Ofer - Shooting, Interrogation of Witness

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Roni H. and Ilana H. (reporting)

Translation from Hebrew: Nurit Steinfeld

The story apparently began in the autumn of 2002 or perhaps 2001: the witnesses didn`t remember exactly. Five or six years ago, when the Kalandia checkpoint was not yet pretending to be an international gateway and the cement wall was not standing at its real height, twisting and turning surrounding and imprisoning, finally obstructing the passage of thousands, and many were still carrying various documents and permits to present at the checkpoint in order to enter Jerusalem and waiting in long queues beneath the open sky, or perhaps under a tin shelter that had been erected at some point - during one of those long ago days, towards evening, a disturbance occurred, as occurred almost every day, some outburst of angry young Palestinians and children who played at throwing stones and perhaps, yes, apparently, there was also somebody who shot, not one but two who shot, apparently. In the air or perhaps in the direction of the checkpoint - this matter is not exactly clear, but it seems nobody was hurt.
Abed Hamid Vajia, resident of Kalandia refugee camp, was then 17 years old or perhaps just 16, and he too was there in the ruckus at the checkpoint. Later he returned safely to his home, and according to his brother lived his young life fairly well: because he has a blue (Israeli) identity card he could even travel to Tel Aviv, Haifa, who knows where else. However, six months ago his life went wrong and will not return to what it was for many years: he was arrested and accused of “shooting at a person” during that incident years ago at the Kalandia checkpoint. Today, January 21, 2008, we saw Abed Hamid at the “Yehuda Military Court” in the Ofer Military camp. He was brought from the far away prison at “Gilboa”: a young man of 23, very handsome still very youthful in appearance, his face a bit childish even.

Our visit at Ofer was focused on the hearing of Abed Hamid. It lasted an hour and half.

Judge: Major Menahem Lieberman
Prosecutor: Deputy Jenia Walinsky
Defense: Ismail Tawil

In the seats in the back of the little courtroom sat the brother and sister of Abed Hamid - they too are very young. The brother told us later that he walks with crutches because of a wound resulting from the shooting of soldiers. He too has already spent part of his life in prison. He appeared young, agitated and very angry: “All this is a show”, he said to us a few times later, in Hebrew. We shook our heads in agreement: we had no reason to disagree with him. When he tried to move to a seat closer to the front, next to us, in order to communicate better with his brother, he was rebuked and ordered to return to his place. We, of course, were allowed to move from one seat to another - which we did occasionally - in order to hear and see the proceedings better.
Even at the beginning of the hearing it was apparent that the situation of Abed Hamid - who on that autumn day years ago thought he was just participating in another little episode (perhaps he was even mature enough back then to realize that he and his peers were protesting and resisting almost every day in that place against the transformation of their home into an ugly prison) - even at the beginning it was clear that his situation was complicated and that nothing would work out for him very soon.

“I don`t know who my defense lawyer is” he said initially and it became apparent from his testimony that he does not want Ismail Tawil as his attorney and that Ismail Tawil does not want him as a client.

“I thought he would get another lawyer”, the attorney said, angry, and added that he is not willing to hear the witness, who was already standing on the witness stand ready to give testimony.

For a moment it seemed that the hearing for which the defendant and his family had waited so long would be canceled and postponed for many long months, but the judge decided to deny the defense lawyer`s request to postpone and to accept prosecution`s request to hear the two witnesses, the prosecution`s witnesses. The defense attorney was therefore forced to continue in his role, although it was clear later as well that he carried on in this case against his wishes. There was no way to appeal the decision of his Honor the Judge of course, he decided , as he does every day, that in one way or another, this shameful show must go on.

Gradually it became evident that the prosecution as well was laboring on a thankless task. Both witnesses claimed that they did not remember exactly what happened during that distant day. The first witness (a young man convicted of trade in weapons), whom the prosecution wanted to testify that he had passed arms to the defendant, said that he had never had any contact with Abed Hamid and that he knows him only superficially because both are residents of the Kalandia refugee camp. All the prosecutor`s efforts to press questions related to the passing of arms between the witness and the defendant, as apparently the witness had reported during some previous interrogation, were in vain, and finally the prosecutor appealed to the judge to refer to the witness as “hostile”. The judge allowed it.

Despite this state of affairs, the defense attorney made some effort to interrogate the witness a little. The witness was, in fact, really uncooperative and it was very obvious that he felt very uncomfortable in the role of incriminator and was concerned about incriminating himself once again. However the judge calmed him pleasantly and told him that he was already sentenced and that nothing he said in his testimony would hurt him.

The defense tried to show that the secret service interrogation in which the witness incriminated Abed Hamid was carried on under difficult conditions, perhaps by the denial of sleep. He asked him, among other things, “if the interrogation took place during the day or night” but the witness, unfortunately did not provide the desired answer: “I don`t know”, he said, “because there is no light there”. It was as if the testimony was a metaphor but no, it turns out the interrogation took place in a tiny windowless cell of solitary confinement.

To the question of “How did the interrogation take place?” the answer was also strange and ambiguous. “It was good, after that the interrogator started to hurry and shout and curse”.

To another question of the defense the witness even went so far as to say that that he does not know why he was brought today to the courtroom. But as we know this witness was already considered “a hostile witness” and therefore his confusing words were probably not considered. Upon hearing his testimony it was difficult not to see the maze of his life and the lives of those who share his fate who for decades are entrapped in a large prison between one checkpoint and another and who invariably go from there to the smaller prisons of bars, cells and walls.

The second witness in this hearing was also a prisoner who was convicted and sentenced to eight years in a plea bargain. He confessed as a part of the plea bargain that he fired a shot on that fateful day but unfortunately for the present defendant he had given the name of Abed Hamid during his interrogation as the one who had fired the second shot on that day. But now, in his testimony he retracts and claims that he does not remember who the second shooter was and that he had just thrown out the name of Abed Hamid because he had to provide another name in order to finally conclude his interrogation. Therefore no facts were uncovered during this hearing aside from the known fact that the incident occurred a long time ago and that it is difficult to remember the details. The prosecutor requested that this witness too be considered “hostile”.

If this were not an issue of years of a young man`s life, this whole show - especially the text - would be very amusing. Major Menahem Lieberman, who as this barren hearing grew longer and longer would rock in his big black chair, occasionally stretching his arms and producing huge yawns denied the request of the prosecutor to consider the second witness as “hostile”. Between yawns he played his role well in this show: the role of the judge is to be objective, above political circumstances, sincerely seeking the truth, patiently by means of occasional apathetic questions and be open and clear headed, not too attentive, helping all the other participants who are not as experienced as he to arrive at the truth about the incident in question - one of similar thousands - that occurred five or six years ago at the entrance of Kalandia refugee camp, an event that at some point in the hearing was defined as “a terrorist act”. And perhaps because the incident was thus defined and the case took on a heavier significance, Major Menachem Lieberman, who an hour before was concentrating on removing a hair from his jacket and carefully examining it, became more alert and took upon himself a more lengthy intervention: he explained to the young prosecutor who was apparently ignorant in matters of arms and shooting, with the help of many details and gestures for visualization various techniques of shooting, in the air or not in the air, at the distant checkpoint or a closer person, and then even got a little annoyed once, atypically for him, and denied with a gesture of his hand in disgust the words of the “unhostile” witness, or perhaps it was the defense lawyer, who referred to what happened as “child`s play”: “We were small children, emotionally disturbed”, the witness said in response to a question of the defense. And the defense continued and asked “was the shooting intended to kill Jewish people?” - ”No,” the witness answered. “The goal was a game?” asked the defense attorney with a grin and agitated hand gestures raising his voice (it was hard to understand what the attorney was so pleased about). “Yes,” said the witness, “we were excited by the shooting”.

Thus ended the interrogation: the defense attorney had no more questions. The prosecutor had more questions about the “terrorist shooting” - this was the expression now used by everyone - that the witness had committed and that Abed Hamid was accused of. She asked: “when you say terrorist act do you mean shooting in the air?” The witness answered, “yes”, and the prosecutor then said she had no more questions.

It was almost noon, lunch time. And not only did it really seem that all those who labored for more than an hour and half at the creation of justice deserved a break, but also nobody had more questions to ask, and now that it was clear with what sort of people we were dealing with: did they really think that an Israeli court would consider that a terrorist shooting was child`s play and that the intention was to just fire into the air and not to hit Jewish people? The judge set the date for the following hearing of the case, rose and left. The hearing was over.

Abed Hamid`s brother also rose and hobbled closer to him in order to use the opportunity to speak before they left the courtroom. The brothers managed to exchange a few sentences but from the door in the back the shouts of the policewoman could be heard as she entered and waved the handcuffs, “Yalla, come already, yalla, let`s go, what is this?!” and Abed Hamid moved back, his face still facing his brother and he was careful not to fall on the chains shackled to his ankles until he almost bumped into the impatient policewoman, he turned to her and at last presented both his hands, and then turned once again to his brother and sister and waved to them with his manacled hands for a last farewell - and disappeared.

For five or six years the young “shooting terrorist” was free and grew to be a handsome man and even wandered around Israel with a blue identity card in his pocket and nothing happened: no Jewish person was hurt, that is many were hurt, both Jews and Palestinians, but not by him. And now, with the revelation of a terrorist shooting that was disguised as child`s play, or perhaps conversely, it is clear that he will be sentenced for years - everything is predictable and only one side has the power - so there is no need to hurry: the next hearing, “hearing of evidence” will not take place for another half year. It was set for July 8, 2008.