Will the Aramin Civil Trial Lead to Indictments in Israel's Criminal Court?

08/27/2010 11:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is good news in the civil case of Abir Aramin, a little girl who was killed in 2007 by an Israeli soldier's rubber-coated steel bullet just outside her school. On Monday, Aug. 16th, Judge Irit Efal-Gabai issued her ruling on behalf of Israel's Civil Court. Her decision holds the State of Israel responsible for killing Abir Aramin and orders the State to pay compensation. At the end of this month, by order of the Israeli High Court, the Jerusalem Prosecutor's Office must present the results of its criminal investigation. Indictments may follow.

It was late night in Anata, East Jerusalem when I reached Bassam Aramin, Abir's father, by phone. "From the beginning, as you know, I believed in justice," he said. "What the judge decided is very strong."

Justice, worth believing in, has been long in coming. A few months after Abir Aramin was killed, the Jerusalem Prosecutor's Office closed the investigation without indictments, citing lack of evidence and denying appeal. In contrast, Judge Efal-Gabai found the testimony of fourteen eye-witnesses and the independent autopsy compelling and decided, "There is no debate over the conclusion that Abir was injured by a rubber bullet shot by border guards, which in turn leads to the conclusion that the shooting of Abir occurred out of negligence, or in violation of the rules of engagement."

Judge Efal-Gabai continued, "We are not talking about injury by shots fired at a crowd of rioters and rock-throwers, near which a little girl just happened to be standing. The girls were walking down a street where there were no rock-throwers and therefore, no reason to shoot in their direction."

How did she know? In January, Judge Efal-Gabai, escorted by 100 Israeli soldiers, went to Anata, East Jerusalem to see for herself. She interviewed the soldiers and witnesses on the site where Abir was shot three years earlier.

"This was the first time that an Israeli judge visited the scene of the crime against a Palestinian victim," said Mr. Aramin. "Our lawyers say that not even in Tel Aviv, not even in Jerusalem has this ever happened before."

The Aramin Family: Salwa, Bassam, Bassam's brother, and daughter Areen in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C.
The Aramin family -- Bassam, his brother, wife Salwa, and daughter Areen -- stand outside of the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C., holding a picture of Abir.

Remarkably, at the start of the civil court proceedings, Judge Efal-Gabai asked Abir's parents why they chose to build playgrounds in memory of their daughter. She also asked, "Who is this Rebuilding Alliance group that helped raise funds for Combatants for Peace to build the playground?" On-site, she asked to enter the gate of the Anata Girls School to see the playground called, "Abir's Garden: a Safe Place to Grow."

Policy change is required to make this playground safe. To achieve this important goal, the Rebuilding Alliance brought Bassam and Salwa Aramin with their elder daughter Areen (an eye witness) to the U.S. to tell their story on a speaking tour, joined by two Israeli former soldiers who, with Bassam Aramin, were among the co-founders of Combatants for Peace. We brought them to testify at the State Department to enter Abir Aramin's case into the State Department's Annual Report on Human Rights.

Later that year, when the Jerusalem Attorney ignored the evidence and closed the investigation, the Rebuilding Alliance translated all the court documents, petitions, and the independent investigation presented by Israel's Channel 2 News from Hebrew to English and presented the transcripts to the State Department and to Senate staffers. Because U.S. human rights law can and does save lives, the Rebuilding Alliance formally requested that the State Department invoke the Leahy Amendment on behalf of Abir Aramin's family. This law requires the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Defense Department to stop providing aid or training to any foreign military unit that commits a gross violation of human rights -- as did the West Bank unit of the Israeli Border Police when they shot 10-year-old Abir in the back of her head.

Given the strength of Judge Efal-Gabai's decision, the Jerusalem Prosecutor should seek criminal indictments against the soldier and his commander. This too would be a first. As stated by the Israeli Human Rights group, Yesh Din, "Throughout the years of the Israeli occupation of the territories, and especially during recent years, the law enforcement agencies have been under severe criticism...Figures provided to Yesh Din show that during the years of the second intifada, 90% of the Military Police Criminal Investigation Department investigations ended with the files being closed and without indictments being filed."

Abir Aramin struggled for her life for 3 days before life support was removed. Hadassah Hospital is in West Jerusalem; her extended family was not allowed to cross the checkpoint to be there to offer solace. Instead, Israeli co-founders of Combatants for Peace joined Abir's parents at her bedside. In the grief of these gruff former Israeli soldiers, Bassam and Salwa realized that their daughter Abir was not only their child -- she was all their children.

In the criminal trial to come, may justice be served, precedent set, and policies revised to assure that justice becomes accessible to all families. May laws be changed to keep soldiers far from schoolyards and to ban the use of rubber-coated steel bullets. May justice strengthen those who work to bring the Occupation to an end so that all children -- Israeli and Palestinian both -- will be safe.