Monday, December 27, 2004

Inside an Israeli court

Last Monday I attended a trial in an Israeli military court. The accused was an Israeli soldier charged with manslaughter for shooting Tom Hurndall, an English 23-year old killed in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, in 2003.

Tom had been a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led group dedicated to nonviolence. One of his companions, Joe Carr, was with Tom when he was shot. Joe, now a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team, was subpoenaed by the defence (yes!) to give evidence at the trial. He asked me to accompany him.

The courtroom, in a military compound near Ashkelon, was quite small – in that respect more akin to an English juvenile court. There were three presiding officers, all in high-ranking military uniform. The defence counsel was a ponderous civilian. The prosecutor was a spirited woman soldier in her twenties. With repeated legal challenges, the action sometimes seemed closer to an American TV drama than to a typical English court.

Proceedings were in Hebrew, so questions to Joe had to be translated into English. It soon became clear, both to me and to the court, that the defence lawyer was ‘fishing’ in the hope of trapping Joe into contradicting some of the written evidence previously assembled by Tom Hurndall’s father. Indeed the presiding officer himself used the word ‘fishing’, showing that the colloquial English term had passed into Hebrew legalese.

This was Joe’s first court appearance, and he spent two hours in the witness box. This would be draining for anyone, but was particularly stressful in Joe’s case as he had to relive the experience of seeing his friend shot through the head. His evidence was clearly consistent with written evidence from other eye-witnesses, which showed that an Israeli soldier had been shooting at unarmed Palestinian children. Tom had entered the line of fire to shepherd the children to safety, and a bullet passed through his brain.

Joe’s disrespect for the court was not always well concealed. He had urged me to photograph him at the witness stand and I didn’t want to disappoint him. I concealed my digital camera as best I could, but was not surprised when an usher prevented me from taking a second photograph after the one attached.

I am glad to have been there to support Joe. I was favourably impressed with the apparent fairness of the presiding officer, and with the smooth informality of the legal process. The accused soldier will have a fair trial.

Naturally I have misgivings. It seems clear that this trial would never have taken place but for the persistence of Tom’s family, supported by pressure from the British government. If the victim had been a Palestinian the Israeli Army’s initial disclaimer would have passed unchallenged.

But some ills have no remedy. Tom cannot be brought back. What is achieved by making one soldier – incidentally an Israeli Bedouin – a scapegoat for the widespread practice of indiscriminate shooting? Can confrontational legal processes ever achieve anything but retribution? How many more peace activists, and soldiers, and women, and children must be shot before this pointless conflict comes to an end?

‘Father forgive … … ‘

Joe Carr in court Posted by Hello

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