The Israeli government had directed that the Quaker legal aid office stop providing lawyers for West Bank Arabs arrested on security offenses because the assistance goes beyond "humanitarian" functions, the Quakers organization said yesterday.
A spokesman for the Israeli Social Affairs Ministry said that a letter asking the Quakers to phase out their 5-year-old legal aid program, which already had been sharply curtailed last year.
The American Friends Service Committee said it had been providing legal aid in about 20 new cases a month for West Bank Arabs charged with relatively minor security offenses but who could not afford lawyers.
Gail Pressberg, director of Middle East programs for the Quaker group, said the legal aid program had been accused of engaging in political activities "inappropriate to the humanitarian cause," and that the Israeli government had claimed the program duplicated services provided by the West Bank-Gaza military occupation government.
In the letter from Israel's social welfare deputy director general, Mordechai Avitsour, dated June 4, the Quakers were "requested" to phase out the legal aid program as cases are closed. The "request" has been interpreted by the Quakers as an order.
The legal aid program had been active in helping West Bank Arab landowners bring civil suits against the government in cases of land expropriated for Jewish civilian settlements, and it backed last year's landmark appeal to the supreme court over the seizure of Arab land for the Beit El settlement near Ramallah. The court temporarily halted work on Beit El, but then ruled that expropriating Arab land for specific "security" purposes was legal.