Interview: Yesha Jews Have Rights, Too, Says Orit Strook
If police, the Knesset, and the justice system have more respect than they used to for residents of Judea and Samaria – or, at least, more willingness to treat them like other Israelis with rights, instead of “second-class settlers” – it's largely thanks to the efforts of the Yesha Human Rights Organization, headed by attorney Orit Strook. The group has filed hundreds of complaints against police officers who tended to release their frustrations on Jewish youth in places like Amona and Gush Katif, and it has also pursued criminal and civil cases against dozens of police officers guilty of police brutality. In addition, it has lobbied for and successfully pushed through important legislation that protects the rights of residents of Judea and Samaria.
“The government, the Knesset, the media and the left understand that the Jews of Yesha have someone supporting them,” Strook told Arutz Sheva. “We have made them sit up and take notice, ensuring that offenses against Yesha residents will be dealt with thoroughly.”
The work is not limited to Yesha residents. A good example of what Strook means came last week, when the organization filed an NIS 100,000 lawsuit against a police officer who was convicted – thanks to Strook – for beating up an innocent bystander at the 2010 “Pride Parade” in Jerusalem. An Orthodox man was filming a demonstration in the Geulah neighborhood – far away from the parade – and recorded provocations by police against some of the demonstrators from a rooftop. A policeman noticed the man filming, and demanded that he hand his camera over. The man refused to do so, and the policeman made his way to the roof and beat up the man, grabbing the camera. After supplying evidence, testimony and legal assistance, Strook got the officer convicted of police brutality – and filed a civil suit against him as well.
“Tracking down police officers who mistreat citizens is one of the activities on which we spend a great deal of time” says Strook. “Theoretically, cases like these are supposed to be dealt with by the police internal affairs unit (Machash), but they often suffer from a lack of motivation – and even if the motivation is there, the resources are not.”
The effectiveness of Strook's group is evident in the numbers, she says. “About 2% of cases filed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs end up generating an indictment, while about a third of the complaints we file do. We end up doing a lot of the work Internal Affairs is supposed to do, but cannot or will not do.” When the organization takes a case, Strook says, they stick with it from beginning to end, ensuring that justice is done – and that corrupt cops pay the penalty. “Once we're done with a criminal case, we almost always proceed to a civil lawsuit, in order to ensure that the policeman pays a stiff settlement out of his own pocket.” That, says Strook, is how police learn that crime – in their case, police brutality – doesn't pay.
One of the major projects taken on by the organization – dealing with the police brutality at Amona in 2006 – is nearing completion. “As is well known, policed treated the protesters with extreme violence, and hid their identities by taking off their badges,” Strook says. At first, it appeared as if the subterfuge by police had succeeded; nearly all the complaints of brutality were dismissed because the specific officers that beat protesters could not be identified. “We got involved and produced evidence and witnesses, eventually identifying nearly all the offending officers. Our evidence was accepted by the courts, and they have begun meting out punishments.”
Besides working police brutality cases, the also works in the legislative arena. “Nowadays we are invited to all Knesset deliberations on human rights.” The organization was also instrumental in passing a law that expunges all charges against youths who were arrested in protests during the Disengagement. The law has been challenged by leftist groups in the High Court, and the organization has defended it – successfully – numerous times.
One of the most important projects the organization has taken on, says Strook, is helping to establish the Land of Israel Lobby in the Knesset. “We worked with numerous MKs to develop the Lobby, which was recently named by Yediot Acharonot as the most effective lobby in the Knesset,” Strook says. Her latest project is ensuring equal rights and justice for farmers in Judea and Samaria. “The farmers there have long suffered from both Arabs and police, who are very quick to blame them for Arab provocations,” Strook says. That situation actually follows the pattern set by the Justice Ministry, which, after much research by the organization, was proved to be singling out Yesha residents for harassment – at the order, it turned out, of Deputy State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. “We exposed the Nitzan situation, and we are doing the same thing in order to protect the farmers,” Strook said.
The Yesha Human Rights organization subsists mainly on donations, and volunteer work by attorneys the group works with. “At any one time, we have about 100 cases going, so this is a fairly complicated operation. There are many projects we'd like to take on that we cannot, because of the lack of resources and time.” But difficult as the work may be, it's necessary – and it's had an important impact on Israeli society. “Today police, the courts, and the Knesset have learned that the residents of Yesha are Israelis with rights. That's a big change from just a few years ago,” says Strook. “That new attitude has made Israel more democratic for everyone.”