Hunger-striker Samer Issawi is another statistic in an unjust legal system
Samer Issawi, the Palestinian prisoner who has been on an intermittent hunger strike for over 200 days, had his day in court on Thursday. According to the sentence handed down by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, one might ostensibly believe that Issawi would be released on March 6, when his prison term is completed. But Samer Issawi is Palestinian, and therefore subject to a multi-layered legal system in which his fate is not determined by civilian judges, but rather by three IDF officers.
Before Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, the army quietly modified Article 186 to Military Order 1651. Article 186 codifies special military tribunals that have the power to cancel early releases. The panels operate using secret evidence and do not even reveal to Palestinians what they are accused of.
So while according to Thursday’s sentencing hearing in the Magistrate’s Court Issawi is to be released within weeks, he will likely be re-sentenced by the military tribunal to the 20 years that remained when he was freed in exchange for Shalit. He will not know for what alleged crime he is being re-incarcerated.
Even Israel’s most secretive prisoner in recent years, Prisoner X, knew what he was charged with. But Prisoner X was Jewish. Samer Issawi is Palestinian.
One other Palestinian hunger striker is being held under identical circumstances. Two others are being held in administrative detention, the practice of holding suspects without charge or informing them of what they are accused.
The injustice suffered by Issawi and the others is not theirs alone, it is one that has and continues to unite Palestinian society. Solidarity hunger strikes are being held both in and out of Israeli prisons. Protests are taking place across the West Bank and judging by the number of injured protesters, the Israeli military response to those protests is becoming more violent.
On Thursday, thousands of Palestinians marched toward the Ofer Military Prison compound in solidarity with the hunger strikers and to protest the practice of administrative detention. At that protest alone, at least 29 protesters were injured by rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas canisters.
Days earlier, nearly two-dozen Palestinian demonstrators were injured at another protest in Hebron. Similar protests have been taking place almost daily in Nablus and throughout the West Bank. Solidarity tents have been erected and protests launched in Palestinian cities and neighborhoods throughout Israel, in Jaffa, Acre and Nazareth, among others.
The situation could explode should the hunger strikers die in prison.
Palestinian parliamentarian Mustafa Barghouti warned as much on Thursday. “Should anything bad happen to Issawi, I predict that the entire West Bank will rise up and a new, non-violent intifada will break out,” he told Israeli news site Ynet.
It is a very real possibility.
Something could happen to Issawi at any time, without warning, explained Physicians for Human Rights executive director Ran Cohen.
“The main problem [with hunger strikers] is that there can be heart failure or something else you can’t predict,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this week.
But there is a much larger issue at stake than Issawi or any of the other current hunger strikers. It is not their individual cases that are necessarily unjust, although they are. Subjecting a civilian population to a military legal system is the larger injustice.
There is a word for when one regime rules different people under different sets of laws based on their nationality, religion or the color of their skin. At a conference in Jerusalem Thursday, former Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general and previous Israeli ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel explained: “In the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state — in the hope that the status quo is temporary — is an apartheid state.”
Much of Israel, particularly journalists and those concerned with civil and human rights, was up in arms in the past few weeks over the case of Prisoner X’s secret imprisonment, specifically that the charges against him were being kept secret from the public and media. Prisoner X, however, knew the charges against him and his lawyers were given access to the state’s evidence against him.
Unlike Prisoner X, Samer Issawi does not even know the charges against him nor will he have an opportunity to contest them in court, let alone a civilian court, adjudicating civilian law, with proper civilian oversight.
Samer Issawi is Palestinian.
Unlike Prisoner X, there is no public outrage in Israel over the way the legal system is preventing Samer Issawi from receiving a fair trial.
Samer Issawi is Palestinian.
This post first appeared on +972 Magazine