After the Israeli soldiers were pelted with stones, they returned to the village of Beita with a list of eight names provided by intelligence.
Each of the eight men was suspected of ‘hostile activity’—taking part in demonstrations, singing Palestinian nationalist songs. Like Khader Adnan, the Palestinian prisoner who died on hunger strike in May, not one had ever been suspected of a serious offence.
Two intelligence officers helped round the eight up, before being told to leave. ‘You have completed your role,’ the commanding officer told one of them. ‘It is not appropriate for the son of the president to be here.’
Then the commanding officer told his captain to take the eight men into some nearby olive groves and break their arms and their legs.
When al-Jazeera’s Jerusalem-based reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead a year ago, I thought of those eight men, for two reasons. The first was that Abu Akleh’s job, with all its attendant dangers, was to make sure such stories—of ordinary men, women and children living under decades of military occupation—reached the wider world.
The second was that I knew the road we were about to go down.
It is not common for the death of a Palestinian at Israeli hands to rise to the status of headline news, but it does happen. Sometimes this is because the Palestinian is a child, like Mohammed al-Dura or the four boys from the Bakr family killed by Israeli bombardment while playing on a beach. Sometimes it is because the Palestinian has citizenship of a Western country, like 78-year-old Omar Asad. Sometimes it is because the crime is filmed, as was the case with Abdul-Fattah al-Sharif when he was shot dead by Israeli soldier Elor Azaria.
In each case, there is obfuscation and denial, an insistence that the one killed must have been at fault—an Israeli military spokesman described Abu Akleh and her colleagues as “armed with cameras”—or that the killer could not be guilty of a crime because they serve in a military of the highest ethical calibre. Then eventually, if there must be legal proceedings, there is sympathy for the soldier and a sentence that makes light of the crime.
Shireen Abu Akleh was a female civilian and a high-profile journalist, a Christian, a US citizen. But she was also a Palestinian. The last fact overrides all the others. Months after her death the FBI announced it was investigating the case, a rare step, but there was never any prospect of any Israeli soldier being held accountable.
With the world recently marking 75 years since the establishment of Israel, which Palestinians call the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’, it is important to understand this catastrophe’s most fundamental quality: that it has led to 75 years of crimes carried out with almost total impunity, by people who rule over Palestinians but do not represent them.
The eight men of Beita had their arms and legs broken when I was at high school. I turned 50 this year. When the captain, a member of the Nahal infantry brigade, expressed misgivings afterwards, his commanding officer said ‘in Nahal, you do things and cry. In Golani [another brigade], you do things and laugh.’
The whole world has watched recently as Jewish Israelis protested over the future of their judiciary and their ‘democracy’. To Palestinians, the competing rallies on the streets of Tel Aviv are an argument between those who do things and cry, and those who do things and laugh.
But they are also about impunity. As long as Israel was understood to have credible and independent courts, the question of whether Palestinians under occupation had access to justice could be sidestepped. But if, as the current Israeli government hopes, the judiciary comes under the control of politicians, then the day is brought closer when there must be a justice system which enfranchises Palestinians as citizens, or access to and intervention by the International Criminal Court.
Palestinians will continue to struggle for a justice of their own, which would mean an end to barbaric punishments like demolishing the homes of offenders’ relatives or brutalisation of whole communities. It would also insist on uncovering what was done, who did it and who knew in buried cases where Palestinians were killed and maimed, poisoned and massacred.
Colonel Yehuda Meir, who ordered the breaking of the limbs in Beita, was found guilty of brutality but served no jail time. (He went on to run a private security firm for settlers in the occupied West Bank, where his record of violently punishing Palestinians was seen as an asset and not a liability.) Not one soldier has been held to account for Shireen Abu Akleh’s death. Nor is it likely that the shooting of two-year-old Mohammed Tamimi by a sniper in the besieged village of Nabi Saleh will result in any soldier being sanctioned. Would a court at The Hague see such cases differently? We don’t yet know. What we do know is that by design, Israeli tribunals are not up to the task.
And the president’s son, ushered away from Beita so he could say that he didn’t know? Today, Michael Herzog is Israel’s ambassador to the United States, and his brother is the president.
Seventy-five years is too many to wait for justice to be done.
Maher Mughrabi is features editor of The Age and a member of the Palestinian diaspora.