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Criminal Justice in the Occupied Territories

Local law in the occupied territories combined Jordanian and Ottoman legislation and regulations from the Mandate period, greatly extended by Israeli military orders affecting a broad range of political and social activities. The law applied to most criminal and civil matters in the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, local law was based mainly on British mandatory law, as modified by Israel. Palestinians accused of nonsecurity offenses were tried in the local Arab court system, which consisted of nine magistrate courts, three district courts, and the one Court of Appeal in Ram Allah in the West Bank. In 1985 the magistrate courts decided more than 36,000 cases, the district courts more than 1,300 cases, and the Court of Appeal 1,600 cases. Local courts had no power in cases involving land, and Israeli residents could not be brought to trial or sued in them. Any judicial proceeding could be halted and transferred to a military court by the military government. The local courts had low standing, lacking the means to execute court decisions, with the result that in many cases judgments were not implemented.

The Israeli court system was empowered, under emergency regulations enacted by the Knesset, to try offenses committed in the occupied territories by Israelis and foreign visitors. Israeli citizens were tried under Israeli law, and were immune from charges based on local law. Military courts were empowered to try residents of the occupied territories for criminal offenses based on local law and security offenses as defined in military government regulations. Military courts were generally composed of three judges, one of whom must be a lawyer. Occasionally, a single military judge tried cases in which the maximum sentence did not exceed five years. There was no appeal from judgments of the military courts. In early 1988, the Supreme Court urged that an appeal system be established, although it did not have the power to impose such a change. This recommendation was rejected by the government as a budgetary burden and a sign of weakness in the campaign against terrorism.

Persons held on security grounds were not granted bail and were denied access to counsel or other outside contacts for a period of eighteen days, during which they could be held in custody without formal charges. Access could be denied indefinitely if the authorities believed access would impede the investigation. Many security cases involved secret evidence, access to which was denied to the accused and to his attorney. Convictions often were based on confessions recorded in Hebrew, which most prisoners did not understand.

International human rights organizations complained of systematic mistreatment of prisoners held on security grounds. Amnesty International reported that agents of Shin Bet extracted confessions by beatings, extended solitary confinement, immersion in cold water, and "hoodings." In most security cases, confessions were the only evidence leading to conviction.

The military authorities also could impose administrative detentions and deportations. Administrative detentions normally had required confirmation by a military judge, but this step was abolished in 1988. During 1987, 120 Palestinians were subjected to administrative detention and 9 were deported. As a result of the violence during 1988, however, these measures were applied on a large scale. During the first six months of 1988, at least 18,000 Palestinians were taken into custody at various times; of about 5,000 Palestinians being held at mid-year, nearly half were administrative detainees. A further thirty-five had been deported. It was often difficult for relatives or lawyers to obtain confirmation of the detention or learn where the detainee was being held. Detentions could be appealed before a military judge whose decision was final. The brief appeal hearing was described as little more than a ritual.

Data as of December 1988