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Palestinian Court: A Sign of Budding Autonomy in Jerusalem

November 3, 1995

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The court is informal, to say the least. Its three judges, who deliver their verdicts from couches, have no official recognition. To enforce their rulings they sometimes send out men with clubs.

The Monday night Palestinian court in Jerusalem is growing in popularity among Arabs, who are often reluctant to deal with Israeli judges. But it alarms Israelis, who are wary of a new justice system under Arab control and see it as another threat to Israel’s claim over all of the Jerusalem.

Backed by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, the court is viewed as part of his effort to make the east Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state.

``The Palestinian Authority provides its blessings, but in doing so, the authority acts cautiously because the Israelis will say the Palestinians are interfering in their job,″ said Abed Abu Deyab, a PLO official in Jerusalem, which is home to 155,000 Arabs and 405,000 Jews.

Israel, which insists it is the only legitimate authority in Jerusalem, has raided the court three times since it was established in February. An Israeli police spokesman, Eric Bar-Chen, said the legality of the Palestinian court was under investigation and declined further comment.

The weekly court has settled hundreds of disputes from a single-story house in the Shuafat neighborhood.

It is modeled on a traditional system of neighborhood councils headed by a ``qadi,″ or arbiter, and its rulings are based on the Koran and an unwritten clan code known as Orf, which prescribes penalties for a variety of offenses.

For nine hours on a recent Monday, the four judges sat on couches and listened to arguments, questioned witnesses and negotiated compromises before ruling on 11 cases.

Landlord Ribhi Idais won a suit against tenant Ismail Kharubi, who was ordered to pay for damaged windows and doors. Chief Judge Abdullah Alqam warned him: ``If you fail to do so, you will have to pay a $750 fine for the alms committee,″ a Muslim charity.

In another case, a man asked for help because he said his brother-in-law was beating his sister and threatening to kill her. He asked the court to support a divorce, but the judges urged the family to support a reconciliation. The court said the brother-in-law would have to give up his affair with an Israeli woman, stop drinking and quit making threats.

Sometimes the court arranges a cash settlement of a blood feud set off by the murder of a clan member. When six partners in a large soft drink company had a dispute over $1 million, the court appointed two accountants to review the records.

Besides the Palestinian Authority, the court has the support of more than 400 local leaders representing most Palestinian political factions, including the militant Hamas group that has opposed the Israel-PLO autonomy process.

``Palestinian intelligence and police send us cases to deal with. Sometimes Palestinian officers attend the court’s litigation,″ said Alqam.

Not all offenders accept the court’s justice _ and when they don’t the court takes recourse. In one case, 200 people were mobilized to reclaim a house in the West Bank town of Ramallah and another piece of property in Jerusalem, Alqam said.

Even some Israelis have sought justice in the court.

Sarah Halevy, an Israeli boutique owner in Tel Aviv, complained to the court about a bounced check signed by a Palestinian businessman. The court pledged to help recover the money.

``The Israeli police weren’t willing to deal with it,″ Halevy said. ``They claimed that this was a transition period.″

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