Knesset moves forward on bill granting Israel unchecked, draconian powers

Israel has imposed emergency law since its creation in 1948.

Anne Paq ActiveStills

In early August, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, quietly passed the first reading of a bill that would turn the country’s “state of emergency” regulations — which have been in use since the state was created in 1948 — into permanent legislation.

The move would cement the use of draconian measures, such as administrative detention orders and politically-motivated deportations, in an Israeli effort to combat an extremely broadly and vaguely defined “terrorist threat.”

According to a statement released by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) following the bill’s first reading, “the Counterterrorism Bill contains sweeping provisions, which broaden the scope of criminality and threaten to turn law-abiding citizens and organizations (with no connection whatsoever to violent acts) into ‘terrorists’ ” (“The counter-terrorism bill 2011, Position Paper - Executive Summary,” August 2011 [PDF]).

Under the proposed law, individuals who “express solidarity or identification with a terrorist group” either by publicly waving its flag, playing its anthem, or publishing praise or sympathy towards the group, can face up to three years in prison.

The law would also place the burden of proof on the suspect to prove that he or she is not a member of a terrorist organization, while membership in a terrorist organization would extend to anyone who “declares his consent to join a terrorist organization to another.”

“Because the accusation here applies specifically to what a person said to another person, ostensibly in private, there exists a real danger here of incrimination on the basis of a false accusation, against which it would be difficult or even impossible to mount a defense,” ACRI states. “How could a defendant bear the burden of proof in such a situation? Can anyone prove that they never said something to someone in private?”

Origins in the British Mandate period

Shortly after the establishment of the Israel state in 1948, the country adopted the “Defense (Emergency) Regulations,” which had been decreed in 1945 by the British authorities — known as the Mandate — then ruling Palestine. During the British Mandate, these regulations allowed for the establishment of military tribunals, sweeping searches and seizures of property, the demolition of houses and administrative detention for indefinite periods of time, among other measures.

In 1951, the Knesset decided that the Defense Regulations went against the basic principles of democracy and suggested that they be repealed. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, however, “the Regulations were not abolished [in 1951], apparently because they served as the legal basis for the military rule then imposed on Israel’s Arab citizens” (“Defense (emergency) regulations”).

In his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, historian Ilan Pappe finds that the Emergency Regulations, used to sustain military rule over Palestinian citizens of Israel, were “comparable to the 1935 ‘Nuremberg Laws,’” the set of anti-Jewish laws passed in Nazi Germany that deprived Jewish citizens of their basic rights.

“These regulations … virtually abolished basic rights of expression, movement, organization and equality before the law. They left [Palestinian citizens of Israel] the right to vote for and be elected to the Israeli parliament, but this too came with severe restrictions. This regime officially lasted until 1966, but, for all intents and purposes, the regulations are still in place,” Pappe explains.

Indeed, the outbreak of the 1967 War and the subsequent and ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip also sidelined the cancellation of the Emergency Regulations, which remain in effect to this day; the Israeli Knesset has renewed them annually since the early 1990s.

“Over the years, Israel used these regulations extensively in the Occupied Territories to punish and deter. The Regulations served as the authority for Israel to demolish and seal hundreds of houses, deport residents, administratively detain thousands of persons, and impose closures and curfews on towns and villages,” B’Tselem states in its report.

Targeting Palestinian institutions

The Nidal Center in Jerusalem’s Old City is one of over two dozen Palestinian institutions in the city that have been closed in recent years through the use of Israel’s Emergency Regulations.

Established in February 2000, the Nidal Center for Community Development is affiliated with Palestinian Health Work Committees, an umbrella organization mandated with providing Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza with a “comprehensive, culturally competent, community-based health care system that is committed to serving the needs of the individual and promoting community health.”

The Israeli authorities issued the Nidal Center its first closure notice in July 2009. According to Hazem Abu Seir, the director of the Nidal Center, the Israeli authorities argued that the Palestinian community center was promoting terror-related activities. They have furthermore informed Nidal Center employees that another closure notice will soon be issued, barring the Center from opening its doors until September 2012.

“[The Israeli authorities] said in the beginning that this center is related to terror activities and [to a] terror party,” Abu Seir told The Electronic Intifada. “But the reason [they closed the center] is that we work with youth. [Our activities are] related to our Palestinian culture and this is indirect resistance. When you develop your own identity, it’s something that makes them very worried.”

Abu Seir said that the Nidal Center has no links whatsoever to so-called “terrorist organizations,” and instead, its activities focus on developing cultural awareness and promoting education of Palestinian youth and children, and holding seminars, lectures and classes to empower Palestinian women. “For example, we established and started dabke [Palestinian dance] teams. It was a really good thing and the youth liked to participate in the group. After the closure, all of them and their families called us and asked, ‘Why? Why did you close?’ It was very good opportunity for youth and children to participate in the center in the Old City,” he said.

“I am always hopeful [that the center will re-open] but after they told us that they’re going to renew the closure, the decision disappoints us very much,” Abu Seir added.

Use of Regulations widespread

Israel’s use of administrative detention orders — which authorize the detention of a person without charge or trial, and which can be renewed indefinitely for six-month periods of time — is based on the Emergency Regulations of 1945. As of July 2011, B’Tselem estimated that Israel held 243 Palestinians in administrative detention in facilities run by the Israel Prison Service (IPS) (“Statistics on administrative detention,” July 2011).

According to Addameer, the Ramallah-based prisoner rights group, “administrative detention has been used as a form of collective punishment by the Israeli military against Palestinians, illegal in this form under international law” and “Israeli authorities do not hesitate to violate the standards of fair trial, and fail to take international law or humanitarian dimension into consideration while handling the issue of administrative detention” (“Administrative detention”).

Israel has also used the Emergency Regulations to expel Palestinian political leaders from Jerusalem. Adnan Gheith, a member of the al-Bustan popular committee in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan and the secretary of the Fatah movement in the neighborhood, for instance, was expelled from the city in early 2011 for a period of four months.

Gheith’s expulsion was based on the pretext that he was responsible for clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli security forces in Silwan and thus constituted a security threat to the state. It was the first time that Israel had issued an assigned residence order against a resident of East Jerusalem. “The order against Adnan is not part of a legal process where suspicions, charges or evidence have any part. It is an administrative order that circumvents the rule of law, which forms the foundation of western democracy,” wrote the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) at the time Gheith’s deportation order was issued (“Help Silwan resident Adnan Gheith stay in Jerusalem,” 23 December 2010).

“In this harsh reality, a person’s rights are taken without due process, with no charges, based on secret evidence and with no possibility to truly defend oneself. It is the essence of a Kafkaesque, legal procedure in the taunting maze of the Occupation’s bureaucracy and power,” PSCC added.

“Unchecked, draconian powers”

Ultimately, ACRI concludes that if passed, the Counterterrorism Bill would not only cement the dangerous measures already practiced by the Israeli authorities, but would legalize their use at all times, not only during a “state of emergency.”

“The bill grants the executive branch unchecked, draconian powers to use harsh measures against individuals and organizations — all this without trial, on the basis of mere suspicion, and without establishing the minimal guarantees for the defense of the rights of the accused,” ACRI explains in its press release.

“The Counterterrorism Bill in its current formula … seeks to perpetuate the improper procedures currently in place, while abandoning human rights concerns. This is all the more grave given that the proposed bill would become a permanent, ‘normative’ law, and not limited to use in a state of emergency.”

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at