Israel's Next Plan of Attack
As it has become more acceptable to speak critically about Israel during the last two years, critics have worked hard to draw important distinctions. Those who condemn current policies of the Israeli government underscore that, in doing so, they are not denying Israel's right to exist. Similarly, critics of the Israeli role in the occupied territories are careful to distinguish between governance in the territories and policy within Israel proper.
It has long been clear to honest observers that the Israeli administration of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip--where the Palestinian uprising has been raging for almost two years--is a far cry from democracy. A series of military orders regulate the territories, and the neglect of the Palestinian population and the abuse of military power both before and after the intifada's beginning have been well documented.
The relative stability of the situation within Israel proper has up to now provided a measure of relief for those who are troubled by the intifada and Israel's response to it. It seems that the government has not allowed its abuses in the turbulent territories to spill over into the rest of Israel. Israeli law applies as it always has within the state itself, and it is possible to see Israel--as it is frequently described--as a "western-style democracy."
A bill currently before the Israeli Knesset, however, threatens to shatter such illusions of an Israel with a democratic core. The "Third Amendment to the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance of 1948" was passed by the Knesset on its first reading in May, and is expected to pass again at its second and final reading sometime this month.
The proposal would extend Israel's blatant disregard for the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to those Arabs who live within Israel itself as Israeli citizens.
ARABS comprise 18 percent of the population of Israel proper. Israeli budget allocations, however, have never fully acknowledged their existence. As the Jerusalem Post reports, more than half of Arab families in Israel live below the poverty line. Even so, the Israeli government regularly provides Arab towns and villages with as little as one-third of the regular budget allocations and one-tenth of the development funding provided for equivalent Jewish municipalities.
As a result, a host of non-profit, voluntary Arab organizations have been formed in recent years to provide such diverse social services as public libraries, scholarships for students, health care, assistance to the aged, day-care centers, and sports groups.
Because, as Palestinian lawyer Hussein abu Hussein says, "We don't receive one agora from the state," these organizations are forced to rely primarily on funding from philanthropic and charitable groups abroad. Between 80 and 100 such Arab voluntary organizations receive 90 per cent of their funding from abroad, mainly from Western Europe and North America.
The proposed "Third Amendment" threatens the very existence of these organizations. If passed, the bill would vest in police officers the power to "seize the property" of any organization that has ever "directly or indirectly" received funding from "a terrorist organization, or a corporation which is designed to act, or acts, for the denial of the existence of the state of Israel."
The tortuous nature of that language was hardly unplanned. It is not difficult to imagine the misguided logic by which charitable organizations that fund Arab groups will be defined as acting "for the denial of the existence of the state of Israel."
CONFISCATING the property of these non-profit Arab organizations is tantamount to driving them out of existence. According to human rights lawyer Avgidor Feldman, the proposed legislation "can clearly be used to suppress legitimate activities."
Besides being a practical matter of the utmost concern for Israel's Arab community, this bill would clearly represent a fundamental violation of civil rights. All that is required for the seizure of property is "reasonable suspicion"--not even a search warrant.
When such broad discretionary power is granted, arbitrary police actions are the inevitable result. So far, in those instances where Israeli police officers in the occupied territories have been invested with powers of arrest on such vague grounds, charges have been eventually brought against only 3 percent of those arrested.
As Knesset member Amnon Rubinstein has acknowledged, "In a democratic system you do not harm and you do not punish unless you first forewarn citizens. This amendment breaches this important rule."
WHEN Divinity School Dean Ronald Thiemann last week cancelled a planned forum comparing Israel and South Africa, the debate over the propriety of that comparison was rekindled on campus.
Israel and South Africa are two different countries with two vastly different histories. A simplistic rhetorical linking of the two countries' policies of discrimination is generally fruitless and ill-advised. Nonetheless, in looking at specific similarities between Israel's proposed "Third Amendment" and South African "emergency legislation," we can see why analysts feel justified in raising the comparison.
Professor Donna Arzt of Syracuse University has studied in some detail the resemblance between the bill currently before the Knesset and the recently enacted "Disclosure of Foreign Funding Act" in South Africa.
South Africa, it turns out, has already enacted an eerily exact analogue to what Israel is now considering. It has legislated an end to foreign funding of social, educational, and health services--as well as political organizations--when the funding is deemed not to be "in the public interest."
The South African law and the proposed Israeli legislation both rely on such vague language. Both grant sweeping powers to the police, and strictly limit court supervision. Both allow search and seizure of property without warrants. And both bypass important elements of due process-in South Africa, suspects are required to give oral evidence with out a lawyer's assistance, while in Israel the normal rules of evidence would be bypassed.
Professor Arzt concludes that the amendment now facing the Knesset "would place Israel in a camp with the country most widely known for its manipulative uses of law and the legal system to repress civil liberties and civil rights."
SUCH a comparison may in the end not be all that productive. One could just as easily compare the United States to South Africa on the basis of our lack of a national health insurance system.
The point is not that Israel and South Africa are the only countries in the world with deeply flawed policies. Rather, it is that both countries do indeed have flawed and oppressive policies, and that there should be no immediate and arbitrary taboo against discussing them in the same breath.
Although dozens of Jewish and Arab groups in Israel have vocally opposed it, the "Third Amendment" is widely expected to pass and become law. And that's a shame. For its own good and for that of all its people, the Israeli government has got to wake up, realize it's not 1948 but 1989, and negotiate whole heartedly for a peaceful and just solution to the problems it's done a lot to create.