I get to an information session on the situation of Palestine and this is what I feel is worth highlighting here: the legal system.

There are three legal systems, completely separated; the civil system, the military system and the Ministry of Interior.

The civil system is for Israelis – including Arab – Israelis, but the Palestinians prefer not to use this term, “Arab-Israelis”. Arab Israelis are simply Palestinians with rights under the Israeli state. The rest of the Palestinians, including the Jewish or Samaritans whose ancestry did not leave from here, are simply Palestinians, without rights.

In any case – being an Israeli citizen means having rights. If an Israeli citizen is arrested, they need to be charged within a 24 hours. So in that sense it is similar to a western democratic system. The arrested person has rights, like a phone call, a lawyer… They can only be held for 24 hours without a judge warrant. With a warrant, the maximum is 30 days.

The military system is for the people living in the occupied territories of Palestine – otherwise known as Palestinians, mostly without rights. The accused Palestinian person can be held for up to 8 days without a judge warrant (we are told there is a projected change in the “law” in order to make it 50 days), and with a warrant there is no maximum of days s/he can be held without seeing a judge or a lawyer. We are also told that the norm is that this warrant to hold a Palestinian arrestee for more than 8 days and without a limit is given as a matter of routine.

There are hearings in front of judges in the three legal systems. In the civil system the hearings work similarly to what we know about hearings in Western Europe. In the Ministry of Interior, the hearings are just a bureaucracy for deciding the terms of a deportation. In the military system, the hearings are just to produce the warrant to keep a Palestinian detained, and this is usually quite automatic.

The third legal system is for the internationals. It has been created relatively recently. It was not created thinking of “human rights observers”, but of the illegal workers that came from neighbouring countries. This is another story that is also interesting. When the occupation began, the Palestinians were given permits to allow them to work in Israel, that is, in territories that were legitimately Israeli (according to international agreements). So in the new situation, Palestinians were given this permit to continue working where they had always worked, some of them before the creation of the Israeli state.

In a certain moment, all these permits were cancelled. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were left out of work. So the situation was that, the economy that existed in Palestine before 1967 was completely destroyed by Israel, and Palestinians were then made to work in factories in Israel. And now they were no longer allowed to work in those factories. The same happened in Gaza, and it is expected that by 2008 no Palestinian will have permission to work in Israel. Gaza is the most densely populated territory in the world – which means the whole of the active population in the most densely populated territory in the world will be unemployed in a few years time.

To replace all these Palestinian workers, workers from neighbouring countries were allowed to come and work for very low wages. So low, they were better off working without a contract and becoming illegal workers, but receiving a more dignified salary. So this system with the Ministry of Interior was created to deal with deportations, etc., and it is the system that applies to internationals, although we can appeal to the civil system (supreme tribunal, I think), although in reality what the appeal is about is not the deportation itself, but its terms.

Palestinians tried in the military system can also appeal in the civil system. However, there is not much hope in a system where the only people who can become a judge are Zionist Jews – those who believe that every Jew has the right to return to Israel even if that means to displace any one who was living there previously. The rights of the previously existing population in Israel are not taken into account by Zionism.

In the civil system, for the Israelis, in order to jail someone it has to be proven that s/he is guilty. The accused person can only be detained for 24 hours maximum before being put in front of a judge, although the judge can extend this to up to 30 days. In the military system, the defence has to prove that the accused is innocent so that s/he is not jailed, but does not have the right to know what s/he is accused of. So the “task” if to “demonstrate” that the arrested Palestinian is “innocent” of “anything” that can be thought of.

A Palestinian can be interrogated without a lawyer present, and without charges, for 8 days, and once a warrant is asked for in order to extend this (judges are military as well and it is very rare that the warrant is not conceded), there is no limit as to how long s/he can be interrogated.

Some even get detained for a crime that has not been committed yet but which might be committed. When the Palestinian is accused of the feared crime that has not yet been committed but which might be committed, the information that has led to the accused is kept as secret information, on a secret file. The charge is secret, or is simply that s/he might do something that could compromise the security of the state. S/he can have a lawyer but the lawyer will not know the charge. And, talking about detention – the jail is usually a tent in the dessert.

These three systems have different laws, different tribunals and different police forces. There is the regular Israeli police for the Israelis, the army, and the border police. The regular Israeli police usually keeps to “proper” Israeli territories. The army and the border police are usually seen in Palestinian territories illegally occupied by Israel.

In the occupied territories there is also a Palestinian police, which has no real power. I am told that, on occasions, Palestinian police have been shot by the army – for them they are just armed Palestinians, and therefore terrorists – so you will never see any Palestinian police anywhere near a checkpoints or a military vehicle.

So in these occupied territories, the real policing power lies with the army. The mission of this army is to defend the Israelis that live in occupied Palestine; they are called settlers. This has the following consequences: if a Palestinian throws stones to some settlers, soldiers have the duty to defend the settlers, so they have the power to detain the Palestinian. If it is the settlers that throw stones to, or shoot, a Palestinian, the soldiers’ duty is still to defend the settlers, they have no power to arrest a settler even if they want to (or an international). At the most, they can detain them and call the police or border police so that they are arrested. What usually happens is that the settlers say that the Palestinian (or the international) attacked them before and they acted in self defence. Of course the judge will invariably believe the settlers. It is not rare that settlers attack, and even kill, Palestinians and easily get away with it. Most times they are not even arrested.

Apart from the legal peculiarities, we are briefed about some cultural ones, too. For example, when sitting, we must not show them the sole of our shoes. It is considered a very insulting gesture.

We are asked to respect their culture even if we don’t understand it. We are asked not to challenge the differences between men and women.

We women are asked to wear long trousers (not long skirts – we would look too much like some Israeli women) and long sleeves. Men are asked to do the same in solidarity with us women.

We are also advised to always accept their hospitality, although some times it may seem a bit overwhelming for us. When we are staying with a family, we are never, ever to bring food with us. It would be an offence to do that; it would be like telling them that their food is not worthy of us.

Some other facts that are interesting to highlight, looking at my notes, are…

there are about seven hundred (700) military checkpoints on the roads in Palestine.
Since the Gaza disengagement, flying checkpoints have increased about 300% according to the UN.
For the Palestinians, the settlers are more dangerous than the soldiers. They often carry arms and they always have live ammunition, not rubber bullets or tear gas bullets like the soldiers. The most dangerous settlers are the children, because they enjoy total immunity.

After this documenting session we are asked to go to a city where there is a need for people, Bi’Lin. In this city there is a demonstration every Friday against the wall, which has been declared illegal by the “international community”.

However, demonstrations against it are considered illegal, or at least the army does not consider them to be acceptable. These demonstrations are usually attacked by settlers, so internationals’ presence is usually required so that attacks are not so violent. We are told that settlers have the habit of smashing internationals’ cameras and that if we complain they will say that we attacked first, and the police and the soldiers will no doubt believe the settlers. So the advice is not to even approach them, avoid getting close to them so that they can not get close to our cameras, and be very careful when filming. What the soldiers have been doing has been to arrest demonstrators, usually children, some times very young children, and usually a few nights after the demonstration, when the internationals have left.

But the international presence makes it easier to prove the unfairness of the detentions – specially if we film them – and the system. Now we learn they have sent a letter where they say that the army will allow the demonstration as long as the Palestinians do not throw stones (I can’t remember if there were some more conditions). The response has reportedly been that a permission has never been asked for. The Palestinians think that the Israeli army should not be there in the first place – according to the UN.

What has been lately happening, apparently, is that the army has done incursions during the night, forcing their way into some homes and arresting mainly children, getting them out of their beds. The function of the internationals is then to get out, film and photograph these actions by the army. The internationals’ presence does not avoid the incursions or the arrests, but it usually ensures that the arrests are at least not so violent.

So there we go, two girls and two boys, to spend the night in the company of various Israeli activists who also understand the madness of this occupation as it is. They tell us what is happening, we decide on who does what in case we need to get out, in case some one is arrested, and we go to sleep, hoping not to be necessary after all. And indeed, we are not called during this night. Very probably, we believe, they will have heard the rumour that some internationals will be there tonight too and they will have left it for another day.