OFER MILITARY CAMP, West Bank
It was over in minutes: The Palestinian defendant stood quietly in the dock of the trailer turned courtroom as an Israeli mil- itary judge sen- tenced him to 40 months for selling a pistol, an assault rifle and ammunition to Palestinian fugitives.
Emad Atallah, 26, an unemployed carpenter, then was led away to join 9,300 other Palestinians in Israeli prisons. He had confessed under interrogation and struck a plea bargain, the court was told.
Without a break, Judge Menachem Lieberman called the next case.
To Israel, this orderly procession is a point of pride, proof that it has struck a balance between its security and the legal rights of those it accuses of harming the state.
To Palestinians and human rights groups, it’s something else: inherently unfair, based on sometimes coercive interrogation, a separate code of law and unduly harsh sentences.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been detained during 40 years of Israeli rule. The International Committee of the Red Cross said 140,000 — or 4 percent of the current population — have been detained in the past two decades. Today’s inmate count is among the highest since Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War.
The fate of the prisoners goes to the heart of the two sides’ rival narratives. Strong emotions have delayed for months a proposed exchange, brokered by Egypt, to release 1,400 Palestinians for the return of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas-linked militants. Without this exchange, progress on resuming peace talks is unlikely.
For Palestinians, prisoners of Israel are heroes in the struggle for statehood, and many are rewarded with government jobs. Last year, senior Hamas and Fatah prisoners translated their prestige into negotiating an initial power-sharing accord between the two political rivals.
Popular radio shows broadcast greetings to prisoners. Protest marches by wives, mothers and daughters carrying pictures of imprisoned loved ones have become a staple of life.
For many Israelis, the prisoners are terrorists bent on destroying the Jewish state, though successive governments have resisted demands by hard-liners for the death penalty. Most Israelis have friends or relatives killed or wounded in Palestinian attacks. Israeli releases of prisoners provoke public outcry.
Mohammed Saideh is slightly older than the occupation, born in the Jenin refugee camp three weeks before it and the rest of the West Bank fell into Israeli hands in the war of June 1967.
As a child, he saw soldiers patrol the camp, but he never met an Israeli face to face until he was 15. Soldiers, led by a man known as Capt. Assad, an agent of the Shin Bet security force, knocked on the door of his home. They told the teenager he was being picked up for participating in a school protest against the Jewish occupation.
During 15 days of interrogation by Capt. Assad, Mr. Saideh recalls, he was kept in a smelly burlap hood, shackled to a metal pipe above his head for hours at a time.
A military court sentenced him to six months after he confessed in a plea bargain. In prison, he was recruited by the Fatah movement, which was outlawed at the time and led by Yasser Arafat. Today, Fatah is the party of moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Last year, more than 4,600 Palestinians were brought before military courts, including 3,500 for security offenses and 1,120 for disturbing the peace, such as throwing stones. Trials usually are based on detainees’ confessions or accusations by other prisoners, and about 95 percent end in a plea bargain, Israeli defense lawyers and Amnesty International say.
Interrogators have used less force since a 1999 ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court outlawing what the Shin Bet called “moderate physical pressure,” such as sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures and tying up detainees in painful positions. A military appeals court was set up in the 1990s.
Israel argues that it has granted Palestinian defendants more protections than international law requires for a population under occupation, including recourse to Israel’s Supreme Court.
“People are held at Guantanamo without any approach to the courts … for unlimited times,” said retired Judge Amnon Straschnov, former head of the West Bank military courts. “If I have to compare, we don’t have to be ashamed of anything.”
However, human rights groups say military rule has continued so long that everyone should be subject to the same laws.
“If Palestinians have done something wrong, if they committed offenses, they should be prosecuted the same way as the guy in Tel Aviv,” said Donatella Rovera of London-based Amnesty International.
Instead, the gaps are wide.
A detainee in the West Bank must be brought before a judge within eight days; in Israel, within 24 hours.
Palestinian detainees can be prevented from seeing an attorney for up to 90 days, though in later stages access can be denied only with court approval.
Many Palestinians are represented by Israeli lawyers active in defending human rights. They say the Shin Bet routinely keeps them from their clients until the Palestinians have confessed.
Interrogation remains coercive, despite the 1999 reforms, said Eliahu Abram, head of the Public Committee Against Torture. Detainees often are held in windowless cells or forced to sit for hours with hands tied behind their backs, said Mr. Abram, whose group collects about 200 affidavits a year. Only a few report beatings, he said.
Another practice largely confined to Palestinian prisoners is detention without charge, which has put thousands behind bars for several months at a time, sometimes for years. Nearly 800 are currently held. They are brought before judges at regular intervals, and courts sometimes shorten the detention requested by prosecutors.
Whether teen stone-throwers, gunmen or recruiters of suicide bombers, security prisoners are treated as inherently dangerous. They are not allowed to use telephones and are housed separately from ordinary criminals. Family visits are restricted.
About half of the more than 9,000 Palestinians detained haven’t been sentenced.
Of those who have, most are serving one to 10 years. Dozens have been imprisoned for more than 15 years, and eight have spent more than 25 years behind bars, having received life sentences.
Palestinian security prisoners tend to receive harsher sentences than their Jewish counterparts, and those given life sentences don’t automatically get out after a certain number of years, defense lawyers say.
For example, Yoram Skolnick, an Israeli who fatally shot a bound Palestinian in the 1990s, was released after seven years. In contrast, Mahmoud Zahra, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, was sentenced to 27 years for throwing firebombs that caused damage but no injuries. He was recently freed after 18 years.
He said he and other prisoners “felt in all these years that this is a form of revenge.”
The 27 high-security prisons are scattered across Israel, a violation of international human rights conventions that say prisoners must not be taken out of occupied territory.
The more educated help teen inmates earn a high school diploma. Most improve their Hebrew by watching Israeli television. Palestinian author Walid Hodali, who served 12 years for trying to kidnap an Israeli soldier, said prison made him a more devout Muslim and a more prolific writer, and deepened his hatred of Israel.