Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The West Bank's separate-but-unequal legal system

A young Palestinian man is arrested by Israeli authorities. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

If you're a Palestinian arrested in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, don't expect to receive the same treatment as an Israeli. That probably doesn't sound particularly surprising, but new data on youth arrests acquired by the Associated Press shows just how differently Israelis and Palestinians are treated by West Bank justice authorities - even for the same crimes.

Using Israel's freedom of information law, the AP got access to Israeli police data on youth arrests from the past five years. They were curious because Israelis and Palestinians are quite literally governed by different justice systems: Israelis arrested in the majority-Palestinian territory go to Israeli civil court, while Palestinians, who aren't Israeli citizens, go to Israeli military court.

The AP's data suggests that this difference, not surprisingly, leads to unequal treatment. Take stone-throwing, a historically common Palestinian attack on Israelis that some Jewish settlers have adopted. 45 percent of all Palestinians arrested were convicted, and exactly zero of the 54 arrested Israelis were.


It's much, much easier to convict people in Israeli military courts than their civilian counterparts. According to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, military courts limit both defendants' access to lawyers and the legal protections available during arrest and trial. Israelis arrested in the West Bank are playing with better hands then their Palestinian counterparts from the get-go. That's the simplest explanation for why Israelis are arrested at higher rates for the same crime.

Now, since most stone-throwers are likely Palestinians, it makes sense that many more Palestinian youth would be arrested for that particular crime than their Israeli peers. However, it turns out that Palestinian juveniles are also more likely to be indicted (conviction data wasn't available) than Israeli youth in general.


Once again, the difference in legal system is the clearest explanation. It's much easier to arrest and detain Palestinians in military courts than Israelis in civil ones. That makes it correspondingly easier for prosecutors to get what they need for indictments.

But the data doesn't cast a wholly negative light on Israeli police practices. Though one might expect Palestinian juveniles to be arrested at higher rates in addition to absolute numbers, it turns out that's not true. Once you account for population size, it turns out that Israelis are disproportionately more likely to be arrested in the West Bank. Israelis are 13 percent of all West Bank residents, but make up 28 percent of all arrests.


What this suggests is that Israelis are more likely to be arrested, but less likely to suffer any legal consequences (indictment, conviction, imprisonment, etc.) beyond that arrest.

It's hard to say why this might be. It's unlikely that Israeli police are discriminating against Israelis and in favor of Palestinians. It's possible that West Bank settlers, many of whom are ideologically hostile to Palestinians, commit crimes at higher rates, but the AP data can't come close to proving that. Regardless, the arrest numbers complicate the otherwise clear picture of unfair treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank judicial system.

Correction: This post originally reported West Bank police statistics for all arrests. In fact, as at Roi Maor at +972 points out, the data is only for youth arrests; the post has been corrected  He also notes that Israel police don't investigate crimes by Palestinians against Palestinians — the Palestinian Authority does. That would explain a large part, if not all, of the puzzle of why Israeli numbers show disproportionately high arrests of Israelis. For more, read Maor's piece in full.

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