‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is one of the tenets of a democratic system and one which comes under the greatest threat in times of national crises. In matters of national security, some countries succumb to the temptation to disregard such rights. It is this very situation in which Palestinians now find themselves.
On 12 June 2014, three teenagers, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, Eyal Yifrach, 19 and Naphtali Fraenkel, 16, were kidnapped while hitchhiking from Hebron to Gush Etzion (south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem).The Israeli response, spearheaded by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) saw the launch of ‘Operation Bring Back Our Boys’, which sought to secure their safe return at all costs. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he held Hamas responsible for the kidnappings, it became obvious that the operation had something else in store.
Without any proof as to how he had come to his conclusion, Netanyahu’s comments indicated that the course of action to be taken would not wander too far from the Israeli practice of treating almost every Palestinian (especially those who have some connection to Hamas) as suspects for crimes perpetrated against Israeli citizens.
The kidnapping of three Israeli Jewish boys unleashed a response which provides a case in point about the attitudes towards Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
Israel has the right and duty to seek the safe return of its citizens; however, its approach to this should be less radical. In this case, a measured response would have seen IDF activities limited to the place and surrounding areas from which the boys were kidnapped and the arrest of those it reasonably suspected to have been involved in the crime. This would have accorded well with the presumption of innocence; unfortunately, the Israeli response of arbitrarily arresting people violates that right.
As the Israeli government sees it, ‘what is relevant is not where the attack took place, but where the attack originated, and that the terrorists set out from areas under PA [Palestinian Authority] control’. As a result, the activities of the IDF strayed from the scene of the crime and stretched into places as far away as Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and East Jerusalem. These activities involved the search of over 800 buildings and resulted in the arrest of almost 600 Palestinians.
It is hard to believe that this approach accords with the presumption of innocence. Instead, Palestinians have simply been treated as suspects and the burden to prove their innocence is now on them.
The events surrounding the kidnapping, murder and search for the missing boys cannot be divorced from the current conflict in Gaza: the two are inextricably linked.
Netanyahu seeks to destroy Hamas and, in the midst of it all, countless Palestinian lives are being lost.
This outcome is made more troubling by the recent debate involving Israeli officials, which was triggered by allegations that Hamas might not have been involved in the kidnappings.
However, it was on this very assumption that Netanyahu relied to justify the events surrounding the search for the missing boys and the action in Gaza, so where does this leave the state of democracy in Israel?
For the Palestinians at least, the presumption of innocence has gone missing.
This article is part of our mini-series on Palestine.