Today, the Israeli Supreme Court will discuss Berlanty Azzam’s case once again. A month ago, the 21-year-old Gazan, who is studying business at Bethlehem University, was violently deported from the West Bank and now she is currently unable to complete her degree. While Azzam’s story has garnered worldwide attention, it is not exceptional; she is only one of many young Gazans barred from accessing education by Israeli policy.
Nine years ago, Israel prohibited movement from Gaza to the West Bank. Under this policy, any Palestinian registered in Gaza is subject to deportation from the West Bank, even those who have lived in the West Bank for longer than nine years.
Forbidding movement out of one of the most densely populated areas in the world — which has since become one of the poorest — has had many unfortunate consequences. But rather than try to address the systemic problems created by this policy, Israeli authorities have, for the most part, addressed human rights issues on an arbitrary case-by-case basis.
A month after Azzam’s deportation, the Israeli judiciary is using this strategy once again as it decides her case. This tactic conveniently makes Azzam the exception rather than the rule and helps conceal the fact that a whole generation of Gazans is denied the opportunity to seek knowledge and professional training. Although the case gained attention from world leaders, many have focused on this incident specifically. For instance, after coverage on CNN and a viral Internet campaign, U.S. authorities promptly demanded an explanation for the harsh treatment of the young business student but have not spoken out about the limited ability for young Gazans to obtain education. The court then may bow to international pressure but can design its intervention so as to have very limited impact.
Amid scrutiny from the international community, Azzam’s case was heard at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. Under such scrutiny, it is unsurprising that the court felt compelled to reach out for Azzam and granted her a military hearing where she could make her case to go back to school. The court even criticized the military for having violated Azzam’s right to due process during deportation.
The hypocrisy of this high-minded concern with process is analogous to the complicity of the Supreme Court with the violations of civilians’ rights under military control. Alongside the critique of the military, the court decided that Azzam would not be permitted to be present while her case was argued. In a single-lined ruling signed by Justice Miriam Naor, the court decided to favor a closed dialogue between lawyers and security experts over a display of pubic deliberation.
Last Wednesday, Azzam and her attorney, Yadin Elam of the Israeli organization Gisha, arrived at the military office at the Erez border complex for the hearing. After Azzam pleaded, the military informed them that the army’s legal position remained unchanged. The military asked the court for a few more days to consider a possible concession providing a remedy in Azzam’s particular case. But when its final position was due, the military refused to make such a compromise and informed the Supreme Court that it will not allow Azzam to complete her degree.
In a relatively rare intervention, Justice Naor expressed unease with the position the state reiterated. “We are suggesting that the sides will consider allowing the plaintiff entry for the purpose of education, upon depositing high bonds,” she wrote. But the military was stubborn, and Azzam’s attorney was informed that there would be no compromise.
The state and the military are able to disregard signaling from the court because they believe that the court will not “have the courage” to write a binding decision against the state. This is reflective of a struggle going on between the state and the court. While the executive and the military now seek a determination that the closure on Gaza is absolute, the internationally-minded court desires the kind of compromise that will allow it to maintain an image of respect for basic rights. Do not be mistaken: These are basically two competing strategies of management, both aimed at the preservation of the basic premises of military control. Each agency merely has its own institutional preferences.
Both the kind of compromise forwarded by the court and the general prohibition on movement the state is seeking would be highly injurious for Palestinians and Israelis alike. If Azzam is denied permission to return to the West Bank, her education will be severed two months short of completing a degree. Her fate would become binding precedent. But even an exceptional concession due to further pressure from the court and the international arena would be an offensive result. Azzam’s problem is systemic, but the court would make it a personal one. The jurisprudence of Israeli military control fragments the most cumbersome legal problems into individual appeals for case-by-case favors. In this process, the plaintiff is no longer positioned as a bearer of rights but must instead beg for them.
Until the court decides to actually assert the rights of Gazans to seek a better future, we stand before two unjust strategies of control.
Itamar Mann is a master’s candidate at the Law School and a human rights lawyer from Tel Aviv.