Israeli military courts not only have a 99% conviction rate when it comes to Palestinian prisoners, but in many cases they also impose exorbitant fines and unreasonable prison sentences. Last month, one Palestinian was convicted of throwing a stone at security forces from an unknown distance. The stone did not hit anyone and caused no damage. He was sentenced to six months and a day in prison and fined 2,000 shekels (about $500).
by Amira Hass, Ha’aretz
Israel’s military courts imposed fines topping 60 million shekels ($16 million) on West Bank Palestinians from 2015 to 2017, even though the great majority of the offenses don’t involve the harming of people or property.
Two reports by the Military Court of Appeals’ president were submitted to the Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights at its request and were brought to Haaretz’s attention this week. In 2016 the fines came to 21.97 million shekels, and in 2017 to 20.59 million shekels.
Also, a lawyer at the Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Ministry told Haaretz about a year ago that in 2015 these fines totaled some 21 million shekels, also based on military court figures.
These aren’t exceptional sums: In 2011 the total fines imposed on Palestinians in military courts reached about 13 million shekels, according to figures Haaretz obtained in 2013. Some 8,000 trials ended that year.
The money is deposited in the Israeli Civil Administration’s accounts in the West Bank and is managed by an officer also subordinate to Israel’s Finance Ministry.
It’s hard to find a system and uniformity in the scales of the fines, as reports by the Machsom Watch rights group reveal.
At the beginning of December 2018, a military judge, Maj. Sivan Omer, convicted a resident of Beit Ummar of throwing a stone at security forces from an unknown distance. The stone did not hit anyone and caused no damage. He was sentenced to six months and a day in prison and fined 2,000 shekels.
In mid-October 2018, Judge Sebastian Osovsky convicted a 45-year-old man of what the court considered a “hostile terrorist offense” – he went on a family picnic holding a hunting rifle with one bullet in it. In a plea deal he was sentenced to two months in prison and fined 3,000 shekels.
At the end of July 2018, Judge Rani Amer convicted a man of trading in military equipment and possessing weapons. His role was to accompany someone involved in such trade, examine the weapons and do some of the mediation. He was sentenced to 12 months and a day in prison and fined 1,000 shekels.
At the end of November 2017, a minor was convicted of throwing stones at soldiers who stood near his school. He was released after three days in jail for a fine of 3,000 shekels. The father preferred to pay the full fine instead of paying 2,000 shekels and having his son spend 12 days behind bars.
In April 2017, a youth from Bethlehem was convicted of passing funds to the families of two prisoners for Islamic Jihad. In addition to an eight-month prison sentence he was fined 12,000 shekels, the same sum as the money he had transferred.
At the end of January 2017, the police arrested a 12-year-old, claiming he had thrown stones. The vague indictment mentioned the throwing of stones at vehicles on Route 465 “or in a nearby place.” The military prosecution at Ofer suggested that the family pay 5,000 shekels for his immediate release. The family couldn’t afford the payment.
Judge Shmuel Katz agreed to a plea bargain and sentenced the boy to 31 days in prison and a 500-shekel fine. The Palestinian Authority’s minimum wage is 1,450 shekels, though many people aren’t even paid this sum.
A bevy of offenses
The military court system’s activity reports break down the number of Palestinians against whom indictments were served and the number of defendants whose trials ended, based on the kinds of offenses: hostile terrorist activity, disturbing the peace, trespassing and traffic violations. But the reports don’t break down the sum of fines in each category.
Out of 10,454 Palestinians who were charged in 2017, more than half – 5,857 – were charged with traffic offenses, 2,072 were charged with hostile terrorist activity. (Of which 10 people were charged for killing intentionally and 69 for intending to kill. More common offenses were carrying weapons and belonging to an illegal organization.)
Also, 1,020 Palestinians were charged with disturbing the peace (more than two-thirds for stone-throwing). Meanwhile, 1,064 were detained for staying in Israel illegally, and under 5 percent – 432 – were charged with criminal offenses.
In 2017, 66 percent of those charged with hostile terrorist activity, 1,363 people, did not belong to any political organization. Regardless of the reliability of the charges, this figure shows the decline in the status and influence of the political organizations in Palestinian society.
In the previous year the rate of unaffiliated defendants was 72 percent – 1,369. The number of defendants affiliated with Hamas changed: 278 in 2016 compared with 316 the following year, though their rate among the defendants remained at about 15 percent.
Around 14 percent were affiliated in 2017 with non-Palestinian Salafi groups, compared with 8 percent in 2016. About 100 defendants split among organizations such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hezbollah.
Despite the meticulous breakdown in the military courts’ reports, in July 2018 the Israel Defense Forces spokesman said in response to a question by the group Combatants for Peace – based on the Freedom of Information Law – that he could not provide figures on the fines and guarantees paid in military court. The response, sent to lawyer Eitay Mack, was written by Capt. Gal Turgeman, an assistant to the IDF spokesman and the IDF officer in charge of freedom of information.
“The military courts’ computerized system does not enable the extraction of reliable data regarding the sum of the fines collected in the military courts,” she wrote. “Therefore, we cannot grant your request. However, we will note that the IDF’s computer people are working to develop a new computer system, which, after it is developed, will be able to provide an answer regarding future information.”
The officer in charge did not give Mack the figure in the system of the overall sum of fines imposed.
The IDF spokesman told Haaretz that the overall figure appearing in the reports refers to the fines imposed, not those actually collected. “The military courts are not the body that collects the money, it only imposes the fines …. The military courts, being the judicial branch in the Judea and Samaria region, are not in charge of collecting fines,” the spokesman said.
Prison or a fine
Experience shows that a Palestinian cannot be released from detention or prison without paying the fine imposed on him, regardless of the offense’s severity. “The fines imposed on Palestinians in the military courts are extremely exaggerated, both in their scope compared with the size of the population and its economic ability,” Combatants for Peace told Haaretz.
Itamar Feigenbaum, a member of the group that connects former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian security prisoners, got the idea to submit its request based on the Freedom of Information Law after a Palestinian member said his nephew was fined 7,000 shekels – in exchange for a prison term. He was charged with being part of an “illegal” student organization and helping organize a reconciliation meeting between Fatah and Hamas.
“Our friend made enormous efforts to raise the sum so that his nephew wouldn’t go to prison – it’s a very high sum, certainly in Palestinian terms,” Feigenbaum said.
“During our activity in the Jordan Valley, for example, we found that fines to release tractors that the Civil Administration had confiscated from farmers [forbidding them to cultivate their land] sometimes reached 4,000 shekels. Fines are part of the Palestinians’ life under a military regime, and there’s no reason the Israeli and Palestinian public shouldn’t know how high they are.”