19 July 2009

Dispatches From Israel - Miscarriage of Justice?

My Palestinian host and I were sitting at, of all places, Kentucky Fried Chicken, when he decided to tell me his story, which he had only alluded to in the past week. He knew that I might recount his story and I assured him that if I would protect his privacy and never use his name or his image. Each of my Palestinian hosts has been forthcoming with their personal experiences about what it is like to live in Israel as a Palestinian. So, there we were, sitting at KFC, and he started by saying that once he spent nearly 6 months in prison. His crime? He rented a flat within the home he owns in East Jerusalem to someone from Ramallah. He said the police came to his home and informed him that it was illegal to permit someone from Ramallah to live in East Jerusalem without first getting authorization. The policeman gave him a citation and said that all he needed to do was pay a relatively small fine and that would be it.

My host has recently returned to East Jerusalem after living overseas for several years, and was not well-versed in the latest rules and regulations governing who could and could not stay in East Jerusalem. Unfortunately someone within the Israeli justice system made a decision to pursue this “crime” with vigor and make it an example to others. My host told me that it took two years to prosecute his case and his lawyer kept telling him not to worry. When the Israeli justice system was unwilling to plea bargain, my host realized that he was in big trouble. When his day in court came, the judge said that since my host was so well educated he had no excuse for not knowing the law. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail and fined 15,000 shekels or $3800USD.

He explained to his lawyer that if he couldn’t work he couldn’t pay the fine so the sentence was reduced to 6 months in prison without being fined. Remember, his crime was allowing someone to live in a place he owned. My host kept negotiating and asked to be placed in a prison close to East Jerusalem so his family could see him every weekend. The first prison he was sent to was in northern Israel, 2 or 3 hours away from his family; it was overcrowded, and loaded with hard-core criminals. My host is an educated gentleman of slight build, and likely never had had to defend himself from physical harm. He also feared that someone might inject him with drugs; each week the prisoners were drugs tested and he was afraid that someone might inject him just to make his life difficult. The jail was so overcrowded that at night one might not get a bed and have to sleep on the floor. He was allowed a plastic bag in which he could store some toiletries, but had to keep vigilant over the bag or it would be stolen. Rats came out at night and once someone awoke screaming when a rat skittered over his back. He barely slept during the first couple of weeks. My host contacted his lawyer and asked him to arrange for a relocation. The Israeli prosecutor knew that my host had specific skills and asked him whether he was willing to use them, and live at a hospital. My host asked whether he would have a room, and a sheet to cover himself at night. It was amazing how quickly one missed things like a bed sheet when deprived of it. When he was relocated, rather than use his skills, he was tasked with jobs that no one else, other than a prisoner, would do.

His lawyer petitioned to have the sentence thrown out by the Supreme Court and discovered that the judge who presided over his case wrote the verdict in such a way that it could not be overturned. This meant that my host would have a criminal record and be unable to work for any Israeli-based company. Yet people committing worse crimes received shorter sentences. He came to the realization that the Israeli justice system was using him to make a point to other people in East Jerusalem. Fortunately for my host, he did receive credit for good behavior, and his sentence ended sooner than expected. At the end of his story, the other Palestinian hosts were as shocked as I. They had not heard the story before and were incredulous.

More recently, my host was informed that his house in East Jerusalem is scheduled for demolition. He has been fighting that order and has made a temporary arrangement to pay a fine and to enter new architectural plans to remedy the “problem” with his home – a problem as defined by the Israeli justice system. It is a horrible situation: he cannot leave East Jerusalem or his home with be torn down, but he works in Ramallah and must endure the daily holdup at Israeli check points. He is a gentle man who simply tells me his story without any overt signs of hatred and illustrates the life of a Palestinian under the Israeli system.

Before the 1948 agreement, his family owned a substantial amount of land which has since been confiscated. Now his home in Jerusalem is next. A few days after telling me his story at the KFC, my host dropped me off at my hotel and pointed out that I was staying directly across the street from the court house where he had been sentenced to prison. I went up into my room and opened the curtains and looked out at the court house. Justice, oppression….I wondered whether there would ever be a resolution to the conflict in this part of the world. According to my host, the answer is no. You cannot undo taking peoples’ land away, restricting their freedoms and making their lives miserable. This is just his story, and each one of my hosts has his own story.


IsraeliMom said...

There are so many wrongs committed by the Israeli system against Palestinians. It only takes a few bigoted idiots at a point of power to make life miserable to others.

I wouldn't be surprised if similar accounts can be had from Native Americans or Afro-Americans or other minorities in some parts of the US; Aboriginals in Australia; Coptic Christians in Egypt; the list is long... A basically good person commits a violation of the law, and then gets punished more severely than others due to his ethnicity. Many Sepharadic Jews in Israel will tell you it's the same with them in Israel (though personally I don't agree with that particular claim).

As to the "crime" itself, I suspect his was not about renting the apartment per se, even though it may have seemed like it from your host's perspective. There was a point in time, a couple of decades ago, where Palestinians from the West Bank were working in Israel and staying here during the week. Sometime in the early 1990's, or even before that, there was a wave of terrorism, some of it being knifing incidents carried out by WB Palestinian workers, often towards their employers. That was when the long process of switching over from cheap Palestinian labor to cheap Thai, Turkish and Chinese labor began... Strict rules and regulations were put in place forbidding anyone, Arab or Jewish, from harboring illegal Palestinian workers. The raison d'etre of the rules was security-related.

I guess that whoever was renting that place was in Israel without the proper permits. Yes, the rules about "Shabach" (illegal stayover) are pretty well-known and an Israeli-Jewish citizen would be severely punished for harboring any such person as well.

The point I'm trying to make is that while I suspect your host's case was indeed set out to make an example, and his punishment was too severe because he was an Arab, the reason for it was not "renting his apartment". Renting apartments is still legal... even for Arabs! Harboring illegal workers from the WB is not, (for anyone, Jewish or Arab) and the reasons for these laws are are security-related.

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