Israel’s most repressive law is about to get worse

Using the Emergency Regulations to outlaw Palestinian political movements is a preview of what’s coming.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference about the wave of violence across Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, October 8, 2015. Sitting with him are (from left to right): IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisencot, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Acting Police Commissioner Benzi Sau. (GPO/Amos Ben-Gershom)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference about the wave of violence across Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, October 8, 2015. Sitting with him are (from left to right): IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisencot, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Acting Police Commissioner Benzi Sau. (GPO/Amos Ben-Gershom)

In June 1951, member of Knesset and future prime minister Menachem Begin participated in a meeting of the Knesset’s Constitutional, Law, and Justice Committee on whether Israel should adopt administrative detentions as a legitimate security practice. During the discussions, Begin gave a scathing criticism of the Emergency Regulations of 1945, the British law that permitted detentions without charges or trial during its colonial administration of Mandate Palestine:

If we accept the Committee members’ definition of ‘emergency,’ then in all honesty, we would have to admit that it applies in the State of Israel…forever … You are saying that we must reconcile ourselves — with all that ‘emergency’ ostensibly implies — to the long-term presence of tyrannical, fascistic laws. — Menachem Begin, June 11, 1951 (Source: Israel Democracy Institute)

Despite Begin’s criticisms in the forum, the Knesset decided to keep the Emergency Regulations as a part of Israel’s legal system, under the pretext that the newly-formed country was still in a state of war and should therefore hold on to the extensive security powers that the law provided.

As Begin predicted, the law was routinely used for non-security purposes, though perhaps not as he had conceived. During Israel’s formative years, the law was one of the key mechanisms that allowed the state to impose military rule on its Palestinian citizens until 1966; seize Palestinian lands and properties under the guise of “military necessity;” and prevent Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons from returning to the homes they lost during the 1948 war. After the beginning of the 1967 occupation, Israel expanded the Emergency Regulations into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, making it the legal basis for the military rule we see today. Israel’s Supreme Court, far from questioning the law’s existence, continually upheld its legitimacy and the military occupation that derived from it.

Menachem Begin speaking in the Knesset (Photo from Government Press Office-Wikimedia Commons).
Menachem Begin speaking in the Knesset (Photo from Government Press Office-Wikimedia Commons).

Begin, though renowned as a hawk and a nationalist, had both personal and political reasons for opposing the Emergency Regulations. During the British Mandate in Palestine, the law granted Britain extensive military powers as a means to suppress local Arab resistance and Zionist insurgents fighting against foreign rule. Begin and his underground militia, the Irgun, were among the primary targets of the ensuing crackdown. Having experienced the brutal power of the law — and believing it to be a severe threat to the freedoms of Israel’s citizens — Begin asserted that “this law is bad from its very foundation and…does not become good because it is practiced by Jews.”

It seems Begin’s warnings were not only ignored by the Knesset committee in 1951, but also by the leaders of his own Likud party decades later. Two weeks ago, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon invoked the Emergency Regulations to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Rather than conducting transparent investigations, hearings, and collection of evidence as required by various Israeli laws, the government decided to issue an executive order allowing it to immediately close the movement’s affiliated organizations and seize their properties and funds.

Although the outlawing of the Islamic Movement has been a long time coming, the method used by the government was surprising. Israel has not officially banned a Palestinian political party in Israel since Al-Ard in 1964, when Palestinian citizens were still under the military rule made possible by the Emergency Regulations. Since then, Israeli authorities have used other laws and methods to attack Palestinian political parties and movements, such as disqualification motions and criminal indictments, which largely failed after being contested in court. This time the government chose to bypass these civil channels in favor of a military law that offers few avenues for legal redress.

Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, during a large protest and a general strike, in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, in the northern town of Sakhnin, on October 13, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, during a large protest and a general strike, in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, in the northern town of Sakhnin, on October 13, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

This hasty move is not just a matter of political timing and opportunism, though they are certainly key factors. As my fellow +972 writers have noted, the context of the recent two months of violence and unrests have served as a cover for the government’s action, aiming to associate the Islamic Movement with the Palestinian stabbings and Da’esh’s attacks in Paris, in order to garner support from the Israeli public and sympathy from the international community.

There is, however, another deeper dynamic at play. Since 2009, the right-wing Israeli government has demonstrated an aggressive impatience for watching their policies questioned and challenged by Palestinian citizens and the anti-occupation Jewish Left. This intolerant attitude has been seen in threats by right-wing politicians against the powers of the Supreme Court; their laws discriminating against Palestinian citizens’ rights; their refusal to heed advice of security agencies countering their political agendas; and their delegitimization of left-wing opponents in the Knesset, media, and wider public.

The government’s decision to invoke one of Israel’s most repressive and colonial laws is an outcome of this intolerance. Having failed to expel Palestinian political groups and leaders from the Israeli political sphere for years — including by raising the electoral threshold and inciting against Palestinian representatives of all political stripes — the government is now reverting to authoritarian powers to achieve its objective.

Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, some holding Palestinian flags, take part in a large protest during a general strike in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, in the northern town of Sakhnin, on October 13, 2015. (Activestills.org)
Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, some holding Palestinian flags, take part in a large protest during a general strike in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, in the northern town of Sakhnin, on October 13, 2015. (Activestills.org)

More concerning, however, is that Israel is seeking to use these powers not merely for exceptional circumstances, but as standard procedures. In September of this year, the Knesset passed the first reading of the “anti-terror bill,” a colossal piece of legislation that, in a nutshell, would enshrine further powers and provisions of the Emergency Regulations into the Israeli legal system. Among other things, the bill would effectively grant new authorities to the police that were previously reserved only for the Shin Bet, and which could more easily designate any political, social, or cultural organization as a “terrorist” body based on the state’s political criteria.

The outlawing of the Islamic Movement is a preview of what the anti-terror bill entails. Netanyahu was not speaking in hyperboles when he said last month that Israel was doomed to “forever live by the sword.” That belief is manifested and entrenching itself in Israel’s laws and policies, eroding the rights of citizens in Israel alongside those of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

It therefore seems that the vague definition of “emergency” and the “tyrannical, fascistic laws” that Begin warned about are not only here to stay permanently, but are about to get much worse.

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