf of another woman, her friend”, she says, “That would be much more relevant to the case at hand.”
“The differentiation made by the police and the court system classifying us as Jews and Arabs and treating us accordingly is not only part and parcel of its apartheid regime but also serves to strengthen and maintain the status quo”, she explains. Judaism to her is a religion and as she is not religious, she finds the description irrelevant. She does not define herself as Israeli either, at most, she can be described as a blue ID holder (as opposed to the green ID issued to Palestinians in the West Bank by Israel, which is a symbol of their rights deprived). Her message is the steadfast resistance of all those fighting for freedom and justice in taking apart the divisions forced on us by government.