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How Israel's judicial system handles the estimated 7,000 Palestinians in its prisons

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hundreds of Palestinians suspected of being involved in the October 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel are being held in Israeli prisons. That's according to Israeli NGO HaMoked. These prisoners join thousands of other Palestinians arrested in Gaza and the West Bank - accused, but often not even convicted of crimes. In total, an estimated 7,000 Palestinians are in prison, including many minors and activists. Nearly 2,900 of those detainees are held without trial. So how does the Israeli judicial system handle these cases? Well, to help us answer that question, we're joined now by Dror Sadot. She's the spokesperson for B'Tselem, an Israeli nonprofit focused on human rights. Welcome to the show.

DROR SADOT: Thank you.

KHALID: So let's start with the overall picture of how the Israeli judicial system handles Palestinians detained or formally charged. How would you characterize the system?

SADOT: So the system is actually not the Israeli court system. It's the military court system, meaning that it operates differently on Israelis than on Palestinians. The Palestinians who are being arrested are being prosecuted in a military court under military rule.

KHALID: And so what do we know about these - would you describe them as military tribunals then?

SADOT: Yes. It's basically prosecutors and the judges are soldiers operating under military laws. And it's much more a political means of control than a justice system.

KHALID: How does it fundamentally differ from the regular court system in Israel? I understand you're saying that the prosecutors, the judge are all soldiers, but in other ways, is it fundamentally different?

SADOT: Yes. Many accuses and many arrests are being done by charges that inside of Israel they won't be charged, such as throwing stones and stuff like that, that the military court will charge with much more punishment than in the Israeli court. But I think the most fundamental thing is the fact that the rates of convictions are almost 100%. And this is not a mistake. It doesn't happen because all the detainees and all the arrests and all the people being charged are guilty. It's because the Palestinians are being detained until the end of the proceedings.

And this is the thing that will not happen in the Israeli court, right? Because a person up until he's been charged and convicted, he's supposed to be innocent. This is why many Palestinians are already, like, serving many time in prison while the proceedings are happening. And this is why they will - almost always will go to plea bargain, and then they will plead guilty. So this is like the - how the system works.

KHALID: Some of the things that the Palestinians in prison are being accused of, like throwing rocks, are not things that they would be convicted or charged with in a normal Israeli court system. Help me understand that disparity, and how or why are they able to be charged with things that would normally not be seen as crimes?

SADOT: The rules that apply on Palestinians in the West Bank are not the rules that apply to Israelis, right? We're living in this apartheid system in which Israelis, even if they live in the West Bank, they will be under the Israeli law. And the Israeli law is different than the military law. For example, to protest in the West Bank under the military law is unlawful, right? This is, of course, not the case inside of Israel under the Israeli law.

KHALID: And are there trials that take place?

SADOT: So there are trials, but there are more than 2,873 administrative detainees. And administrative detainees is actually a very unlawful way of charging people without any evidence. Basically, it means that Israel detains people because they think that they might do something in the future.

KHALID: Are the Palestinians able to access any sort of legal representation? Do they have lawyers?

SADOT: Yes. They can have lawyers, and there is a trial. But again, most of the trials are being ended with a plea bargain. The judge is not neutral. There is no Palestinian judges in the military court. The oppressor is also the judge.

KHALID: Israel's minister of national security tweeted that Hamas fighters are being held in the, quote, "harshest conditions," eight handcuffed terrorists in a dark cell, iron beds, toilets in a hole in the floor and the Israeli national anthem constantly playing in the background. He also called the fighters Nazis. And so with that context, is there pressure, I guess, internally within Israel, to ensure that these fighters receive a fair trial? And how does that square with, perhaps, some of the international pressure?

SADOT: Well, it's a tough question. I guess that unfortunately in Israel, the call for revenge and the dehumanization that is being held is so high that to hear all detainees deserve rights, it's very rare. You won't see any internal pressure on this at the moment, as much as you won't hear many pressure on cease-fire or any pressure on any kind of rights of Palestinians, even if they're not Hamas. And you'll see dehumanization that comes from top. And then you'll see in the West Bank soldiers that are being, like, humiliating and torturing, posting it (ph), and, I mean, it sinks down.

KHALID: That's Dror Sadot, the spokeswoman for the Jerusalem-based nonprofit B'Tselem. Thank you very much for taking the time.

SADOT: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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