Three Israeli civilians are standing trial for killing a Palestinian teenager in a brutal murder last summer, and The New York Times is on hand to report the details. It is all meant to carry a clear message to readers: that democracy is at work in Israel and the law is on hand to deal out justice.
So we read that Israeli prosecutors are pressing defendants to admit their intent to kill, that the families of defendants and the victim are on hand and that the “cramped courtroom” in Jerusalem is crowded with judges, lawyers and observers.
But for all its detail, this story by Isabel Kershner is missing some crucial context: the fact that Israel runs a blatantly racist system of justice, with strikingly different treatment for Israelis and Palestinians. The present trial—for the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was doused with gasoline, beaten and burned in a wooded area a year ago—is far from typical.
In reality, Israeli civilians and security forces rarely stand trial for attacks on Palestinians. A study by the Israeli human rights monitoring organization, Yesh Din, released this May, shows that Palestinian complaints against Israeli civilians lead to indictments only 7.4 percent of the time, and only a third of these (or 2.5 percent of the complaints) result in even partial convictions.
Security forces are also shielded from prosecution. Yesh Din notes that criminal investigations against soldiers are rare and even when they do take place, they are closed without indictments 94 percent of the time. And, Yesh Din states, “In the rare cases that indictments are served, conviction leads to very light sentencing.”
In the Times story Kershner quotes the parents of the victim, who are skeptical of the Israeli justice system. “It is all an act,” the boy’s father says. “They burned Muhammad once. Every day we are burned anew.”
Readers are likely to dismiss his misgivings as rhetoric and prompted by anger and grief. In fact, Palestinians have reason for doubting that they can find justice in Israeli courts.
West Bank settlers, for instance, are tried in civilian courts, while their Palestinian neighbors—even the children—face trial in military courts, which are notorious for their lack of due process and impossibly high conviction rates. As UNICEF noted in an extensive report on the abuse of Palestinian children in Israeli custody: “In no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights.”
Palestinians tried in Israeli military courts are convicted 99.74 percent of the time, according to Israeli Defense Force data. Knowing this, most Palestinians and their lawyers opt for plea bargains and give up even the faintest hope of receiving a fair trial.
None of this appears in Kershner’s story, but the context of Israeli justice as it applies to Palestinians is crucial to understanding what is really happening here. The fact is, Israeli officials know the world is watching this trial, just as it watched events unfold after Abu Khdeir was abducted and killed. We can expect at least the appearance of justice to be on display.
The Times, which has ignored the hundreds of cases that show Israel in a far different light, is ready here to present Israeli prosecutors pressing for justice. Readers will not suspect that the newspaper has failed to inform them of other, less savory, outcomes to Israeli crimes against Palestinians.
We can name a few:
- This past April, two years after 16-year-old Samir Awad of the West Bank village of Budrus was killed with three bullets to his back and head, the State Attorney’s Office opted to charge his accused assailant with the minor offense of a “reckless and negligent act using a firearm.” B’Tselem, the Israeli rights organization, called this decision “a new low in Israeli authorities’ disregard for the lives of Palestinians.”
- In January Israel closed an investigation into the killing of Musad Badwan Ashak Dan’a, 17, in Hebron, four years after the event, saying there was no evidence available. In fact, the army investigating unit had plentiful evidence, including medical documents and eyewitness accounts.
- Israel forces shot and killed Yusef a Shawamreh, 14, in March last year as he collected herbs near the Separation Barrier in the West Bank. Three months later, investigators closed the case, saying there was no breach of military rules involved. Videos of the incident show that the boy and his companions posed no possible threat to the soldiers or Israeli security.
All of these (and dozens of others) were newsworthy items, fit to print in the Times, but the newspaper has preferred to look away. Only Samir Awad’s name appeared briefly in an online Reuters story that never made it into print; the others received no mention.
Now, however, Israel knows that the world is aware of the Abu Khdeir case, and a trial is in progress. It is likely that the prosecutors and judges will remain on their best behavior throughout the proceedings.
The Times, as well, is ready to present a narrative of Israeli justice at work. We can expect more reports from the Jerusalem courtroom, but readers are unlikely to learn that the trial is a rare event, an aberration in a system of flagrant inequality.