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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Perspectives from the President

August, 2002

The Occupation Endangers Democracy in Israel

By Marcia Freedman

Supporters of Israel have always expressed pride in Israeli democracy, pointing out, correctly, that it is the only democratic country in the Middle East. With a well-established parliamentary and electoral tradition unquestioningly respected and adhered to by all and an independent judiciary, Israel comes very close to emulating the democratic regimes of the West.

But as we have seen in this country since September 11, civil rights and civil liberties are easily sacrificed on the altar of national security. In Israel, where national security has been a paramount concern since before the establishment of the state, civil rights and civil liberties-the third leg of the stool of democratic rule-have never been legally protected. They have been upheld only by custom, and sometimes sporadically. For the most part, the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, the public's right to know and other basic rights are only granted as a matter of custom but not of law.

During the past two years, as the Palestinian resistance and the Israeli response to it have grown increasingly violent and as Israelis have felt their personal security ebbing, protection of civil rights and civil liberties has assumed an even lesser place in the order of public and political priorities.

For the most part, over the past two years, it is the civil rights and liberties of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel that have been incrementally threatened and abrogated through a series of new laws intended to limit the scope of independent Israeli Arab political organizing.

Now, however, two recent incidents point toward further damage to the fabric of Israeli democracy, affecting Jewish citizens of Israel as well. Both involve, not surprisingly, prominent Israeli peace activists and critics of the Sharon government and its policies-Shulamit Aloni and Uri Avnery.

Last week Israel's Attorney General, Elyakim Rubinstein, ordered an investigation of Aloni as well as two Israeli Arab MKs, Ahmad Tibi and Mohammed Barakeh, for violating a military order issued in January, 2000 banning Israelis from Palestinian-held territories. Aloni is a founder of the Meretz political party who served in the Knesset from 1973-1992, a former Minister of Education and a recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize in 2001; she traveled to Ramallah in January of 2000 to meet with Yassir Arafat. Aloni argues, in her defense, that it is obviously illegal to visit an enemy country, and that the army has the right to declare off-limits a visit to an area ruled by a military government. But the West Bank has never been declared an enemy country, and, since 1993, there is no longer a military government in the West Bank.

The second incident involves another left-wing former Member of Knesset and veteran peace activist, Uri Avnery, most recently the founder of the peace organization Gush Shalom and a recipient of the prestigious Alternative Nobel Peace Prize for 2001. Avnery is not formally under investigation, but recent remarks by Major General Dan Halutz, supported by the Prime Minister about "the enemy within" are a cause for concern.

Specifically, Halutz called the actions of Gush Shalom "treasonous" (the only crime in Israel punishable by the death penalty), and the Prime Minister asked the Attorney General to open an investigation. To his credit, the Attorney General ruled that there are no legal grounds for prosecuting Gush Shalom. However, in response, the Minister of Justice, Shimon Shitrit, has called for the enactment of new legislation that would make Gush Shalom's actions illegal.

Over the past year, the issue of violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention being committed by Israel Defense Forces has been a matter of media attention and public discourse in Israel, especially since the establishment of the International Criminal Court in the Hague and the recognition that Israel is technically in violation of several of the Convention's provisions. Closer to home, Israeli law mandates that soldiers should disobey orders that are manifestly illegal and over which hang a "black flag" of injustice and possible war crimes.

The Geneva Conventions were ratified following the Second World War. The International Criminal Court was established to redress and prevent the crimes of the Holocaust. The fact that both Israel and the U.S. now fear the reach of the new Court should be a cause of great concern to Americans and especially to Jews all over the world.

The specific "treasonous" action that Gush Shalom is being accused of is this: The organization has sent a number of warning letters to Israeli army officers (with copies to the Ministry of Defense and the media) warning them that some of their actions are in contravention of both Israeli and international law. That is the long and short of it.

Aloni is under investigation for exercising her rights of freedom of movement and assembly. Avnery and Gush Shalom are under investigation for exercising their right to freedom of speech. Neither individual nor the positions they represent are enormously popular in Israel right now. But civil rights and civil liberties are there to protect the rights of the minority, not the majority.

Shulamit Aloni and Uri Avnery are veterans of Israeli politics, venerable in their adherence to a humanitarian, democratic tradition that was an inherent part of the early Zionist vision of Israel and the traditions of the state since its founding.

These state actions against them are alarming warning signs that maintaining the Occupation of Palestinian lands can have a far-reaching and regrettable affect on Israel's future as a democratic society.

Marcia Freedman is a former member of the Israeli Knesset and the President of the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.

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