A Palestinian mother, in a floral headdress, walked past the two rows of blond wood benches at a West Bank military court and stopped near her son. Dressed in a brown jailhouse uniform, the young man held out his hands for a police officer’s cuffs. He was in his late teens, had just been indicted and, like all of the nearly two dozen accused Palestinians to come before the court during a recent visit, he was given an informal moment with his family members before being taken back to prison.
“May all of you be arrested,” the mother greeted her son, “because only the heroes are arrested.”
Most Israeli army prosecutors would not have picked up the mother’s comment. It was uttered on the far side of the room, amid the commotion of court proceedings, in sotto voce Arabic. But Lt. Arin Shaabi, a gregarious lawyer with a black cross tattooed on the back of her left hand, is not most Israeli army prosecutors.
Ethnically, religiously, nationalistically: classifying Shaabi is a challenge. She is an Arab, a Christian, a Jew, an Israeli and, despite her officer’s rank, still mulling over whether she could be called a Zionist.
This sort of identity – the matrilineal granddaughter of a Jewish Moroccan woman who moved to Israel and a well-to-do Arab Christian man from the city of Christ’s birth – is perhaps easily juggled in the United States or the United Kingdom. Many menorahs and Christmas trees share the same living room. But in her hometown of Nazareth, in northern Israel, and in the military courts at Salem, near Jenin in the West Bank, where thousands of Palestinian Arabs are tried every year, her complex identity comes under constant appraisal and strain.
‘My Jewishness, my Israeliness, to a certain extent won out over my nationality and my Arab side’
The Military Prosecution Service enforces military law on IDF soldiers and on the Palestinian residents of the West Bank. The system is rooted in international law and backed up by an appeals court and the Israeli Supreme Court, which hears cases from Palestinians. But with thousands of cases per year, amounting to hundreds of thousands of verdicts over the past 46 years, it is a system that groans under the stress of the ongoing “belligerent occupation” (the legal designation that allows for a foreign power to exert military rule over a conquered or occupied people) and the Palestinians’ violent opposition to that status quo.
Recently, after several relatively quiet years, the IDF has seen a spike in nationalist crime. Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in November, along with other regional tensions, has led to an increase in what the IDF calls ‘folk terror’ — stone throwing, Molotov cocktails, and the usage of other improvised weapons. As this article was written, on April 30, an Israeli father-of-five, Evyatar Borovsky, was stabbed and killed in the northern West Bank. Major Alon Raveh, the chief prosecutor of the Samaria region of the West Bank, where the attack took place, confirmed the increase. “There is an insane amount of cases,” he said.
As of March 31 there were 4,764 Palestinians incarcerated in Israel, representing roughly one-quarter of the total prison population. As in the Israeli civilian criminal courts, the vast majority of the cases are never brought beyond the stage of indictment. Plea bargains prevail. “If we brought even 30 percent of the cases to trial, the entire system would collapse,” said Wissam Egbaria, a defense attorney from the Arab city of Um el-Fahm.
Beyond the quantitative strain there is also the personal toll of working as an Arab in the IDF’s military courts. As opposed to in the alleys of the West Bank, in the court rooms the Palestinian defendants have faces and families and life stories. Their language is Shaabi’s mother tongue. Sometimes their religion — Christianity — is the one she most affiliates with. But she said she is at peace with her decision to work here. “My Jewishness, my Israeliness, to a certain extent won out over my nationality and my Arab side,” she said after a long day in court.
The court rooms in which military justice is dispensed are low-ceilinged and Spartan affairs. There are two benches in the back of the room for spectators, a gray metal railing, and four tables for the prosecution, stenographers, translators and defendants and their attorneys. In the front of the room, on a raised platform, before the Military Advocate General Corps seal of a sword, an olive branch and the scales of justice, sit the judges, or single judge in low-level cases.
During a recent visit, Shaabi brought 24 cases before the judge, Major Yariv Navon: for sentencing, for confirmation of an indictment and for registering a plea. Most of the cases involved throwing stones at soldiers, which is viewed as less severe than at civilians, or illegal entrance and residence in Israel. One defendant was 16-years-old. One was a player on the Palestinian national soccer team for the mentally disabled (his disability is slight and he was deemed fit to stand trial). One, in a pink Lacoste shirt, was charged with membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine while a student at a-Nagah University between 2004-2007. And one, in white sneakers and gray jeans and with no prior record, had been caught bringing homemade pipe bombs to the site of a planned attack.
In no instances was the IDF seeking more than 10 years in prison and often the punishments were several months incarceration and a several-thousand-shekel fine.
The work was largely procedural: reading the defendant his indictment, securing his authorization that he understood the nature of the charges and setting a future court date. The Palestinian defendants were all male, mostly in their late teens, and were rarely interested in the court proceedings. Those who were sentenced all refused Major Navon’s offer to say a few words in their defense. All but one — a thick-shouldered man in his mid-twenties who had lived and worked in central Israel for years in order to provide for his family but had a prior conviction for a criminal gun sale — spent the entire time in court trying to communicate with the two family members allowed to attend the court hearings, signaling with their hands, mouthing messages across the courtroom, and largely ignoring even their own attorneys.
Afterward, Shaabi led me to her office and explained how she went from being one of the best students in the Sisters of Our Divine Salvation School in Nazareth, where the headmistress was a nun, to the prosecutorial wing of the IDF’s legal system.
Everyone she met, from officers to fellow privates, asked her what she was doing in an Israeli army uniform. At the end, though, she was chosen as the company’s top soldier
She started with her grandmother. The woman’s name was Rachel. She was a traditionally observant Jew from Fez, Morocco, who came to Israel in the fifties. Shaabi was not sure of the year of her arrival or of her ideological feelings about the Zionist state. Only that she arrived along with other family members, who settled in Pardes Hannah and Holon.
In 1959 — while most of the Arab residents of Israel were still governed under military rule and could not, say, travel outside their villages at night without permission — Rachel met Shaabi’s grandfather, an open-minded Christian from Nazareth, and fell in love. Several months later they were married. “She was baptized on the day of her wedding,” Shaabi said.
Other than that, though, Rachel remained Jewish. Living in the Arab city of Nazareth, she posted mezuzot on her door, lit Shabbat candles and marked all of the holidays.
Rachel had three girls and one boy. She called the girls Dina, Anat, and Ruti. The boy was given a Christian name. All three girls married Christian Arab men but perpetuated some of the Jewish traditions. “We lit candles on Hannukah and had a seder on Passover,” said Shaabi, Dina’s daughter, “but I grew up very Christian, very tied to Christianity.”
In Nazareth, a city riven with Muslim-Christian tension, the fact that she was part-Jewish was well-known and not always appreciated. “I was a minority within a minority within a minority,” she explained.
As a child Shaabi would visit her grandmother often and was in touch with her Jewish cousins, but consciously avoided choosing sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict. “I always remained politically neutral,” she said, “because I felt that if you’re for the state then you are against your Arab family, and if you are for your Arab family then you are against the state.”
In high school, she matriculated in Hebrew literature and began to feel that, as opposed to her twin brother, Alaa, who moved to the US, she was deeply rooted here and might want to serve the state.
Her Jewish cousins joined the army at 18 but she felt the IDF was too far removed from her reality. For instance, she said, “until I joined the army I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Remembrance Day. I think that’s shocking.”
Instead, she went to Shaarei Mishpat College in Hod Hasharon, central Israel, and studied law. After four years there, and after befriending an Arab Druze man who was also planning to join the IDF, she presented herself to the draft board.
Her father will not receive her with a uniform on
Her mother was supportive, her father was dead set against it, and the army was bewildered. “For a year and a few months, they had me running around in circles, telling me I needed to get a security clearance and basically refusing to give me any straight answers,” she said.
Despite copious internet research, she knew little about the army upon induction. “I flowed,” she said several times, meaning that she let fate deliver her to the right destination.
Basic Training took place at Machaneh 80, one of the army’s older and more rundown bases. Shaabi recalled puddles of sewage. And everyone she met, from officers to fellow privates, asked her what she was doing in an Israeli army uniform. At the end, though, she was chosen as the company’s top soldier and guided in the direction of the MAG Corps.
The lawyers she met there were part of a program called Atudah, which sends some of Israel’s top students straight from high school to college and then to the army as officers who serve for a longer period of time as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. She had never heard of the program.
In July 2011, after serving as an enlisted soldier for several months, she managed to gain acceptance to the legal officers’ course and, upon graduation, was asked where she would like to serve. All of the options were open to her. She chose the prosecution arm of the Judea and Samaria wing. “It could be I didn’t know what the exact nature of the position was back then,” she said, “but I love litigation and where else do 25 and 26 year olds get to handle heavy security cases on a daily basis?”
In the courtroom, Shaabi was not bashful about her Arabic. She spoke freely with one of the Druze translators and on occasion with a Palestinian lawyer from the West Bank. At times, in between cases, it seemed that only the judge and the stenographers were in the dark. But that is not to say that her peers on the other side of the aisle accepted her. “At first they kept their distance from me,” she said of the defense lawyers, some of whom live in the West Bank. “One of them” – a lawyer who appeared in court earlier in the day — “told me that he really hates me.”
With time, that has changed, mostly because of her mother tongue, which allows for better communication regarding plea bargains and the like. “You don’t want to see my boss try to have a discussion with that lawyer,” she said, “it’s all pantomime.”
At home, though, in Nazareth, she has not been accepted. Coming home with an IDF uniform on, she said, was the equivalent of parading around the city naked. She has moved to Jewish Upper Nazareth, “the most boring city in the world” and rented a place there. Her father, since divorced, will not receive her with a uniform on.
Nor has dating been a great success. She has no time for a social life, would like to marry a Christian, but is aware that “it is not very acceptable in my world to have this job. It does not exactly raise my stock to the roof.”
And yet, for her, the most difficult aspect of the job is dealing with the children who come through the system. The army prosecutes minors from the age of 12 and up. At times she sees 10 year olds with files already thick with crimes. During my visit to Salem, a 16-year-old was brought before the judge, behind closed doors, and charged with 24 violations. “That’s what bothers me,” Shaabi said. “It’s not their Palestinian nationality, but their age.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that Arabs residing in Israel in 1959 were not allowed to vote. The military rule endured until 1966 but it did not restrict the right to vote.