Sunday, November 2, 2003

At the District Military Court in Jaffa

The trials of the pacifist, Yoni Ben Artzi and the other five conscientious objectors – Haggai Matar, Matan Kaminer, Noam Bahat, Shimri Tsameret and Adam Maor, who refuse to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces as long as it is an army of occupation, turned into a long and protracted affair.

Court martial proceedings began in March 2003. On October 20, 2003 a packed courtroom heard the detailed cross examination of Shimri Tsameret, Noam Bahat and Adam Maor – Haggai Matar and Matan Kaminer were cross examined at the previous session. The evening before, 150 demonstrators rallied at the gates of the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv to demand the immediate release of the refusenicks. The last session of the trial of the five took place on November 4, 2003, to hear the summaries of the prosecution and on November 11, 2003 the court will hear the summaries of the defense attorney, Adv. Dov Khanin.

We were recently informed that the court’s verdict in the Yoni Ben Artzi trial will be given on November 12, 2003. The proceedings against Ben Artzi are a clear and gross miscarriage of justice and stem from a decision by the IDF bureaucracy to make it very hard, if not impossible, for a young conscript to convince the IDF authorities that he is a bona fide pacifist. In Yoni Ben Artzi’s case the army claims that he is a ‘political objector’ and not a pacifist. Ben Artzi has testified that his objection to the occupation as a brutal military act which violates human rights derives from his general pacifist beliefs. Technically speaking, the offence for which Ben Artzi is on trial is refusing to carry out a legal order, an offence which he presumably committed when he refused to comply with orders to complete steps that were a part of his induction.

After all is said and done, we must remind ourselves that we are talking about a military court. The Judge, Lieutenant General, B. Levy, has been congenial and the legal atmosphere is similar to a normal criminal proceeding. However, there is a tremendous distinction that has to be remembered. Neither the judge nor the court can free the defendants and send them home. Even in the case of an acquittal, the defendants are sent back to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Induction and Classification Base for further processing. The Judge may make a recommendation, but it is not binding on the IDF.

As a matter of act, on August 10, 2003 the Judge did send Ben Artzi back to the Conscience Committee with a request that it reexamine his case. This was a clear recommendation by the court that it felt that the decision to refuse to classify Ben Artzi as a pacifist was incorrect ab initio or at the least, the decision should be reviewed in the light of further revelations and evidence in the court case. But the general who heads the Manpower Division of the General Staff, General Gil Regev, simply refused the court’s request and threw the case back into the lap of the Jaffa Military Court.

This is not to say that the verdict is unimportant. The defendants have raised, through their statements in court and by the efforts of our competent and devoted attorneys, Michael Sfard and Dov Khenin, a host of important issues. If there are any recommendations favoring the defendants, they will have moral and public importance, even though they are not mandatory for the IDF apparatus. This is the name of the game in a military court: even if you win, you can still lose.

If you lose, you can be sentenced to military prison for any length of time up to three years. This would be a particularly vicious and brutal act for the following reason. When soldiers are sentenced in disciplinary proceedings, the maximum sentence is 35 days in prison. The refusenick can serve his time in a battalion composed of short term prisoners. The court martial presently trying the refusenicks can sentence defendants for up to three years in prison. Since inmates in military prisons are sorted and housed according to the length of their sentence, any lengthy sentence would involve grouping prisoners of conscience with criminals convicted of crimes of violence and drug trafficking.

Every week brings new expressions of additional crises in Israel directly related to the dreadful nature of the occupation. A month back, 27 pilots publicly requested that their commanders cease and desist from sending them on illegal and immoral missions. This was a real scandal, with the establishment claiming that the pilots had stabbed the country in the back Last week, the IDF Chief of Staff, Ya’alon (!), convened an off the record press briefing in order to accuse the Israeli government, and specifically Sharon and Moffat, of ignoring a pending human rights catastrophe in the territories. Of course, we will be hearing more about this little ‘tiff’ between Chief of Staff and between Sharon and his Minister of Defense, Moffat.

Six young men are on trial because they are trying to prevent a complete moral breakdown in their country. The occupation has put them on trial, but in the eyes of the whole world, it is the occupation which is on trial.