- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

12:12 p.m.

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 military judge sentenced 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, including 140,000, or 4 percent of the current population, in the past two decades, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. 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 deal, brokered by Egypt, to release 1,400 Palestinians for return of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas-linked militants. Without that deal, 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 when they are released.

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 and wounded in Palestinian attacks. Release 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 an agent of the Shin Bet security force, a Capt. Assad, knocked on the door of his home. They told Mr. Saideh he was being picked up for participating in a school protest against the occupation.

During 15 days of interrogation by Capt. Assad, Mr. Saideh says, 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 then-outlawed Fatah movement, led at the time by Yasser Arafat and today the party of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The stations of Mr. Saideh’s journey in the early 1980s — arrest, Shin Bet interrogation, confession, plea bargain, imprisonment — remain largely the same today.

More than 4,600 Palestinians were brought before military courts in 2006, 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, according to Israeli defense lawyers and Amnesty International.

Interrogators use less force, following a 1999 ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court outlawing what the Shin Bet called “moderate physical pressure,” such as sleep depravation, 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.”

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