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Audrey Bomse has not seen the inside of a New Jersey courtroom for quite some time now, and some might wonder if the long-time prisoners’ rights advocate has grown tired of representing the underdog or is shying away from unpopular causes. Far from it. The Piscataway attorney, a co-founder and director of Seton Hall Law School’s Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Clinic, has taken on a new and more daunting challenge: Since September, she has been living and working in East Jerusalem, advocating for the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories. What drew Bomse to foreign terrain was simple economics: the increasingly unfavorable environment for prisoners’ litigation here at home. “It became less and less possible to earn a living” representing prisoners because of laws like the federal Prisoners’ Litigation Reform Act, passed in 1996, she says. International law “seemed like the thing for me to do,” says Bomse, who holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. She now works at the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) under a two-year contract funded by United Nations International Service, a British non-profit group that promotes “self-reliance, justice and development in Third World communities.” The focus of Bomse’s efforts has been to persuade Israel to prosecute crimes against Palestinians by West Bank settlers. Before deciding to close her practice and commit to two years in Israel, Bomse did a three-month stint at the PHRMG in the spring of 2001. She researched and wrote a report entitled, “Separate and Unequal: Disparate Treatment in the Israeli Criminal Justice System of Palestinians and Israelis who Kill.” The report reached the “unfortunate conclusion” that “Israel fails to adequately protect the lives and rights of Palestinians. Two separate and unequal legal systems operate side-by-side, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians.” Bomse cites the case of Nahum Korman, an Israeli settler who killed 10-year-old Palestinian Hilmi Shushah in 1996 for throwing stones. Though Palestinian eyewitnesses testified that Korman beat and stomped Shushah to death, and an autopsy report supported the testimony, a judge acquitted Korman. (There is no jury system in Israel.) On appeal by prosecutors, the Israeli Supreme Court reversed, finding Korman guilty of manslaughter and remanded the case for sentencing. In January 2001, Korman agreed to a plea bargain requiring him to pay 70,000 shekels, about $17,500, and to do six months of community service. “The typical settler crime is not murder” but with that kind of slap on the wrist for killing a child, “you can imagine the sentences for harassment,” Bomse says. Conversely, Palestinians are given stiff sentences for violence against West Bank settlers, owing to the dual system of tribunals. While Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians are tried in civilian courts, Palestinians who harm Israelis are tried by military tribunals, each consisting of one lawyer and two military officers. The burden of proof in the tribunals is “substantial evidence.” There is no right of appeal outside the military court system. Nor is there is a right to appointed counsel in the tribunals and most Palestinians cannot afford an attorney, Bomse says. Those who can hire counsel often do not see them until they go to court because defendants are held in Israel pending trial, and their Palestinian lawyers are not permitted to enter the country. Proceedings are conducted in Hebrew, which most Palestinians do not speak, and many of the translators provided do a poor job, she says. The result is lots of plea bargains, leading to “assembly line justice,” says Bomse. “I have seen people get three years for rock throwing.” PUSHING THE PROSECUTION Another focus of Bomse’s efforts is getting Palestinians to report complaints of crimes against them. “One of the main reasons Israelis say settler violence is not punished is that Palestinians don’t call the police,” she says. Bomse has set up and runs a unit within her office to assist Palestinians in filing and following up on complaints. It operates a 24-hour hotline modeled on U.S. domestic violence hotlines, assists in gathering and preserving evidence and keeps after prosecutors and police to follow up. Language and licensing barriers prevent Bomse from signing papers or appearing in courts, but she supervises staff and volunteer lawyers who do so. In March, she won a victory in Israel’s High Court in a suit against the Minister of Police, the attorney general and the Hebron police commander. PHRMG v. Minister of Police, S.C.J. 1597/02. The state responded to the petition by filing papers that gave updates on the complaints at issue and said it was ordering police to respond to criminal complaints by Palestinians against Israelis. Things improved for a while but have drifted back toward noncompliance, says Bomse. The attorney general and a number of police stations are not responding in a timely fashion, she asserts. “We have sent copies of the relevant High Court documents to these police stations and to the prosecutor, and have pointed out what a waste of everyone’s time (ours, theirs and the court’s) it would be if we have to litigate this issue once more.” She is contemplating another petition to the High Court in the case of 18-year old Mohammed Shalash, who was allegedly shot to death by settlers for throwing stones on a settler bypass road in December 2000. There were witnesses and an autopsy, she says. Two settlers were arrested, then released without charges and the file was closed. An appeal of that decision to the prosecutor is pending. If denied, as expected, Bomse will go to the High Court once again. ROADBLOCKS TO SUCCESS The escalating violence in Israel has made Bomse’s task more difficult. Her own movments have been curtailed by roadblocks and curfews and she describes an incident where an Israeli tank pointed its gun at the car she was in. The impact on her work has been far greater, however. Before Israeli tanks rolled into the territories, “we were getting to the point where we were forcing, getting a good number of cases referred to the prosecutor for prosecution,” she says. “Everything has come to a halt,” she laments. “We can’t even interview people.” Though strict curfews and the military incursions have reduced settler violence — “there’s not much room for settlers to commit criminal acts,” she says — they have created a new “burning need” to provide representation for the thousands of Palestinians picked up in the army sweeps. Efforts to line up lawyers for the detainees have, ironically, been aided by the scope of the army’s destruction, which shut down the Palestinian courts, freeing up Palestinian lawyers to represent detainees, according to Bomse. Traveling to the Palestinian courts was already difficult but now those courts are “physically destroyed,” with computers smashed and hard drives thrown out the windows, says Bomse. “I don’t see Palestinian courts functioning again for a long time,” she adds. She is still trying to go after settler crime that she says has taken the form lately of vandalism and looting of Palestinian property. Bomse is also arguing with the Hebron police for not recognizing Arabic powers of attorney that authorize PHRMG to act on behalf of Palestinians. They use that as a basis for not responding to PHRMG correspondence, says Bomse. “We had a similar problem with the Israeli criminal court at one point,” she recalls. The court ended up apologizing and agreeing with PHRMG’s position that “Arabic is an official language in Israel and … our clients should not be forced to sign documents in Hebrew, which they do not understand,” she says. “We expect the same to happen with the police. If not, we will certainly litigate the issue when curfews are lifted.” Another development that was not part of Bomse’s original plan was Sept. 11. She was supposed to start at PHRMG on Sept. 15 but the date was pushed back a few weeks by the attacks. With tightened Israeli border restrictions these days that sometimes exclude foreign human rights workers, Bomse tries to be sure when she leaves Israel that she will be allowed to re-enter. She carries with her two documents to prove she is Jewish: a letter showing that her mother receives a Holocaust victim’s pension from the Austrian government and her son’s Hebrew birth certificate. “As a last resort, I can claim a right of return,” she says. When she left Israel this spring, her papers were searched and she was questioned extensively about why she is studying Arabic — she had a language manual with her. When she got on the plane she was moved up to first class and seated beside a crew member she suspects had been told to keep an eye on her. She no longer travels with her laptop since airport security tried, without success, to get into her hard drive. EDUCATIONAL EFFORTS Public education is also part of Bomse’s effort. Her office prepared and is distributing a “Know Your Rights” handbook that advises Palestinians in English and Arabic of their right under both Israeli and international law to a legal remedy for crimes committed against them. The pamphlet advises crime victims to observe the attacker carefully, to take a photograph if possible and to keep copies of any evidence handed to police. Bomse also conducted several rights workshops for the public before the territories were closed earlier this year. She describes a seminar in Hebron, where the women were hesitant to enter until they saw there was an adjacent room where they could listen apart from the men. Still, fearing that some women had been too intimidated to take part, Bomse held a second, women-only session. The PHRMG has brought together Israelis and Palestinians. Though American Jews and other foreigners have worked there, Bomse was able for the first time to attract Israeli Jews. They include about 20 women from Bat Shalom, the Israeli peace movement, two law students from Tel Aviv University and an Israeli Jew studying law at Boston University who volunteered this summer. “As a Jew I was able to reach out to them,” she says. Bomse describes in particular the experience of an Israeli graduate student who was hired to compile a database on settler violence. “He’s also in the Army Reserves and was reluctant to come work for us” because he thought he would be uncomfortable, says Bomse. By the time the occupation of Ramallah and Nablus began, he wanted to quit grad school and do human rights work full time. ‘MY STRUGGLE’ Bomse explains that she ended up working for Palestinian rights because, not despite, the fact that she is Jewish. She turned down a United Nations job in Guinea in favor of working for Palestinian rights on the rationale that “if I’m going to go somewhere, I might as well go where it’s my struggle.” “It is important for Jewish people to take a stand,” agrees Jeffrey Fogel, a Nutley, N.J., solo practitioner who has served as Bomse’s co-counsel in several cases. “That stand will not always be on the side of Israel,” notes Fogel, who is also a former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “It’s wonderful that there are some lawyers who will put their passion for justice ahead of their interest in material goods, which unfortunately is too much of what our profession is known for,” he says. With more than a year to go on her contract, Bomse is unsure whether she will avail herself of the opportunity to remain an extra year. That depends to a large part on how the situation in Israel develops and whether she feels her efforts with PHRMG are making a difference. Next week, she will be headed to Cairo for a conference sponsored by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Arab Lawyers Union. It is expected to launch an effort to get lawyers from around the world to come to Israel/Palestine for a few weeks at a time to monitor the proceedings in the military tribunals and assist attorneys representing the detainees.

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