Palestinians denied the right to be presumed innocent

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Gigi Ibrahim under a Creative Commons Licence

‘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

Stuck between a rock and a hard place: the legitimacy crisis that plagues the PA

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Palestinians protest against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. © Mohammed Al-Azza

Parallel to the crisis currently engulfing Gaza, another persists. However, this disaster will not be reported in newspapers, nor make the headlines of the nightly news streamed into the homes of people across the globe. It remains unnoticed to those outside Palestine, because its repercussions are much less immediate. It is the daily crisis of legitimacy that confronts the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA) vis-à-vis the Palestinian people.

The PA is a creature of the 1993 Oslo Peace Process, responsible for making the necessary arrangements for the coming of a Palestinian state. In part it was given limited, autonomous responsibility over the governance of Palestinians living in the West Bank.

However, for all the goodwill that might have been expressed at the time, and the anticipated birth of a Palestinian state, 20 years later, the Palestinian people are still waiting. In the meantime they have come to realize that the authority and autonomy over their own affairs that was promised in the creation of the Palestinian Authority was nothing more than a façade.

In the eyes of many Palestinians, the PA is nothing more than a lackey of the international community and the Israeli state cloaked as Palestinian independence and sovereignty. This is not to say that some do not still hold on to the hope that the PA will lead the way towards a Palestinian state. But they dare not speak too loud.

The current events in Palestine serve to further demonstrate the legitimacy crisis that engulfs the PA in the eyes of the Palestinian people. The Oslo Accords legitimized Israel’s superiority in the West Bank when it divided it up into three different areas, mostly under Israeli control while allowing the PA control of the urban 18 per cent. The adherence of Israel to this demarcation of responsibilities has been far from stringent.

With the abduction of the three young Israeli boys near Hebron on 12 June, the Israeli government did not hesitate to do what they regularly do: they sent in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to carry out Operation Brother’s Keeper. The military entered into the cities of Nablus, Bethlehem, Ramallah, al-Bireh and Jericho – all cities under full Palestinian control – with the full co-operation of Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority. Despite it having the trappings of government, the Palestinian people could clearly see the PA for what it really was: a toothless tiger.

The IDF raid into Ramallah probably best demonstrates the growing dissatisfaction of many Palestinians with the PA. In the early hours of 22 June the IDF entered the city. Clashes between locals and the IDF ensued. Hours later, after several arrests had been made and buildings broken into, the military withdrew from the city. But the clashes did not end there. Locals turned their attention to the local Palestinian Authority police station. Outraged at the failure of the police to come to their aid in the fighting with the IDF, locals bombarded the station with rocks. In an ironic twist, the IDF returned to Ramallah soon after to protect the station.

The attacks on the PA have also featured on social media and in newspaper reports. Palestinians continue to express their disappointment about what they see as the failure of the PA and, in particular, President Abbas to ensure that Palestinian interests are protected.

However, it must be acknowledged that the PA has been placed in a difficult position for a long time. It did not create the situation and it cannot assert much control over it. The leadership has competing – and sometimes irreconcilable – demands placed upon it by three different constituencies: the Palestinian people, the international community and Israel.

The Palestinian people are seeking a government that is strong, able and willing to represent their interests, and that does not, as they see it, cower to the pressure exerted by the international community and Israel. Given that Palestine has not yet achieved statehood, they want a PA which retains its independence, revolutionary heart and raison d’être. In contrast, the international community wants a PA that is willing to engage with the peace negotiation process. They want a leadership that is able to assert control and authority over both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Finally, they want a PA that will not go ‘rogue’ and start acting as if it were a state (i.e. acceding to international conventions) prior to the conclusion of any peace process.

Finally, Israel wants a weakened Palestinian Authority, one that will not put forward any proposals (as part of the peace process) that would be adverse to its own interests. They want to be able to retain control of the PA.

This leaves the leadership stuck between a rock and a hard place. But it is a crisis that can no longer be ignored. Voices of dissent are growing louder, increasingly frustrated with Abbas’ refusal to demand that Israel end its assault on Gaza. PA police continue to clamp down on protests in West Bank cities. The stakes are rising. In the midst of the chaos, the question is: what now?

This is the third article in our mini-series on Palestine.

Photo by Mohammed Al-Azza.

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