The main street was completely deserted on the way to Ramallah Military Headquarters the morning of February 25. It was the second day of a general strike called for in the eighth statement by the United National Leadership to protest the visit of Secretary of State George Shultz. Few people were even walking on this sunny winter day; the occasional car sped by, any driver aware he would be considered a strikebreaker.
Behind a slatted iron fence near the gates of the compound which houses the military court and prison huddled the only ”crowd“ in Ramallah: relatives of detainees from Ramallah and surrounding villages who have trials or hearings scheduled today. Older men in white kaffiyyas and black cloaks, their cracked shoes peeking out below, and village women in traditional dress and thin sweaters, attest to the fact that detainees are rarely from the urban middle class. Only the occasional defense lawyer, who also enters the compound between the slatted fence subject to soldiers’ searches, looks like he is from a different world.
Jeeps, trucks and cars bearing soldiers and settlers zoom up the driveway: Each gets a careful review by the waiting Palestinians, looking out for buses of detainees from Fara‘ or other prisons. Families at the Ramallah military court are not in the habit of expecting justice: Their main hope is usually to set their eyes on their son and perhaps give him cigarettes, some food or a warm sweater.
The soldier finally begins to call the cases, and people surge up to a small metal door leading from a tin shack to the inside compound. “I am the mother! I am the father!” people shout to the soldier. Some are admitted; some turned away. The soldier becomes increasingly nasty: Soon he is slamming the metal door as hard as he can, ignoring the cries, “But I must be in the court…just a minute…the lawyer promised.” “God curse their houses,” says an old man in a faded black robe, turning away from the door.
A lawyer’s intervention finally permits two of us from Birzeit University into the compound: We are here for the cases of a teacher and two students. The courtroom is full, and soldiers issue competing orders telling people where to sit. Several bring two high-backed judges’ chairs and place them proudly in front of the room.
“Who’s here for demonstrations? Who’s here for security cases?” a soldier demands in Arabic. Everyone begins to answer. An old woman says: “Demonstrations from the uprising?” Another, the father of a Birzeit student, notes he is here for an “appeal” (for a student under town arrest who has since been detained). The soldier ignores him; “appeal” does not fit into his two categories.
The two judges’ chairs are removed as suddenly as they came. The soldiers have now got their arrangements straight: “Security” cases must go to another room and cases from the “latest demonstrations” can stay in these chambers. “Those are from the uprising,” a hefty woman notes, and the soldier confirms her point. Now we all know where to go.
In the “security” room, we again receive assorted orders where to sit. Everyone is settled and waiting. Some compare notes, and generally agree that the demonstrators will get six months in prison and a fine, A middle-aged man shouts the story of Qabatya, where last night an Arab collaborator shot a child and was himself killed by villagers, into the ear of a partially deaf old man. The old man wants particulars: The collaborator is actually “from the village itself,” he notes with scorn, deciding he deserved his fate.
After an hour, we wander outside to find a defense attorney in a familiar state of rage: 52 cases are scheduled this morning. No prisoners have been brought; even the judges are absent. Families begin to crowd around him with questions; he has no answers.
At lunchtime, we leave the compound. The families are still waiting. Another fruitless morning in military court.