Tuesday, April 02, 2013

2-Apr-13: Justice and rocks

The murder victims: real people, real lives, real loss

In September 2011, we wrote here:
What seemed on Friday to be a routine car accident now turns out to have been an attack by terrorists in the vicinity of the Jewish community of Kiryat Arba. [Source]. The Jerusalem Post reports this evening that police now believe that rock throwing was the cause of the car accident that killed Asher Hillel Palmer, 25, and his one-year-old son Yonatan on FridayAt a court hearing today, counsel for the police said that it now appears the car veered off the road after a rock shattered its windshield. "The police said that the front window was shattered, and a large rock was found inside the car with Palmer's blood on it. People close to the victims claimed that the police quickly determined it as a car accident in order not to inflame the region." A young man and his baby son are dead and a family is forever shattered.
Some time afterwards, we got to know Michael Palmer. A man of great dignity, carefully spoken, determined, he is Asher's bereaved father and the murdered one year-old Yonatan's saba (grandfather). A cultured person who keeps his opinions mostly to himself, he faced (we are assuming) a question with which we ourselves have had to grapple and to answer: They killed my loved ones. What is there for me to do now? 

Michael set out to do whatever is humanly possible to bring the killers to justice. This, for the benefit of readers living in comfortable places far from here, is not always so easy to do and never to be taken for granted. 

We know only some of what he managed to do. We know he retained a lawyer who knows the military court system inside out - not an obvious thing to do, but one that helps to level the playing field. He pressured the authorities to treat the deaths of the young father and his baby son as murder by terrorism: the signs were there for anyone who wanted to see them, but at first the authorities did not see them. 

He pressed for the law to to be applied in the manner appropriate to cold-blooded perpetrators who set out to develop killing skills, and who eventually succeed in killing. 

He resisted with incredible firmness some of the more idiotic aspects of the military justice and prison system, some of which we were there to witness ourselves. 

He patiently endured postponements and adjournments, one after another: the defence lawyer fails to arrive in time, the prisoner has to prepare for exams, another reason, another excuse, another nerve-wracking delay. 

He encouraged well-intentioned strangers and friends to come and be there in the small court room at Machane Ofer on Jerusalem's northern edge - not only to be there but to be there with photographs in our hands. Photos of Asher and of Yonatan. By this, he succeeded in creating something unusual in a terrorism trial: an awareness of the victims. When our daughter Malki's murderers were tried in a different military court eleven years ago, we were told nothing before, during or after. The first intimations we had of their arrests and convictions came when we read about them in the news.

Today, Michael Palmer together with the mutual friends who introduced us - Melody and Yosef Hartuv (Yosef writes the Love of the Land blog) - left their community south of Jerusalem and headed north by car to hear the judicial panel in the court room pronounce the verdict in the murder trial of Wa'al Al-Araja. 

The road they traveled runs north through a notorious Palestinian Arab village called Beit Ummar. We have written about it here in the past: "23-Feb-12: The power of the camera". Please go and read it if the title does not ring a bell for you. It features some graphic photographs detailing what happens when a deliberately hurled rock, cement block or boulder shatters the windshield of a young Israeli mother's fast-moving car. The Hartuvs and Michael Palmer followed the highway through the same town today. They encountered, as hundreds of other local Israeli residents do daily, the same malevolent intent, the same indifferent onlookers, as we depicted in that blog post a year ago. 

Yosef told us:
While we were passing through Beit Ummar early this afternoon, a Arab youth - I would say between 16 and 18 and wearing a ski cap to conceal his identity - stepped out from behind a building with rock in hand, targeting our car. Veering away, we managed things so that the rock struck 'only' the body of our car. Once before, when we were heading back home from Machane Ofer and a previous hearing, another budding terrorist - or was it the same one? -  shattered the windshield of our car a few hundred meters away from where today's attack happened. It's all just part of the seemingly regular challenge of attending a trial where the accused make use of stones directed at Jewish motorists as murder weapons.
It's possible someone was arrested in Beit Ummar today, but if so it did not happen when the Hartuvs and Michael Palmer were hit. (Perhaps a little later; we can hope.) Shaken but uninjured, they kept on going, and were in court when the decision was given:
The Ofer Base Military Court convicted Tuesday Waal al-Araja, a member of the Palestinian security forces from Halhoul, of the murder of Asher Palmer and his infant son, Yonatan, in September 2011. Al-Araja, who was throwing stones from a moving vehicle toward Palmer's car on Route 60, causing the father and son's death, was also convicted in connection with a series of attempted murders of a similar nature. The verdict is considered unusual in relation to stone hurling incidents where the Military Prosecution seldom files indictments for murder. The judges, Justice Amir Dahan, Justice Zeev Afiq and Justice Steve Berman noted in their decision that there has been no precedent in a similar case since the 1980s. Al-Araja admitted to the crimes ascribed to him in both the interrogation and during the trial but claimed that he did not mean to kill the victims. In their verdict the judges noted that al-Araja was convicted of murder because it was proven that he intended to kill Jews and that he understood that throwing rocks could cause their deaths. The verdict also revealed that at the time that the Palestinian terrorist committed his crimes, he was becoming an expert at hitting his targets and noticed the serious damages that were a result of stone hurling. The judges further noted that al-Araja's associates boasted of their actions, called it Jihad and later claimed that they carried out the acts because "the settlers cursed the prophet Mohammad and burned mosques." [Source: Ynet]
The report goes on to describe Michael weeping and embracing those friends who had kept on turning up to present the court with those unwelcome reminders of what Palestinian Arab terrorism is really about: innocent victims, shattered lives.

We emailed Michael this evening to express our feelings of admiration and relief at the effort and the outcome. He responded with this:
Thanks for your email. Adrian Agassi, the attorney representing Asher's and Yonatan's interests, refused (and continues to refuse - there are five defendants left and appeals) to let the prosecution walk away from the expectations we agreed to with them 18 months ago and he deserves a big share of the credit. 
The pursuit of the men and women who practice terrorism rarely has happy moments, and this was not one of them. Asher is not coming back to his wife and to the baby daughter born five months after his death. And baby Yonatan's smile has ended forever. What's left, and it is something small but precious, is the pursuit of justice. Not vengeance; justice. The lives already stolen will not be restored, but other lives, not yet damaged, can be protected and saved. 

With his own two hands and a fierce sense of what must be done, Michael Palmer saved lives today: no one can know how many. May he and his family be blessed with the joy of knowing this, and from their decent lives and achievements and those of their children and grandchildren. 

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