Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Stone Age

A few weeks ago a military judge, Major Amir Dahan, acquitted four Palestinians of the charge of “attempted murder by throwing stones at vehicles”. He stated that "throwing stones can, under some circumstances, have the character of a lethal offence, carrying the near certainty of a danger to human life - but under other circumstances it might be no more than a prank without the potential of serious damage, by a young person who had barely crossed into the age of criminal responsibility".

This verdict angered Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party, who said in the beginning of last week: "This is no way to render judgment in  Israel. It is about such things that we daily utter the prayer “O restore our judges, as of old”. We should not tolerate even one stone. We must not forgive even one stone . A stone kills".

Later this week, the head of the party joined Ariel. The well known Naftali Bennett, Minister of Economy, made a public call to change the rules of engagement so as to allow soldiers a much lighter trigger finger when facing Palestinians, since "travelling the roads of Judea and Samaria has turned into hell."

The press tycoon Shlomo Ben-Zvi, who a few months ago bought the failing "Ma'ariv" paper, also joined the fray. Already for several days the Ma'ariv headlines are mainly concerned with the stone age which had descended on the West Bank. Ma'ariv devotes pages upon pages to the cry of the settlers, stridently demanding that soldiers finally start shooting and killing  stone throwers. The paper’s reporters gathered the shocking testimonies of soldiers asserting that their hands are tied behind their backs by the military orders. "The best guys, the best fighters, salt of the earth", reporter Chen Kutas- Bar called them.

Also columnist Adi Arbel of the Institute for Zionist Strategies added his own account of a terrible event he had witnessed. Last week, at noon of the  celebrated Jerusalem Day, several VIPs of the Israeli right wing camp went to the settler enclave at the heart of Silwan Village, to get there the Moskowitz Prize from the multi-millionaire Irving Moskowitz - the well known settler patron who for this occasion left for two days his flourishing gambling business in California. It happened that on their way to this event, the settlers and their friends went through the Palestinian neighborhood of A-Tur on Mount Olive, where a boy of about 18 threw a stone at their bus. And alas, laments the Zionist strategist, nothing happened to this boy , no policeman and no soldier thought of pulling a weapon and opening fire on him. Adi Arbel’s sad conclusion: even after 46 years, East Jerusalem is not under Israeli sovereignty. Well, with that I am not going to dispute. 

And what about when settlers gather alongside the highway and throw stones at each passing Palestinian car? What happens when they aim a whole  barrage of stones at a school bus full of Palestinian girl pupils and wound some of them? Should that, too, be treated as a case where even one stone could not be tolerated or forgiven, because "a stone kills"? Is that also the kind of situation where the rules of engagement should be changed and soldiers’ fingers become more loose on the trigger? Or perhaps this is exactly the case where stone-throwing is indeed no more than a prank without the potential of serious damage? Well, it’s no use to pose too many questions to the honorable minister Uri Ariel and to the honorable minister Naftali Bennett and to Ma'ariv publisher Shlomo Ben-Zvi and his well-trained reporters.

By coincidence or not, it was just this week that a military court was hearing the case of a soldier who did not feel that his hands were tied and who had no  particular problem to tighten his finger on the trigger. On 12 January this year - just in the midst of the Israeli elections campaign in which hardly anyone mentioned the Palestinians - this soldier (whose name is not published) was stationed in South Hebron Hills at a point where Palestinians are habitually trying to cross into Israel and find work. Many of them do succeed in their attempt. Unfortunately for the 21-year old Uday Darwish of the town of Dura, this particular soldier did open fire and he was hit and died a few hours later in the hospital, his funeral attended by thousands.

This particular soldier did not assert that army regulations had bound his hands. "This is the first time I encountered a shooting event, it never happened to me before. I never before got to such a situation of standing in front of 30 people I don’t know. Earlier we had been on the border of Egypt where a lot of Sudanese were passing we were always warned that in any group of Sudanese who come to Israel there is the hazard that one would be wielding a stabbing knife or wearing an explosive belt or something like that. " (As a matter of fact, among  tens of thousands of Sudanese who arrived in Israel until now there had never been any such case...)

The Prosecution wants to treat this case severely, and therefore impose a full  nine months’ imprisonment and also demote the soldier one notch, from Staff  Sergeant to an ordinary Sergeant. However, the soldier's attorney, Yechiel Lamesh, asked the court to content itself with a term of three months, since "We should send a message to the fighters who risk their lives for us. We should understand and make it clear to them that to err is human and that an error, even a severe one, need not draw upon them the full severity of the law .” The defense attorney also asked that his client not be demoted, so as not to hurt the honor and dignity of this fighter of the Israel Defense Forces.

So, what the appropriate punishment for a soldier who shot and killed (not on purpose) a Palestinian worker who was going to sustain his family? Three months,  or nine months, or something in between? Will he be demoted by one notch, or would the court take care not to hurt his honor and dignity? The Court is to convene again at the end of the month and make clear if they take up the prosecution’s case or that of the defense.

But what about one who did not shoot and did not kill anyone and who in the first place refused to join the army of occupation and wear its uniform and swear allegiance to it? One who altogether refused to get himself into a situation where he would stand armed in front of thirty people whom he has never seen before and have their lives and deaths at the mercy of his finger on the trigger? What is the proper punishment for such a crime of refusal? Half a year? A year? Two years? That is not yet clear.

Half a year has already passed since Natan Blanc arrived at the IDF Recruitment Center on his call-up date, November 19, 2012, and provided the recruitment officer with a detailed and reasoned letter setting out the reasons  for his refusal to enlist. Half a year in which he is going in and out of Military Prison 6, in and out, in and out, in and out and in again.

The army chose not to bring him to a military court, whose proceedings are held in public and where the defendant can have a defense attorney and set out legal arguments and also express from the dock a conscientious and principled position. Instead, Natan Blanc is being repeatedly brought before a military officer who had been authorized to serve as a Judging Officer. A trial by a Judging Officer is a much simpler and easier affair - without the presence of any public, without lawyers and without witnesses and without any complicated legal procedures. Court is held in the normal office of the Judging Officer, with nobody present except the judge and the defendant, and usually lasts all of three to five minutes. In exceptional cases it can drag on up to ten minutes. Natan Blanc has already passed through very many such mini-trials, being sent to jail sometimes for two weeks, sometimes three weeks,  sometimes a month. Each time he gets out of jail and is given another order to enlist and returns again to the office of the Judging Officer. So far he already accumulated 150 days behind bars, which is definitely not the end.

Yesterday, Friday, May 17, 2013, Natan Blanc celebrated his twentieth birthday behind bars at Military Prison 6 in Atlit. The activists of the Yesh Gvul movement came in the afternoon to celebrate with him on the mountain opposite the prison, whose summit was seen from the prison yard by several generations of refusers since the first Lebanon War in 1982. "Let's celebrate! Come with your friends, bring refreshments and party accessories, especially those which can be seen or heard from very far: balloons, ribbons, signs, noise makers, whistles etc. " was written in the invitation.  On Tuesday there will be another demonstration, held in front of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, and the case of Blanc also gets increasing international attention.

Blanc told the military officers and judges that, once released from the army (and jail) he is going to do civilian service at the Magen David Adom medical rescue service. But when is that going to happen? The office of the IDF spokesman was not very forthcoming "A person liable for military service, whose application for exemption on grounds of conscience is denied, must perform a term of military service as set out in the Defense Service Act. One who refuses to do would be treated in accordance with the regular procedures." Period.

It may very well that the soldier who killed Uday Darwish will be set free earlier.