Critics say Israel’s new ‘terrorism’ law criminalizes Palestinian political activism

The Israeli parliament on Wednesday passed a law expanding the power of the state to label individuals or groups as “terrorists,” in what critics said will be exploited to criminalize legitimate Palestinian political activity.

The new legislation combines into one law several pre-existing “counterterrorism laws” in place since the British Mandate, and will apply to civilian courts inside of Israel only.

Among its most controversial tenets are numerous wide-reaching definitions what constitutes “terrorism” official legal procedure for declaring a “terrorist organization,” and what constitutes “support” for such a group.

Under the law, the government can outlaw charity groups “indirectly”  contributing to “terrorist organizations” and imprison its members by association.  The law also enables the state to issue a life sentence to those who “support” but are not directly involved in “terrorist acts.”

The legislation also gives reign to Israel’s Minister of Defense — controversial rightist Avigdor Lieberman — to enact asset forfeitures, land expropriations, and the confiscation of homes against those slated as “terrorists.”

MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit HaYehudi), head of the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee that reviewed the bill, prided the new law for what he said was its ability to balance “combating terror” with “preventing human rights violations.”

Increased measures included in the law for the government to use “when individuals aid terrorists, are members of terrorist groups, or fail to stop terrorism” led MK Hanin Zoabi of the Joint List to call the law itself an “act of terror.”

For Zoabi, the law constitutes “terror against the freedom of expression, against the freedom of assembly, and terror against civilian freedoms.”

Arguing that existing penal code is sufficient to indict a person for committing an act of terror, Zoabi said the new legislation is not intended to indict “real terrorists.”

“The new law has a different aim.  It aims to prevent citizens from being critical and express their views, from being involved in a popular political struggle against the [Israeli] occupation, to talk about the boycott, and in general to think outside the box,” Zoabi said.

An individual who carries out such activities could under the new law be charged as a supporter of a “terrorist group.” Harsh punishments for such a charge — including travel restrictions, asset forfeitures, land expropriation, and home confiscation — will inevitably lead to the death of democratic principles, according to Zoabi.

A ‘shroud’ for colonial laws

Dr. Yael Berda worked as a lawyer in Israeli courts and now teaches sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  While Berda said Israel in practice was not restricted by the previous web of counterterrorism laws, the new law could operate as a “shroud” for Israel’s foundation in British colonial rule.

Berda noted that Israel’s use of Emergency Defense Regulations initially implemented in 1945 during the British Mandate Period previously served as the basis for a range of “counterterrorism” measures, which are still in use in the occupied territories.

“One of the things that was always a problem was that it was considered undemocratic to have these colonial laws, but it was also considered to be a necessity.  By creating an actual law….it’s giving them legitimacy.

“A lot of [Israeli] practices that were contested in court will stop being contested because there will be an actual law, not just decrees from colonial times,” Berda said.

In addition to transferring British colonial-era emergency regulations into official law inside of Israel, Berda told Mondoweiss that the new law legally widens the scope of Israeli authority,  in a way she sees as harmful.

“It allows, for instance, to declare an area as a ‘terrorist infrastructure area,’ which basically means if you’re in that area, there will be very little evidence needed to prove that you are a terrorist, just by living in that place.”

While Berda said it was never difficult for Israel to criminalize political dissent as a security threat prior to Wednesday’s legislation, the new law increases the ability for the authorities to declare certain activities and individuals — who may be uninvolved bystanders — as under the umbrella of a certain “terrorist group.”

‘Draconian’ measures

Critics have long-argued that Israel routinely detains Palestinians — both in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory — under ambiguously-defined security pretexts, and lawyer Suhad Bishara of rights group Adalah said the new law will make it even easier for the authorities to do so.

Bishara told Mondoweiss that while Israeli law in the past required orders to identify an entity as a terrorist organization, a previous designation  as such is no longer needed in order to be charged with terrorist activity.

Now-broadened definitions of a terrorist group provide a legal fast-track for criminalizing what Adalah views as legitimate political activity against the Israeli military occupation.

“It [the bill] gives gives an official framework for the authorities to do even more broadly what they do now, […] and it gives an entirely new set of offenses that people can be charged with,” Bishara said.

The new law legalizes further “draconian measures” of investigation of detainees accused of security offenses, according to Adalah.

Bishara told Mondoweiss the legislation includes articles enabling violations against the basic rights of Palestinian detainees, including extended periods of time in detention before being brought before a judge and court hearings without legal representation.

The group warned prior to Wednesday’s vote that the bill if passed was “liable to result in serious human rights violations and to further undermine democratic principles in Israel.”

The new law was passed after being repeatedly re-tabled by the Justice Committee since its introduction in 2011, undergoing some 30 readings since.

Wednesday’s vote also came weeks after a mass overhaul of the Knesset by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, heralding in the government’s far-right members and bringing critics to slam a rise in extremism among Israel’s political leadership.

The move — in what many argued was an attempt by Netanyahu to secure continued rule — sat controversial MK Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister.

Lieberman has in the past has gunned for Palestinian citizens of Israel to be stripped of citizenship, and last week imposed what Amnesty International called “collective punishment” on the hometown of two assailants responsible for a deadly Tel Aviv shooting.

While according to the Knesset, Wednesday’s legislation gives law enforcement agencies — Shin Bet security agency and Israeli police in particular — “more tools to fight terrorism and terrorist organizations,” those opposed to the law worry it further enables the right wing government to use arbitrary detention, likely to grate away civil rights of Palestinians.

“Just like in Kafka’s book The Trial, a person is charged based on materials and evidence they cannot see,” MK Zoabi’s spokesperson told Mondoweiss.

“ The whole legal process in this case has been emptied out…by putting the burden of the proof on the citizen, it [the legal process] very efficient in forcing people to do nothing, to say nothing, because before you know it you could be a terrorist.”

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