Good Morning, High Court

Gideon Levy

For years, the High Court of Justice not only failed to oppose the imprisonment of hostages in Israel, but went so far as to justify the wrongdoing.


16 April 2000

FORMERCHIPS: Lebanese citizens being released after Israel had held them hostage for years

   This weekend, the espionage trial began for 13 Iranian Jews who have been imprisoned for over a year. It's hard to know whether they will get a fair trial; perhaps they are spies and perhaps not. In any case, Israel and the Jewish world have been moving heaven and earth to protect them since their arrest. Until recently, 13 others faced a harder fate. In contrast with the Iranian Jews, most of the 13 Lebanese citizens abducted by Israel were not granted any trial, never mind a fair one. In contrast with the Iranian Jews, the Lebanese are not suspected of illegal acts: Israel has freely admitted that it held them only as "bargaining cards." They were held without charges or judicial process as hostages of the state that abducted them - and some of them were selected for this fate by nothing more than their family names. Those who were tried were sentenced to short prison terms and when they were done, they were thrown back into administrative detention, in a process that undermined both the sentences that should not have been given and the authority of the judiciary.

The world barely whispered - in contrast with Iran, Israel is, after all, the only democracy in the Middle East. We heard barely a grumble from even our most enlightened quarters: After all, this was part of the effort to bring back our prisoners of war and missing soldiers, so all is permitted, with the support of human rights advocates such as Yaakov Perry, the former head of the Shin Bet security services.

Still, we might have expected at least one Israeli institution - the one that is always seen as a beacon for justice and the law - to put an end to this disgrace. But for years, the High Court of Justice not only failed to oppose the imprisonment of hostages in Israel, but went so far as to justify the wrongdoing. High Court President Justice Aharon Barak, whom many consider the most enlightened of Israelis, wrote only two-and-a-half years ago that releasing the "unnamed persons," as they were (in typical manner) called, "would cause real damage to state security." The court has been terrorized by the defense establishment, generally through classified and secret reports heard in camera. In cases of torture, house demolitions, deportations, detentions without trial, expropriations of land or the early release of an old and ailing spy, the court abnegates itself before the defense establishment, silent in the face of caprice, trampling more than a few principles of law, morality and justice.

A change is underway, and, much too late, a new wind is blowing through the halls of justice. It started when the High Court put an end to Shin Bet torture, continued with the interim decision to allow the Palestinian cave-dwellers to return to their homes and presses forward with the decision to release the Lebanese captives. These moves are good news whether they originate in the new government in Israel, a slightly more enlightened public, the effects of Justice Barak's frequent contact with academics in the United States, or a new trend of safeguarding international human rights that includes prosecuting violators.

But it is difficult to absolve the High Court of responsibility for previous events: It is not enough for Barak to write courageously in his ruling that "we must be prepared to admit our mistake." What does it mean for the president of a state's supreme court to admit to an error that cost innocent people their liberty? In innumerable other cases, the court's job is to identify responsible parties and demand that they pay for their mistakes. So here, the court should be confronted with its own responsibility: "You erred, so who will pay? Who will pay reparations to the tens of thousands of people who were tortured with your authorization before torture became illegal and thus immoral? Who will pay reparations to the thousands of young people who were detained without trial for the years they lost in Israeli prisons, while the High Court approved their incarceration? And now, who will pay the 13 Lebanese citizens, some of whom were mere youths at the time of their arrest, for their years in jail? If indeed the High Court president recognizes the court's mistakes, he must accept responsibility and award compensation to the victims. The list of those waiting for justice is still long.





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