Fifteen-year old Tirtza Sariel from the Jewish community of Elon Moreh has been held in the Russian Compound, a maximum security prison, for almost two months. The charge: throwing olives at Arabs. In order to protest her arrest and imprisonment she refused to sign court documents; Judge Uri Ben Dor held her in contempt and ruled to keep her in prison until the end of proceedings, which may take many months.
Such incidents have become more frequent in Israel as the government seeks to stamp out opposition to its policies of destroying Jewish communities.
During the expulsion of Jews from Gaza and Northern Shomron a year ago, many children were beaten, abused and imprisoned for non-violent civil disobedience.
A few weeks ago two 15-year-old girls, Oriah Shirel and Iska Federman, were finally released from Neve Tirza, a maximum security prison in Israel where they had been kept for two months. Their crime: participating in a demonstration in a neighborhood of Hebron where they live.
Oriya was not charged with any violence or attempted violence; Iska was charged with throwing stones, but there was no proof.
Oriah and Iska had come to protest the Israeli government’s decision to rebuild a wall abutting the Jewish neighborhood of Avraham Avinu and a playground. On the other side of the wall is an Arab home from which Jews have been attacked; a few years ago, one-year-old Shalhevet Pass was killed by an Arab sniper.
When initially brought to court, the girls protested their arrest and the proceedings. They declared that they did not recognize the legitimacy of the court and what they call a system of injustice which plagues Israel and has become especially evident in Jewish communities in Yehuda and Shomron – Hebron in particular.
Judge Ben-Dor ordered the girls held in prison until the end of their trials, in November, despite an unusual prosecution request to speed up the process.
Even if convicted of all charges against them, the girls would not have been given a prison sentence, and certainly not one of such length, and not under harsh conditions. It is clear that the court was punishing these girls for what they believe, not for what they’ve done.
Recently, in anticipation of the government’s unilateral withdrawal from Yehuda and Shomron, scores of “activists,” most with families, have been jailed and/or given orders preventing them from living in the areas to be evacuated. No charges and no trials.
Jewish residents of Hebron and Northern Shomron allege police discrimination against them for many years. A report issued more than a decade ago documenting systematic abuse by the police in Hebron was ignored by the government and the media.
A few months ago, arbitrarily and without justification, the government ordered Jews to vacate a building in Hebron’s Avraham Avinu neighborhood which had been legally purchased from Arabs.
Other buildings in the area built by Arabs in the 1950’s on land owned by Jews have been slated by the government for evacuation. This too has been a source of contention.
Police claim that Jews harass and provoke their Arab neighbors; local Arabs are often arrested for attacks and potential attacks.
Several activists in Hebron’s Jewish community have been held in administrative detention and under house arrest for long periods of time – without charges or trials.
Violations of civil (and human) rights are serious issues, especially when children are involved. But not only Israeli courts are at fault. The main public organization dedicated to helping children, The National Council for the Child (www.children.org.il), directed by Professor Yitzhak Kadman refused to get involved. Professor Kadman said he thought the girls preferred to remain in prison.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (www.acri.org.il) also refused to get involved.
Where are the professionals – lawyers and social workers? And our rabbis?
Newly elected Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, chairwoman of the Knesset’s Committee for Child Rights, came out strongly against the court’s decision but no action was taken. Prominent legal experts have also questioned the reasonableness and legality of the court’s decision, but nothing can be done since there is no mechanism to challenge the court’s decisions.
The Supreme Court, specifically Justices Aaron Barak, Ayala Procaccia and Dorit Benish, have supported lower court decisions to imprison and restrict those who oppose government policies, some without charges or trials. In some cases, young people who demonstrate against government policies are held in jail for months on minor charges before the case is dropped.
How can an enlightened society like Israel imprison children (or anyone else) for an allegedly misdemeanor offense, or for what they believe?
The only organization that provides immediate legal assistance to Jews who are arrested is Honenu (www.honenu.org.il), a tiny non-profit crisis-response group led by Shmuel (“Zangy”) Medad. On call day and night, Zangy is usually the only resource available to Jews as Israel’s civil rights organizations seem paralyzed and the courts violates basic norms of democracy and justice.
Civil Rights for Jews in Yesha (www.zechuyot.org), directed by Mrs. Orit Struk, works with Knesset members and documents police brutality; their reports have led to judicial and disciplinary actions against violent policemen.
You can help. Contact Honenu and Zechuyot. And fax Judge Uri Ben Dor at 011-972-2-670-6572 and Prof Yitzhak Kadman (National Council for the Child) at 011-972-2-679-0606, with CC to MK Shelly Yacimovich at 011-972-2-6753721, the Ministry of Justice at 011-972-2-646 6722 and the Supreme Court at 011-972-2-675 9648.
Moshe Dann, formerly an assistant professor of History (CUNY), is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.