On a hot, weekday afternoon, Salwa leads a group of human rights monitors through a series of checkpoints, metal turnstiles and X-ray machines to enter the Ofer Miltary Court and Prison complex, near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. As a co-founder of a Jerusalem-based human rights organisation, Salwa accompanies internationals to witness firsthand the trials of Palestinians in the Israeli military courts. Entrance rules are stringent – visitors are only allowed to bring in a notebook and pen and IDs or passports must be surrendered at the entrance.
As we enter, a soldier hands us a seven–page leaflet titled The Military Courts Unit in Judea and Samaria. The leaflet states that the military courts have jurisdiction to ‘hear ordinary criminal cases and cases involving security offences’, that they were ‘established in accordance with international law’ and that the rights of defendants are ‘strictly upheld’ by a series of mechanisms, including legal representation, public hearings, and the translation of proceedings into the defendant’s language. The leaflet also states that the military courts have jurisdiction to prosecute children as young as 12-years-old and imprison them for up to six months.
Ofer is one of the two Israeli military courts in the West Bank used exclusively to prosecute Palestinians accused of breaching Israeli military orders. Palestinian human rights organisation, Addameer report that the orders enforced through the military courts criminalise a wide range of activities, including ‘certain forms of political and cultural expression, association, movement and nonviolent protest, even certain traffic offenses.’ According to Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, traffic offences constitute about 40% of all convictions a year.
More than 800,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been detained in military courts since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, from which time the Israeli authorities imposed military law in the West Bank and Gaza. According to Military Court Watch, in 2023, a monthly average of 4,623 Palestinians, 153 of them children, have been held in military detention – and these numbers are increasing. Military Court Watch have already observed an 11% increase in numbers of adult and children Palestinians detained in 2023.
In the last year, there has been an unprecedented reliance by the Israeli authorities on ‘administrative detention’ to indefinitely hold Palestinians without charge or trial. Administrative detainees are not informed about why they are being held, only that there is a ‘secret file’ about them. The latest figures show over 1200 Palestinian detainees are currently being held this way. Following the swearing in of Israel’s new ultranationalist government earlier this year, administrative detentions are at their highest in 34 years.
Human rights organisations also point to separate legal systems for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Although the military courts technically have jurisdiction over Israelis living in illegal settlements in the West Bank, in practice settlers are dealt with under Israeli civilian, not military law, with far greater rights and protections, for example the right to fair trail, to due process and to access bail. Sentences are also considerably shorter for Israelis than for Palestinians, and much more robust evidence is required for a conviction. In addition, under the Israeli penal code, criminal prisoners may be released after serving half of their sentences, whereas Palestinians judged under military rule are only allowed to appeal for probation after two-thirds of the sentence has been served. In general, Palestinian detainees are rarely released early.
After passing through security, we enter a courtyard surrounded by a kiosk selling drinks and snacks, a couple of portable toilets and seven pre-fabricated buildings which serve as the courtrooms. Salwa introduces herself and us to family members of detainees who are waiting there. Many at first seem nervous and guarded but Salwa quickly puts them at ease with her smile and gentle questions. Several women gather around her to tell her their stories. Two family members are permitted to attend the hearings but these visits are not easy.
As the family members are not informed what time the hearing will take place, they set off early in the morning and sometimes wait all day for a chance to see their loved in the courtroom for a few minutes. Aida from Nablus has come to see her 21-year-old son, Issam, who was arrested over two weeks ago during a military raid on their home during the night. Issam hadn’t been at home at the time so the soldiers had detained Aida, making her call her son and threatening that they would not release her until he returned. Aida, visibly distressed while recounting the incident, told us that the soldiers had shouted at and insulted her in front of her terrified younger children.
On a later visit to Hebron, a woman named Um Firas told us that her 18-year-old son was also arrested in a night raid and taken to Ofer. Soldiers had arrived into her family home in the early hours of the morning, claiming to the have photographs of her son throwing stones at military vehicles. She said the soldiers then ‘destroyed the house’ searching for a T-shirt they said he had been wearing when the photo was taken. During the raid, Um Firas had been separated from her younger children, aged 10 and 14, who she says are still traumatised. In a briefing before visiting Ofer, Salwa and her colleague told us that arrests often take place during night and families are often woken by the sound of their door being broken open or even by guns in their faces as they lie in bed:
Other women wait to tell us their stories but are interrupted by an announcement that the afternoon sessions are about to start. We enter the courtroom, which is crowded and chaotic. The judge, prosecutor, secretary and guards walk around checking their phones and civilian lawyers come in and out carrying bundles of paper.
After a few minutes, three young men in prison uniforms, among them Aida’s son Issam, are led into the dock. Each detainee is handcuffed and has his legs shackled. The men look tired and gaunt but break into smiles when they see their mothers, sisters and wives sitting at the back of the room. The women call out questions and greetings.
‘How are you? Are you eating?’
‘Your aunties send their love.’
‘The kids say hi.’
‘I don’t like your beard.’
Salwa explained to us that the detainees are generally uninterested in the legal process as they do not expect a fair trial. However, they do look forward to the hearings as a chance to see loved ones and catch up on news from home. For most of them, it will also be their first chance to meet their lawyer. Often this is their first chance to speak to someone in their own language since their arrest. In a later visit to Ofer, we witnessed a deaf detainee ask for batteries for his hearing aid, explaining he had not been able to hear the entire time he was in prison.
The proceedings are all in Hebrew. Two of the detainees clearly do not understand and their lawyers are not available to interpret for them. ‘Ask for a translation. It’s your right.’ Salwa calls across the room. A soldier is called in to summarise the proceedings in Arabic.
The men are all there on separate charges but their cases are heard together. Each man has been held for at least a week. We learn that Aida’s son was arrested for being in the vicinity of some youths who had reportedly thrown Molotov cocktails at soldiers. The second man was arrested because parts of a gun were found in his car. His lawyer explains to the judge that the weapon was licensed and legally owned by a family member who is a Palestinian Police officer and shared use of the car. The third is a 21-year-old youth from Jericho was arrested on suspicion of throwing stones at vehicles on a road used by settlers. This young man’s face fell when he looked over at the public gallery – his mother is not there as she was not informed of his trial date. ‘Give me her number’ Salwa tells him. ‘I’ll call her and let her know you are OK.’
The judge rules that the three detainees should remain in detention and be questioned further. Salwa explains that bail is very rarely granted and if it is, is often set at thousands of shekels. Most detainees are kept in military prison until the end of the proceedings. Most make plea bargains, as pleading guilty is seen as the quickest and easiest way to get back to their families and jobs. If they choose to fight their case, Palestinians can spend months or even years in pre-trial detention.
The men are led back to their cells. ‘Khalas, خلص, finished’ a female guard says brusquely to the women, indicating it is time for them to leave. Salwa patiently asks her to step to one side so the women can wave goodbye. They look sad, and Aida quietly wipes away some tears. However, their demeanour is more relaxed now. They have got what they came for – a brief glimpse and a few minutes snatched conversation with a precious, son, brother or husband.
As well as the severe inequalities within the criminal justice system, Save the Children report that Palestinian children suffer ‘inhumane conditions’ within Israeli prisons with the majority reporting physical abuse, psychological abuse and the denial of access to a lawyer. These conditions are set to worsen with the the far-right national security minister of Israel, Itamar Ben-Gvir, recently pledging a number of other measures which violate the rights of Palestinian prisoners’ – including restricting their access to healthcare, showers and fresh food. Please take urgent action today ⬇️
Use our quick template letter to send this eyewitness story to your elected representatives and ask them to speak out urgently for the right of every Palestinian to a fair trial and for equality before the courts, in compliance with international law.
Follow and support the work Addameer, who defend the rights of Palestinian prisoners, and Military Court Watch, who support Palestinian families in the military court and advocate for their rights.
Learn more about the two-tier legal system governing Palestinians and Israelis by reading our law page here.