Nabi Saleh, occupied West Bank – Across from the home of imprisoned Palestinian teen Ahed Tamimi in Nabi Saleh, the red-tiled roofs of Israel’s illegal Halamish settlement dot the adjacent hilltop.
Residents of Halamish, along with some 600,000 other Israelis, reside in the occupied West Bank in violation of international law. Despite living on occupied Palestinian territory, settlers are subject to Israeli civil law, while Palestinians to Israeli military law.
A person’s nationality and ethnicity determines which set of laws applies to who in the West Bank, rights groups have noted.
Tamimi’s case has made headlines worldwide and has shined a spotlight on these inequalities, which many scholars and analysts have characterised as tantamount to apartheid.
The teen was arrested in December after a video of her slapping two Israeli soldiers outside of her home went viral. Shortly before, her 15-year-old cousin was severely wounded when Israeli forces shot him point-blank in the face with a steel-coated rubber bullet.
Her village of Nabi Saleh, known for its activism against the occupation, is a constant target of raids and arrests by Israeli soldiers.
Under a dual legal system, Palestinians facing Israel’s military courts – run by Israeli soldiers and officers – receive far harsher sentences than a settler who commits the same crime and is tried in a civil court; some are not punished at all.
Palestinians are tried in military courts as adults at the age of 16, while the majority of Israelis at 18.
Since 2000, at least 8,000 Palestinian minors, including 17-year-old Ahed, have been prosecuted in Israel’s military courts, according to Defense for Children International – Palestine.
But is the unequal treatment of Israeli settlers and Palestinians the main point to take away from the case of Ahed and thousands of other Palestinians being tried in Israel’s military courts?
According to Ahed’s family and Palestinian experts, this deduction misses the point. Instead, the entire court system is illegitimate and is rooted in a decades-long process of colonisation, they say.
“Our goal is not for Ahed to be treated the same as a settler,” Bassem Tamimi, Ahed’s father explains.
“These courts are just one component of Israel’s larger colonial system.”
Saad Nimr, a Palestinian professor of cultural studies at Birzeit University in Ramallah, tells Al Jazeera that Israel’s court system is far from an “impartial process”.
In most cases, the convictions and sentencing have nothing to do with the actual allegations, but are instead dictated by Israeli secret service recommendations.
“You have a trial where the judge and the prosecuting attorney are all Israeli army officials,” he explains.
As a result of Israel’s more than half-century occupation of the West Bank, “the officials deciding your fate are essentially your enemies,” said Nimr.
Palestinians face a more than 99 percent conviction rate in Israel’s military courts.
Israel alternates between using its military and domestic legal systems to suit its political objectives, Ilan Pappe, a left-wing Israeli academic, tells Al Jazeera.
Under international law, Israel is permitted to use military courts in territories that it occupies. In the context of Israel’s occupation, however, the purpose of the courts is to “create a facade and legitimise what they [Israelis] are doing,” said Pappe.
While Palestinians in the occupied West Bank must pass through a military court system that almost guarantees their imprisonment, Israel’s political decisions in the West Bank – such as building illegal settlements – often occur within domestic Israeli law.
The courts are a “humiliating charade”, Pappe said. They are set up to create the illusion that Palestinians have the right to a trial and can defend themselves, he says.
“But, really, it’s a sinister process that has absolutely no meaning apart from being a bureaucratic self-justification for the system to do what it wants to do.”
A system of control
Israel’s establishment as a state in 1948 resulted in the displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians and the deaths of hundreds more, referred to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, among Palestinians.
For 18 years, the Palestinians who remained in the territory that became Israel were subject to military law in the form of curfews, travel restrictions and arbitrary detention without fair trial.
These Palestinians, numbering some 120,000 at the time, were “confined to their villages,” according to Nimr, the Ramallah-based professor.
Much like the current reality in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, they were forced to apply for Israeli permits to travel outside of their villages.
Israel’s military rule over Palestinian citizens of Israel was only lifted in 1966, a year before Israel transferred this system to the West Bank and Gaza to control the millions of Palestinians who reside there.
Israel has since established a complex policing system in the West Bank aimed at “either downsizing the [Palestinian] population” or reducing the area of space Palestinians can live in, while restricting their movement, Pappe says.
“[Israel] listens constantly to people’s homes and conversations. You are being policed daily, sometimes hourly, in order to make sure that you cannot resist what any normal human being would not tolerate.”
‘Break us from the inside’
Like thousands of others before them, Ahed and her mother Nariman are being tried in a court in which the entire proceedings are in Hebrew, a language most Palestinians in the occupied territory are not taught and do not use.
“The point of all of this is to make you feel completely powerless,” Manal Tamimi, Ahed’s relative told Al Jazeera. Palestinians must put their full trust in a court-appointed translator.
Manal, who has been arrested three times by Israeli forces for her political activism, says that “you can never be sure that the official is translating your words accurately”.
“It makes you feel lost and confused,” she says.
In prison, it is even worse, Manal explains. “The guards will be standing in front of you. You know that they are talking about you and that they could decide your fate, but you can’t understand anything.”
“It’s a way for Israel to break us on the inside,” she said.
One of Israel’s most disturbing policing tactics used to control Palestinians, according to Manal, is the targeting of children of politically active families.
Much like other residents in Nabi Saleh, each time that Manal was released from prison, she emerged with the same determination she had before going in, she says.
However, when her sons Mohammad, 18, and Osama, 21 were arrested by Israeli forces last month, Manal’s world was turned upside down.
“When [Israel] takes your children, you worry about them every moment. You are constantly thinking about whether they are being mistreated or if they are cold.”
According to Pappe, these tactics are used to force Palestinians into “behaving” and no one is off-limits; the imprisonment and abuse of women, children, and the elderly are all part of Israel’s attempts to intimidate families, he says.
“Palestinians are being told in many ways – whether through physical or mental intimidation – who is in control […] They are being sent this message through humiliation and abuse in order to tame Palestinians into accepting Israeli rule.”
Osama and Mohammad are now facing the same ordeal as their relatives.
“There’s no justice in these courts,” Bassem, Ahed’s father, tells Al Jazeera, glancing to posters of his imprisoned wife and daughter in his home.
“The goal [of the courts] is solely to show Palestinians that Israel has complete control over our lives.”