Military Judge Criticizes Police; Releases the Bethlehem Ten

Judge Dahan of the Ofer Military Court in the West Bank ordered the release of the ten peaceful demonstrators arrested in Bethlehem last Sunday, among them PLO Executive Committee's Abbas Zaki. The judge criticized the police and prosecution saying that the protest was nonviolent, and that the only force used in it was that used by police to apprehend the demonstrators.

Rate item:

After five long days in an Israeli military prison, the Bethlehem Ten were finally brought in front of a judge today at the Ofer military court. After hearing the arguments of both the military prosecution and the defense, the judge, Amir Dahan, decided to release all ten on bail and without posing restrictive release conditions. The judge also voiced his criticism of the police and prosecution by asserting in his decision that “There is no dispute that the march was not violent, and that no harm was done to anyone or to property, except for the force used by police officers during the arrests”.

The Bethlehem Ten were arrested together with four Israeli activists and an international activist, during a march marking Palm Sunday and the Christian tradition of pilgrimage to Jerusalem on that day last Sunday. Demonstrators hoped to highlight Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement and freedom of religion in Jerusalem. Despite having been arrested under the exact same circumstances and suspicions, the Israelis and international were released that same evening, in a clear example of racial discrimination.

“When referring to the repression of demonstrations, Israel always claims that it is the demonstrators' so-called violence that compels the Army to use such mesures”, said Mohammed Khatib of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee. “But today even their own judge, in what is most clearly the court of the Occupation, acknowledged that any protest, any form of resistance, is met with an iron fist”.

The arrest of the Bethlehem Ten, especially that of Abbas Zaki, motivated the Fatah movement to declare an escalation in the use popular struggle strategies during these tense times. It has also brought hundreds of people to demonstrate at the Bitunya checkpoint yesterday, where demonstrators tried to break through the Separation Barrier in order to reach Ofer prison.

Background

Fifteen demonstrators were arrested by Israeli forces during a peaceful demonstration near Rachel's Tomb last Sunday, protesting Israeli violations of Palestinian freedom of religion and lack of access to Jerusalem. The demonstrators marked Palm Sunday and demanded to exercise the centuries old Christian tradition of pilgrimage to Jerusalem on that day. In a clear act of racial discrimination, the Israelis and international were released with a slap on the wrist that same night, while the police extended the arrest of all ten Palestinians by 96 hours.

After soldiers tried to stop the procession at a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem near Rachel's Tomb, demonstrators overwhelmed the few soldiers positioned there with their numbers, and peacefully continued to march towards Jerusalem. They were, however, stopped by a large contingent of Israeli Police officers a few hundred meters into Jerusalem. When the crowed could not advance farther, a number of Palestinian dignitaries held speeches, after which the protesters began retreating back towards Bethlehem.

It was at that point, that the police began its unprovoked assault at the demonstrators, making fifteen arrests, including those of Abbas Zaki of the PLO Executive Committee, four members of local popular committees and an AP photographer. Abbas Zaki is one of the most prominent Palestinian leaders to have been arrested in grassroots demonstrations in recent years. His arrest has stirred vocal protest by PA officials in this already tense period.

All demonstrators were arrested under the exact same circumstances, and on the same suspicions. The four Israelis and one international detained during the incident, were released that same evening. The Palestinians, however, were subjected to much harsher treatment. The police extended the arrest of all ten of them by 96 hours, which are likely to be extended by another 96 hours even before they will be brought before a judge.

While Israelis and internationals are, as a matter of policy, subject to Israeli law, which only allows for a 24 hours detention by the police, Palestinians are subject to Israeli Military Law, which allows for their detention for a period of eight days before being brought in front of a judge. This blunt policy of racial discrimination is applied even in cases where Palestinians and Israelis are arrested together and under the same circumstances, and despite the fact that both Palestinians and Israelis are, in theory, subject to the Israeli Military Law when in the Occupied Territories.