The Case of a Palestinian Accused of Raping a Child Proves the Strength, not the Weakness, of Israeli Democracy

August 2, 2019 | Evelyn Gordon
About the author: Evelyn Gordon is a commentator and former legal-affairs reporter who immigrated to Israel in 1987. In addition to Mosaic, she has published in the Jerusalem Post, Azure, Commentary, and elsewhere. She blogs at Evelyn Gordon.

In May, Mahmoud Qatusa, a Palestinian, was arrested on charges of raping a seven-year-old girl who attended the Jewish school where he worked as a janitor. His lawyer compared his case with that of Leo Frank, a Jew from Atlanta who in 1913 was accused of raping a thirteen-year-old Christian. After Frank was convicted and sentenced to death, the governor of Georgia—because of the cloud of anti-Semitism hanging over the case—commuted his sentence to life in prison, only for a mob to break into Frank’s cell and lynch him. The comparison appeals to those fond of bemoaning the imminent death of Israeli democracy. But, writes Evelyn Gordon, the two cases are different in every important way, and Israeli democracy is as healthy as ever:

After [Qatusa’s] indictment hit the headlines on June 17, social media erupted with anti-Arab incitement, including from several politicians who accused him—with zero evidence—of intending the rape as a terror attack. But then, Israeli democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms kicked in. Senior officials from Israel’s independent police and prosecution, who weren’t previously involved in the case, reviewed it and discovered numerous problems. The country’s free press investigated and reported additional problems. On June 25, after top law-enforcement officials concluded the evidence was insufficient, charges were dropped, and Qatusa was freed.

Additionally, while anti-Arab racism undoubtedly exists in Israel, it doesn’t seem to have been a factor in Qatusa’s case. Even the senior legal officials who withdrew the charges remain convinced that a rape occurred and that some evidence points to him, just not enough for criminal conviction. Moreover, he was just one of several Palestinians employed at the girl’s school; many others worked elsewhere in [the Jewish town of Modi’in Ilit]. Relations between [the town and Qatusa’s village, Deir Qaddis] were good, as evidenced both by the Modi’in Ilit residents who publicly protested Qatusa’s arrest and by those who danced at the wedding of Deir Qaddis’s mayor’s son on June 13.

What distinguishes democracies from dictatorships is that democracies have self-correcting mechanisms to address [their] problems. And Qatusa’s case shows that despite a real problem of police incompetence, Israel’s self-correcting mechanisms work; consequently, Leo Frank-style travesties of justice don’t happen. Nor, incidentally, do lynchings.

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