Israel considers deportation of militants' kin

Court to determine how far army can go to deter attack

August 27, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - One sewed a vest used by her brother, a Palestinian suicide bomber, to hide explosives. Another stood lookout as a militant loaded bombs into the trunk of a car. A third fed an attacker before he set out on a mission to kill.

The three Palestinians appeared before the Israeli Supreme Court yesterday - not for a trial, for they have not been charged with a crime - but to challenge the Israeli army's efforts to expel them from their homes in the West Bank.

Israeli authorities accuse them of helping relatives blow up buses and launch assaults that killed scores of people, and officials argued in court that expelling the Palestinians from their homes could deter other bombers from carrying out similar attacks.

Two Israeli defense lawyers who work for human rights groups countered that expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and sending them to the Gaza Strip would put the nation legally and ethically on tenuous ground.

The nine justices, who did not rule yesterday, are faced with vexing questions that go to the heart of how the Israeli army battles Palestinian militants and how far it can go in trying to deter suicide bombers.

Historically, the court has ruled in favor of the state on matters of defense, recently upholding the army's practice of demolishing homes of bombers' relatives without prior notice.

But in 1999, the justices barred security services from using torture in interrogations, and they ruled this year that soldiers cannot use civilians as human shields during combat. A ruling is pending on whether the army can legally assassinate suspected militants.

Although many Israelis view the present case as vital for holding the armed forces to a high moral standard, for others the very asking of such questions is tantamount to treason while their nation is at war.

In testimony yesterday, disputes over how to end 22 months of fighting were recast as arguments about law, but passions still intruded on the decorum of the court.

"My son didn't have a chance to go before the high court of justice to make a last request before they blew him up," Miri Avitan shouted during a recess. Her son Assaf, 15, was killed in early December when two Palestinian suicide bombers attacked a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem.

Avitan stood in front of the three Palestinians who face deportation and waved a photo of her son, her screams echoing in the courtroom.

"Where else in the world would a high court discuss despicable murderers such as these?" she said.

A few feet away, six female relatives were trying to talk with the Palestinians as they were being hustled back to a basement cell. Israeli officials allowed the relatives to enter Israel from a West Bank village near Nablus to attend the hearing.

They sat on a wooden bench in the back of the courtroom, their traditional Muslim dress and head coverings drawing stares from the crowd, and huddled around an interpreter who translated the proceedings from Hebrew into Arabic.

One of the relatives, Rashida Ajouri, 65, told reporters that she wants Israelis and Palestinians to learn to live side by side.

"I hope for peace," she said outside the courtroom. "We are tired and they are tired. I hope they understand that."

Her daughter Intisar and son Kifah were among the three Palestinians fighting deportation. Another son was killed recently by the Israeli army, and a third blew up a bus in the West Bank this year in a suicide attack. Last month, the army demolished the family home near Nablus.

Ajouri would not talk about the case against her family.

"Only God knows what will happen now," she said.

More than 100 spectators from all walks of Israeli life - Jewish settlers and human rights activists, retired judges and law professors, victims of attacks and army commanders in uniform - crowded into the courtroom to watch the proceeding.

Israel's chief justice, Aharon Barak, returned from a summer sabbatical in the United States to preside over arguments that started before lunch and did not end until early evening.

Shai Nitzan, the state prosecutor, told the judges that Intisar Ajouri sewed at least one bomb belt and that Kifah Ajouri stood lookout and helped with transportation. He said the third person targeted for deportation, Abdel Nasser Asidi, gave food to his brother, who orchestrated suicide attacks, and to two bombers who killed 19 people.

Nitzan said there are many cases in which Palestinian militants decided not to carry out attacks because they were afraid their families would be punished by having their house torn down. In one case, he said, a father shot his son in the leg to prevent him from leaving home.

Expanding the program from house demolitions to expulsions, Nitzan said, would send a clear message that if "they carry out an attack, their family will be hurt." And in the cases before the court, the prosecutor said, the relatives provided crucial help.

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