Israeli Civil Rights Groups Multiply

Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

Israeli civil rights groups have grown at a dizzying rate over the last 40 years. Between the foundation of the Association for Civil Rights (ACRI 1972), with its roster of distinguished lawyers and academics, to that of Yesh Din (2005), which provides legal assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank, over 25 separate organisations have been set up.

ACRI covers the widest range of issues. Several have specific agendas:  Bimkom deals with planning, Machsom Watch monitors checkpoints and military courts, while Adalah (the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, need no explanation.

Some groups represent specific professions – Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights. B’Tselem documents abuses of  human rights in the occupied territories. Other groups concentrate on specific areas: Ir Amim in Jerusalem; Ta’ayush,a joint Israeli-Palestinian grassroots organisation, is active among the fellahin of the South Hebron hills, and a recent copycat contestant, the ‘Human Rights Organisation of Judea and Samaria’(aka the West Bank) represents settlers who regard themselves as victimized by the army.

Even this brief selection indicates that the main challenge for civil rights lawyers and activists is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, now in its 48th year; the other main concern is the status of Israel’s Arab minority. Civil rights for Jewish Israelis are barely part of the picture. Preoccupied with security issues, Israelis are far less worried about the power of the orthodox rabbinate, which has sole jurisdiction in matters of “personal status” – marriage, divorce, and Jewish identity. The need to separate religion and state is not among the “key issues” currently dealt with by ACRI; the League Against Religious Coercion, which advocates a secular, rather than a religious identity for Israelis, has few adherents.

The civil rights organisations represent only a small minority of Israelis.  But even a mainstream organisation like the Israel Democracy Institute has expressed deep concern about antidemocratic trends menacing civil rights, which have been increasing in recent years. For instance; the most recent survey carried out by the Institute showed that nearly half of Israelis thought Jews should have more rights than Arabs, slightly fewer that the government should “encourage Arabs to emigrate”, and nearly a third regarded the ‘Jewish’ character of the state more important than the ‘democratic’.

The current religious issue preoccupying the IDI is the fact that three hundred thousand immigrants from Russia are not considered Jews by orthodox standards; hence those who wish to marry Jews in Israel cannot do so without lengthy, difficult conversion procedures, as civil marriage does not exist.

A fundamental problem for civil rights is that Israel has no constitution.  The Declaration of Independence promised equality to all Israel’s citizens, but the continuing conflict with the Palestinians has made this problematic. Instead, Israel has a set of Basic Laws covering subjects as diverse as the Knesset, the army, freedom of occupation and the unique, Israeli status of Jerusalem. The most specific definition of civil rights is contained in the vaguely described “Human Dignity and Freedom” basic law, which defines that freedom as “the right to leave and enter the country”, “privacy” (under which freedom of speech is subsumed) “intimacy” and protection from unlawful searches.

All this has promoted the Supreme Court to Olympian status. It traditionally has upheld libertarian principles, though on matters of security and the relationship between state and rabbinate it exercises caution. If civil rights lawyers sometimes act, together with fringe parties, as a de facto opposition (since the near demise of the Israeli Labour party), the Supreme Court defines civil rights in the absence of a constitution.

*                             *                            *                                *

What has caused the growth of civil rights organisations in Israel? The Six Day War brought hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (many who had fled or been expelled from what is now Israel) under Israeli rule. These new subjects now live under what is known in international law as “belligerent occupation”, that is, subject to military control, and with no political representation or say in their own future. International law also obliges the occupier to respect property ownership and freedom of movement, among other fundamental rights.

The occupation was initially conceived as a temporary measure. In the postwar period, Jews and Arabs met in Jerusalem, visiting their former homes in a brief period of coexistence. Arab women from the West Bank paddled at the seaside, unseen for 20 years. But Israel had annexed Arab Jerusalem and made its Palestinian population into “residents” of a Jewish city. For the West Bank, there was discussion of a “Jordanian option” – but the Hashemite ruler Hussein, was not interested in resuming control of a large Palestinian population.  The ‘Allon plan’ for borders that would satisfy Israel’s minimal security needs suggested compromise.

 

However, once Labour’s domination of Israel’s politics ended, and the right-wing under Menahem Begin came to power in 1977, politicians began to talk openly of a Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland where Jews should be free to settle, in direct confrontation with Clause 4 of the Geneva Convention which forbids colonising a territory under occupation with the citizens of the occupying power. This has been the sticking point of negotiations ever since; it has also created a situation in which Jewish settlers live under Israeli law, and Palestinians under a newly improvised set of laws, regulations and ordinances issued with bewildering frequency by the ‘Civil Administration’ military government and with no recourse for the Palestinians in the Israeli courts.

The land itself has become a battleground as Palestinian landowners, acting through both Palestinian and Israeli lawyers, attempt to stem the confiscation of land both public and private. In 1971, Israel annulled all local and district planning committees that had existed under Jordanian law, and placed planning and building powers in the hands of the Civil Administration. Soon after, Israel resurrected an old Ottoman law defining land untilled for a certain period as “state land”, enabling Israel eventually to commandeer some 40 percent of the territory of the West Bank and establish settlements there – mostly in big “blocs” just over the old pre 1967 frontier. In an attempt to withstand criticism, Israel authorised the Palestinians to appeal to the Supreme Court. This, in most Israeli jurists view, is a unique concession to a population under military occupation.

Settlers and Palestinians clashed almost immediately. The first “West Bank team” of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel – made up of a lawyer, an archaeologist, a university professor and a journalist (myself) could do little more, in the 1980s, than try to check on allegations of brutality by the army and fighting between Palestinians and settlers.  Procedures were haphazard.

When settlers attacked the Arab village of Beita on a Jewish holiday, the army, instead of arresting the settlers, blew up 14 houses. ACRI’s  archaeologist alerted an adviser – a professor of international law. He in turn alerted colleagues in the Supreme Court, which ordered a halt – one of the first occasions on which that austere body intervened. Subsequent demolitions were now  “judiciable” – if the Court was reached in time to rule on them.

On another occasion, when a settler’s car was stoned, the driver went after the assailants and shot one in the back. He was never charged, and today is one of the leaders of the settler community. At that time, documentation was difficult and the Israeli press largely indifferent.

The outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, like the first suicide bombings, meant the beginning of further repressive measures and mass arrests of suspects that overwhelmed the military courts. Many of these measures, from curfews to house demolitions, replicate the British Mandate’s Emergency Regulations that have never been repealed.  It was no accident that most civil rights organisations were created thereafter, beginning with HaMoked, the Centre for Defence of the Individual, in 1988. Until then, it was possible for most Israelis to be unaware what was happening in “the territories”.

Very few knew the details of the judicial system under which the Palestinians lived. But with the involvement of so many young soldier conscripts in putting down the revolt, manning the checkpoints, or supervising the demolition of the houses of suspects leaving whole families homeless, it henceforth meant either ignoring or approving the abuses of human rights taking place a few miles away from Israeli homes.    At the same time, bombs in public places (I myself was in the cinema where one of the first was planted and removed by an alert usher) and other terrorist attacks meant that there was little sympathy for the Palestinians. The second intifada at the turn of the century, which claimed over a thousand Israeli lives, hardened Israeli hearts even further. As one military court judge put it: “Security and justice don’t go hand and hand.”

The Oslo accords of 1993 gave the Palestinians a measure of autonomy in areas A and B of the West Bank with the largest Arab population, and Palestinian security forces became the subcontractors of the IDF. But although Israel and Jordan concluded a peace treaty in 1994, the status of the Palestinians, previously Jordanian citizens, remained undecided. The number of Israelis domiciled in the West Bank grew steadily, most of them just over the old frontier.

Area C, a predominantly arid area controlled entirely by Israel, constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank. Here, any traveller can see  modern Israeli settlements, linked to new roads, electricity grids and water networks, overlooking poverty stricken Arab villages, sometimes no more than caves and tents, their only source of water a local well, and with no power supply.

When two Israeli physicists set up an alternative energy centre, Comet, providing wind turbines and solar panels, these were threatened with demolition. Still, civil rights volunteers, from Peace Now, the Committee against House Demolitions, Ta’ayush and others regularly stage demonstrations, help rebuild houses destroyed because they were built without a permit, and replant olive trees uprooted by vandals from the settlements, many of which are illegal even in Israeli law.

The civil rights groups function in two main ways: first, contesting the appropriation of land both by the government and by settlers. This means supporting the Palestinians’ legal claims, generally in petitions to the Supreme Court. Second, by monitoring the activities of the army, and procedures in the military courts, they provide testimony to the abuses of civil rights by the settlers and the army alike. B’tselem in particular, with its encyclopaedic documentation – including issuing video cameras to Palestinians – has enabled victims of brutality to contradict the official versions of events provided by government and army spokesmen.

But all too often when the Supreme Court rules against settlers, the ruling is only implemented after long delay. The army still has the right to declare an area a “closed military zone”, sometimes evicting Palestinian villagers, and preventing the entry of civil rights groups. Where the military courts are concerned, lawyers representing the Palestinians, and even the judges, are often refused access to evidence gathered by the Shin Bet to achieve a conviction. The army still raids homes at night to arrest not only terrorist suspects, but young boys charged with stone throwing. To see them brought into court in a heavily armed military compound, chained together by the ankles, with most of them released in plea bargains – often after incriminating others – is sufficient to cast doubt on the humanity, let alone the legality, of the entire procedure.

Some successes have been registered nonetheless. Following an appeal, the 1979 Elon Moreh ruling by the Supreme Court prevented land confiscated “for security reasons” from being handed over to settlers. In 1993, the Supreme Court, in answer to a petition by the Public Committee Against Torture, ruled that the methods employed by the Shin Bet during interrogations were illegal.

Property and land has been returned to Palestinian owners who could afford to hire lawyers to navigate the procedure of applying to the Court. Individual civil rights lawyers achieve small victories, such as returning herds confiscated by the army to Palestinian shepherds. Under pressure from civil rights organisations, the minimum age for charging Palestinian children has been raised, and their interrogation procedure eased. But the Supreme Court has never taken a stand on the question of the legality or otherwise of the settlements themselves, which limits what it can achieve.

*                               *                               *                               *

Civil rights for Israel’s Arab minority (now 20 percent of the population) have been flawed from the state’s inception. Until 1966, Israeli Arabs lived under military law, which deprived them of freedom of movement and made them perennial suspects. The official promise of return for those evicted from their villages during the 1948 war, was never implemented.

Amendments to land laws have prevented Arabs from reclaiming or building on land available for Jewish settlement. On paper, Arab citizens have equal rights, but they have never enjoyed support proportionate to their numbers in government budgets for town planning, housing, or education as their Jewish fellow citizens. Not one new Arab town has been built.

On such issues, Jewish and Arab civil rights organisations stand together:   both Adalah and ACRI, with support from Rabbis for Human Rights, have opposed the Prawer plan for the Negev Bedouin, which would displace tens of thousands from unrecognised villages into already overcrowded Arab towns.

Several attempts have been made to remove Arab politicians from the Knesset. In 2009, the Central Elections Committee banned Arab parties it regarded as subversive from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections – a ban promptly reversed by the Supreme Court. This year, the Knesset voted to raise the electoral threshold (the number of votes gathered by a political party to qualify them for entry) from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. On the surface, this is a sensible move to reduce the number of competing parties at elections. But unless Arab factions as far apart as Islamists and Communists can combine, this might leave the Arab minority unrepresented in the next Israeli parliament. Only one tiny political party, the left-wing Hadash, has both Jewish and Arab leaders.

The syllabus in schools for Arab children, separate from Jewish schools (state, state religious, and orthodox) is decided by committees over which Jews preside. Arabic is an official language, but is absent from most places where English is displayed, and attempts have been made to deny it even nominal status. Recent legislation by a right-wing government indicate that freedoms guaranteed under the Basic Laws are increasingly limited where the Arab minority is concerned. Both ACRI and Adalah opposed the 2011 law denying government funding to any organisation commemorating the Nakba (catastrophe) which overtook Palestinians at the founding of the state.

The same organisations petitioned the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully, against the 2011 Admissions Committees Law, which has enabled rural communities on state land to reject applicants “unsuitable for the social life of the community” – ie. Arabs seeking a better quality of life. Every possible obstacle is placed in the way of Palestinians from the West Bank marrying into an Arab family in Israel. Most recently, a new Basic Law has been proposed by the extreme right wing parties, redefining Israel as a Jewish state, rather than the state of all its citizens. As it would clearly prejudice the rights of Arab minority, it has been condemned by the Justice Minister, and is unlikely to pass.

*                           *                  *                                   *

All this has overshadowed another anomaly in a democratic society.    Israel has relatively liberal laws for gay Israelis; same sex activity was legalised in 1988, and same sex couples can jointly adopt, while same sex marriages performed elsewhere, like other civil marriages, are recognised.

Tel Aviv is internationally famous for its permissive atmosphere. But the restrictive culture of the extreme orthodox (haredim) has begun to extend beyond its closed communities. Chapters on reproduction in the state religious schools have been removed from science texts. There is no mention of women’s rights in the Basic Laws, and only the more privileged Israelis can sidestep or evade the orthodox monopoly of marriage and divorce proceedings by marrying or obtaining a divorce abroad.  Even non-religious women registering for marriage at the rabbinate undergo intimate questioning by female officials and are given tickets for the mikve (ritual bath). In orthodox districts women are seated separately at the back of the buses. Women whose husbands refuse to divorce them are “chained” and unable to remarry. The indignities of mandatory orthodox burial can only be avoided by finding a place in a kibbutz cemetery. Most Israelis accommodate orthodox rulings out of respect for tradition; these are areas where civil rights organisations rarely venture.

The one issue where the orthodox have been frontally challenged is the question of military service for yeshiva students. Traditionally, they have been exempt from the army, though they have been encouraged to serve in special units. A new law to limit exemption is currently under debate, but causes fierce controversy, as has the introduction of religious lectures and ceremonies into army routine. In a few decades, it is estimated that the majority of primary school students will be those in religious schools;  whether as adults they will be prepared to challenge the institutionalised power of the orthodox is an open question.

*                                       *                            *                             *

The arrival of some 50,000 African refugees and asylum seekers, who crossed into Israel from Sinai – a route now closed – is just the latest problem facing civil rights lawyers. The majority became underpaid  workers crowded together in the poorer districts of south Tel Aviv. But an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (originally a security law) allowed several hundred refugees to be corralled for up to three years, without trial, in a detention camp in the desert region of the Negev.     The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this illegal, an infringement of the Basic Laws. But a new amendment still allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely, and increases the compensation for those who leave.

*                              *                          *                            *

Israel is an immigrant society, and one still psychologically on a war footing. Although a majority of Israelis now are native born, many of their parents came from authoritarian states. The civil rights organisations’ basic challenge is therefore not just to correct abuses, but to defend Israeli democracy itself. As a young civil rights activist says,  speaking of those she fights for: “Their struggle is ours.”

Naomi Shepherd is the author of a number of books on Palestinian and Jewish history, a biography which won the Wingate Prize, and short stories set in Israel. She lived for 45 years in Jerusalem, at various times correspondent for papers in the UK and US, documentary film scriptwriter, and member of two civil rights organisations.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Their Struggle is Ours”

 

Naomi Shepherd examines the history of civil rights organisations in Israel.

 

Israeli civil rights groups have multiplied at a dizzying rate over the last 40 years. Between the foundation of the Association for Civil Rights (ACRI 1972), with its roster of distinguished lawyers and academics, to that of Yesh Din (2005), which provides legal assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank, over 25 separate organisations have been set up.

 

ACRI covers the widest range of issues. Several have specific agendas:  Bimkom deals with planning, Machsom Watch monitors checkpoints and military courts, while Adalah (the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, need no explanation.

 

Some groups represent specific professions – Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights. B’Tselem documents abuses of  human rights in the occupied territories. Other groups concentrate on specific areas: Ir Amim in Jerusalem; Ta’ayush,a joint Israeli-Palestinian grassroots organisation, is active among the fellahin of the South Hebron hills, and a recent copycat contestant, the ‘Human Rights Organisation of Judea and Samaria’(aka the West Bank) represents settlers who regard themselves as victimized by the army.

 

Even this brief selection indicates that the main challenge for civil rights lawyers and activists is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, now in its 48th year; the other main concern is the status of Israel’s Arab minority. Civil rights for Jewish Israelis are barely part of the picture. Preoccupied with security issues, Israelis are far less worried about the power of the orthodox rabbinate, which has sole jurisdiction in matters of “personal status” – marriage, divorce, and Jewish identity. The need to separate religion and state is not among the “key issues” currently dealt with by ACRI; the League Against Religious Coercion, which advocates a secular, rather than a religious identity for Israelis, has few adherents.

 

The civil rights organisations represent only a small minority of Israelis.  But even a mainstream organisation like the Israel Democracy Institute has expressed deep concern about antidemocratic trends menacing civil rights, which have been increasing in recent years. For instance; the most recent survey carried out by the Institute showed that nearly half of Israelis thought Jews should have more rights than Arabs, slightly fewer that the government should “encourage Arabs to emigrate”, and nearly a third regarded the ‘Jewish’ character of the state more important than the ‘democratic’.

 

The current religious issue preoccupying the IDI is the fact that three hundred thousand immigrants from Russia are not considered Jews by orthodox standards; hence those who wish to marry Jews in Israel cannot do so without lengthy, difficult conversion procedures, as civil marriage does not exist.

 

A fundamental problem for civil rights is that Israel has no constitution.    The Declaration of Independence promised equality to all Israel’s citizens, but the continuing conflict with the Palestinians has made this problematic. Instead, Israel has a set of Basic Laws covering subjects as diverse as the Knesset, the army, freedom of occupation and the unique, Israeli status of Jerusalem. The most specific definition of civil rights is contained in the vaguely described “Human Dignity and Freedom” basic law, which defines that freedom as “the right to leave and enter the country”, “privacy” (under which freedom of speech is subsumed) “intimacy” and protection from unlawful searches.

All this has promoted the Supreme Court to Olympian status. It traditionally has upheld libertarian principles, though on matters of security and the relationship between state and rabbinate it exercises caution. If civil rights lawyers sometimes act, together with fringe parties, as a de facto opposition (since the near demise of the Israeli Labour party), the Supreme Court defines civil rights in the absence of a constitution.

 

*                             *                            *                                *

 

What has caused the growth of civil rights organisations in Israel? The Six Day War brought hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (many who had fled or been expelled from what is now Israel) under Israeli rule. These new subjects now live under what is known in international law as “belligerent occupation”, that is, subject to military control, and with no political representation or say in their own future. International law also obliges the occupier to respect property ownership and freedom of movement, among other fundamental rights.

 

The occupation was initially conceived as a temporary measure. In the postwar period, Jews and Arabs met in Jerusalem, visiting their former homes in a brief period of coexistence. Arab women from the West Bank paddled at the seaside, unseen for 20 years. But Israel had annexed Arab Jerusalem and made its Palestinian population into “residents” of a Jewish city. For the West Bank, there was discussion of a “Jordanian option” – but the Hashemite ruler Hussein, was not interested in resuming control of a large Palestinian population.  The ‘Allon plan’ for borders that would satisfy Israel’s minimal security needs suggested compromise.

 

However, once Labour’s domination of Israel’s politics ended, and the right-wing under Menahem Begin came to power in 1977, politicians began to talk openly of a Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland where Jews should be free to settle, in direct confrontation with Clause 4 of the Geneva Convention which forbids colonising a territory under occupation with the citizens of the occupying power. This has been the sticking point of negotiations ever since; it has also created a situation in which Jewish settlers live under Israeli law, and Palestinians under a newly improvised set of laws, regulations and ordinances issued with bewildering frequency by the ‘Civil Administration’ military government and with no recourse for the Palestinians in the Israeli courts.

 

The land itself has become a battleground as Palestinian landowners, acting through both Palestinian and Israeli lawyers, attempt to stem the confiscation of land both public and private. In 1971, Israel annulled all local and district planning committees that had existed under Jordanian law, and placed planning and building powers in the hands of the Civil Administration. Soon after, Israel resurrected an old Ottoman law defining land untilled for a certain period as “state land”, enabling Israel eventually to commandeer some 40 percent of the territory of the West Bank and establish settlements there – mostly in big “blocs” just over the old pre 1967 frontier. In an attempt to withstand criticism, Israel authorised the Palestinians to appeal to the Supreme Court. This, in most Israeli jurists view, is a unique concession to a population under military occupation.

 

Settlers and Palestinians clashed almost immediately. The first “West Bank team” of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel – made up of a lawyer, an archaeologist, a university professor and a journalist (myself) could do little more, in the 1980s, than try to check on allegations of brutality by the army and fighting between Palestinians and settlers.  Procedures were haphazard.

 

When settlers attacked the Arab village of Beita on a Jewish holiday, the army, instead of arresting the settlers, blew up 14 houses. ACRI’s  archaeologist alerted an adviser – a professor of international law. He in turn alerted colleagues in the Supreme Court, which ordered a halt – one of the first occasions on which that austere body intervened. Subsequent demolitions were now  “judiciable” – if the Court was reached in time to rule on them.

 

On another occasion, when a settler’s car was stoned, the driver went after the assailants and shot one in the back. He was never charged, and today is one of the leaders of the settler community. At that time, documentation was difficult and the Israeli press largely indifferent.

 

The outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, like the first suicide bombings, meant the beginning of further repressive measures and mass arrests of suspects that overwhelmed the military courts. Many of these measures, from curfews to house demolitions, replicate the British Mandate’s Emergency Regulations that have never been repealed.  It was no accident that most civil rights organisations were created thereafter, beginning with HaMoked, the Centre for Defence of the Individual, in 1988. Until then, it was possible for most Israelis to be unaware what was happening in “the territories”.

 

Very few knew the details of the judicial system under which the Palestinians lived. But with the involvement of so many young soldier conscripts in putting down the revolt, manning the checkpoints, or supervising the demolition of the houses of suspects leaving whole families homeless, it henceforth meant either ignoring or approving the abuses of human rights taking place a few miles away from Israeli homes.    At the same time, bombs in public places (I myself was in the cinema where one of the first was planted and removed by an alert usher) and other terrorist attacks meant that there was little sympathy for the Palestinians. The second intifada at the turn of the century, which claimed over a thousand Israeli lives, hardened Israeli hearts even further. As one military court judge put it: “Security and justice don’t go hand and hand.”

The Oslo accords of 1993 gave the Palestinians a measure of autonomy in areas A and B of the West Bank with the largest Arab population, and Palestinian security forces became the subcontractors of the IDF. But although Israel and Jordan concluded a peace treaty in 1994, the status of the Palestinians, previously Jordanian citizens, remained undecided. The number of Israelis domiciled in the West Bank grew steadily, most of them just over the old frontier.

 

Area C, a predominantly arid area controlled entirely by Israel, constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank. Here, any traveller can see  modern Israeli settlements, linked to new roads, electricity grids and water networks, overlooking poverty stricken Arab villages, sometimes no more than caves and tents, their only source of water a local well, and with no power supply.

 

When two Israeli physicists set up an alternative energy centre, Comet, providing wind turbines and solar panels, these were threatened with demolition. Still, civil rights volunteers, from Peace Now, the Committee against House Demolitions, Ta’ayush and others regularly stage demonstrations, help rebuild houses destroyed because they were built without a permit, and replant olive trees uprooted by vandals from the settlements, many of which are illegal even in Israeli law.

 

The civil rights groups function in two main ways: first, contesting the appropriation of land both by the government and by settlers. This means supporting the Palestinians’ legal claims, generally in petitions to the Supreme Court. Second, by monitoring the activities of the army, and procedures in the military courts, they provide testimony to the abuses of civil rights by the settlers and the army alike. B’tselem in particular, with its encyclopaedic documentation – including issuing video cameras to Palestinians – has enabled victims of brutality to contradict the official versions of events provided by government and army spokesmen.

 

But all too often when the Supreme Court rules against settlers, the ruling is only implemented after long delay. The army still has the right to declare an area a “closed military zone”, sometimes evicting Palestinian villagers, and preventing the entry of civil rights groups. Where the military courts are concerned, lawyers representing the Palestinians, and even the judges, are often refused access to evidence gathered by the Shin Bet to achieve a conviction. The army still raids homes at night to arrest not only terrorist suspects, but young boys charged with stone throwing. To see them brought into court in a heavily armed military compound, chained together by the ankles, with most of them released in plea bargains – often after incriminating others – is sufficient to cast doubt on the humanity, let alone the legality, of the entire procedure.

 

Some successes have been registered nonetheless. Following an appeal, the 1979 Elon Moreh ruling by the Supreme Court prevented land confiscated “for security reasons” from being handed over to settlers. In 1993, the Supreme Court, in answer to a petition by the Public Committee Against Torture, ruled that the methods employed by the Shin Bet during interrogations were illegal.

 

Property and land has been returned to Palestinian owners who could afford to hire lawyers to navigate the procedure of applying to the Court. Individual civil rights lawyers achieve small victories, such as returning herds confiscated by the army to Palestinian shepherds. Under pressure from civil rights organisations, the minimum age for charging Palestinian children has been raised, and their interrogation procedure eased. But the Supreme Court has never taken a stand on the question of the legality or otherwise of the settlements themselves, which limits what it can achieve.

 

*                               *                               *                               *

Civil rights for Israel’s Arab minority (now 20 percent of the population) have been flawed from the state’s inception. Until 1966, Israeli Arabs lived under military law, which deprived them of freedom of movement and made them perennial suspects. The official promise of return for those evicted from their villages during the 1948 war, was never implemented.

 

Amendments to land laws have prevented Arabs from reclaiming or building on land available for Jewish settlement. On paper, Arab citizens have equal rights, but they have never enjoyed support proportionate to their numbers in government budgets for town planning, housing, or education as their Jewish fellow citizens. Not one new Arab town has been built.

 

On such issues, Jewish and Arab civil rights organisations stand together:   both Adalah and ACRI, with support from Rabbis for Human Rights, have opposed the Prawer plan for the Negev Bedouin, which would displace tens of thousands from unrecognised villages into already overcrowded Arab towns.

Several attempts have been made to remove Arab politicians from the Knesset. In 2009, the Central Elections Committee banned Arab parties it regarded as subversive from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections – a ban promptly reversed by the Supreme Court. This year, the Knesset voted to raise the electoral threshold (the number of votes gathered by a political party to qualify them for entry) from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. On the surface, this is a sensible move to reduce the number of competing parties at elections. But unless Arab factions as far apart as Islamists and Communists can combine, this might leave the Arab minority unrepresented in the next Israeli parliament. Only one tiny political party, the left-wing Hadash, has both Jewish and Arab leaders.

 

The syllabus in schools for Arab children, separate from Jewish schools (state, state religious, and orthodox) is decided by committees over which Jews preside. Arabic is an official language, but is absent from most places where English is displayed, and attempts have been made to deny it even nominal status. Recent legislation by a right-wing government indicate that freedoms guaranteed under the Basic Laws are increasingly limited where the Arab minority is concerned. Both ACRI and Adalah opposed the 2011 law denying government funding to any organisation commemorating the Nakba (catastrophe) which overtook Palestinians at the founding of the state.

 

The same organisations petitioned the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully, against the 2011 Admissions Committees Law, which has enabled rural communities on state land to reject applicants “unsuitable for the social life of the community” – ie. Arabs seeking a better quality of life. Every possible obstacle is placed in the way of Palestinians from the West Bank marrying into an Arab family in Israel. Most recently, a new Basic Law has been proposed by the extreme right wing parties, redefining Israel as a Jewish state, rather than the state of all its citizens. As it would clearly prejudice the rights of Arab minority, it has been condemned by the Justice Minister, and is unlikely to pass.

 

 

*                           *                  *                                   *

All this has overshadowed another anomaly in a democratic society.    Israel has relatively liberal laws for gay Israelis; same sex activity was legalised in 1988, and same sex couples can jointly adopt, while same sex marriages performed elsewhere, like other civil marriages, are recognised.

 

Tel Aviv is internationally famous for its permissive atmosphere. But the restrictive culture of the extreme orthodox (haredim) has begun to extend beyond its closed communities. Chapters on reproduction in the state religious schools have been removed from science texts. There is no mention of women’s rights in the Basic Laws, and only the more privileged Israelis can sidestep or evade the orthodox monopoly of marriage and divorce proceedings by marrying or obtaining a divorce abroad.  Even non-religious women registering for marriage at the rabbinate undergo intimate questioning by female officials and are given tickets for the mikve (ritual bath). In orthodox districts women are seated separately at the back of the buses. Women whose husbands refuse to divorce them are “chained” and unable to remarry. The indignities of mandatory orthodox burial can only be avoided by finding a place in a kibbutz cemetery. Most Israelis accommodate orthodox rulings out of respect for tradition; these are areas where civil rights organisations rarely venture.

 

The one issue where the orthodox have been frontally challenged is the question of military service for yeshiva students. Traditionally, they have been exempt from the army, though they have been encouraged to serve in special units. A new law to limit exemption is currently under debate, but causes fierce controversy, as has the introduction of religious lectures and ceremonies into army routine. In a few decades, it is estimated that the majority of primary school students will be those in religious schools;  whether as adults they will be prepared to challenge the institutionalised power of the orthodox is an open question.

*                                       *                            *                             *

 

The arrival of some 50,000 African refugees and asylum seekers, who crossed into Israel from Sinai – a route now closed – is just the latest problem facing civil rights lawyers. The majority became underpaid  workers crowded together in the poorer districts of south Tel Aviv. But an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (originally a security law) allowed several hundred refugees to be corralled for up to three years, without trial, in a detention camp in the desert region of the Negev.     The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this illegal, an infringement of the Basic Laws. But a new amendment still allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely, and increases the compensation for those who leave.

*                              *                          *                            *

 

Israel is an immigrant society, and one still psychologically on a war footing. Although a majority of Israelis now are native born, many of their parents came from authoritarian states. The civil rights organisations’ basic challenge is therefore not just to correct abuses, but to defend Israeli democracy itself. As a young civil rights activist says,  speaking of those she fights for: “Their struggle is ours.”

 

******

 

Naomi Shepherd is the author of a number of books on Palestinian and Jewish history, a biography which won the Wingate Prize, and short stories set in Israel. She lived for 45 years in Jerusalem, at various times correspondent for papers in the UK and US, documentary film scriptwriter, and member of two civil rights organisations.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Their Struggle is Ours”

 

Naomi Shepherd examines the history of civil rights organisations in Israel.

 

Israeli civil rights groups have multiplied at a dizzying rate over the last 40 years. Between the foundation of the Association for Civil Rights (ACRI 1972), with its roster of distinguished lawyers and academics, to that of Yesh Din (2005), which provides legal assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank, over 25 separate organisations have been set up.

 

ACRI covers the widest range of issues. Several have specific agendas:  Bimkom deals with planning, Machsom Watch monitors checkpoints and military courts, while Adalah (the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, need no explanation.

 

Some groups represent specific professions – Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights. B’Tselem documents abuses of  human rights in the occupied territories. Other groups concentrate on specific areas: Ir Amim in Jerusalem; Ta’ayush,a joint Israeli-Palestinian grassroots organisation, is active among the fellahin of the South Hebron hills, and a recent copycat contestant, the ‘Human Rights Organisation of Judea and Samaria’(aka the West Bank) represents settlers who regard themselves as victimized by the army.

 

Even this brief selection indicates that the main challenge for civil rights lawyers and activists is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, now in its 48th year; the other main concern is the status of Israel’s Arab minority. Civil rights for Jewish Israelis are barely part of the picture. Preoccupied with security issues, Israelis are far less worried about the power of the orthodox rabbinate, which has sole jurisdiction in matters of “personal status” – marriage, divorce, and Jewish identity. The need to separate religion and state is not among the “key issues” currently dealt with by ACRI; the League Against Religious Coercion, which advocates a secular, rather than a religious identity for Israelis, has few adherents.

 

The civil rights organisations represent only a small minority of Israelis.  But even a mainstream organisation like the Israel Democracy Institute has expressed deep concern about antidemocratic trends menacing civil rights, which have been increasing in recent years. For instance; the most recent survey carried out by the Institute showed that nearly half of Israelis thought Jews should have more rights than Arabs, slightly fewer that the government should “encourage Arabs to emigrate”, and nearly a third regarded the ‘Jewish’ character of the state more important than the ‘democratic’.

 

The current religious issue preoccupying the IDI is the fact that three hundred thousand immigrants from Russia are not considered Jews by orthodox standards; hence those who wish to marry Jews in Israel cannot do so without lengthy, difficult conversion procedures, as civil marriage does not exist.

 

A fundamental problem for civil rights is that Israel has no constitution.    The Declaration of Independence promised equality to all Israel’s citizens, but the continuing conflict with the Palestinians has made this problematic. Instead, Israel has a set of Basic Laws covering subjects as diverse as the Knesset, the army, freedom of occupation and the unique, Israeli status of Jerusalem. The most specific definition of civil rights is contained in the vaguely described “Human Dignity and Freedom” basic law, which defines that freedom as “the right to leave and enter the country”, “privacy” (under which freedom of speech is subsumed) “intimacy” and protection from unlawful searches.

All this has promoted the Supreme Court to Olympian status. It traditionally has upheld libertarian principles, though on matters of security and the relationship between state and rabbinate it exercises caution. If civil rights lawyers sometimes act, together with fringe parties, as a de facto opposition (since the near demise of the Israeli Labour party), the Supreme Court defines civil rights in the absence of a constitution.

 

*                             *                            *                                *

 

What has caused the growth of civil rights organisations in Israel? The Six Day War brought hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (many who had fled or been expelled from what is now Israel) under Israeli rule. These new subjects now live under what is known in international law as “belligerent occupation”, that is, subject to military control, and with no political representation or say in their own future. International law also obliges the occupier to respect property ownership and freedom of movement, among other fundamental rights.

 

The occupation was initially conceived as a temporary measure. In the postwar period, Jews and Arabs met in Jerusalem, visiting their former homes in a brief period of coexistence. Arab women from the West Bank paddled at the seaside, unseen for 20 years. But Israel had annexed Arab Jerusalem and made its Palestinian population into “residents” of a Jewish city. For the West Bank, there was discussion of a “Jordanian option” – but the Hashemite ruler Hussein, was not interested in resuming control of a large Palestinian population.  The ‘Allon plan’ for borders that would satisfy Israel’s minimal security needs suggested compromise.

 

However, once Labour’s domination of Israel’s politics ended, and the right-wing under Menahem Begin came to power in 1977, politicians began to talk openly of a Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland where Jews should be free to settle, in direct confrontation with Clause 4 of the Geneva Convention which forbids colonising a territory under occupation with the citizens of the occupying power. This has been the sticking point of negotiations ever since; it has also created a situation in which Jewish settlers live under Israeli law, and Palestinians under a newly improvised set of laws, regulations and ordinances issued with bewildering frequency by the ‘Civil Administration’ military government and with no recourse for the Palestinians in the Israeli courts.

 

The land itself has become a battleground as Palestinian landowners, acting through both Palestinian and Israeli lawyers, attempt to stem the confiscation of land both public and private. In 1971, Israel annulled all local and district planning committees that had existed under Jordanian law, and placed planning and building powers in the hands of the Civil Administration. Soon after, Israel resurrected an old Ottoman law defining land untilled for a certain period as “state land”, enabling Israel eventually to commandeer some 40 percent of the territory of the West Bank and establish settlements there – mostly in big “blocs” just over the old pre 1967 frontier. In an attempt to withstand criticism, Israel authorised the Palestinians to appeal to the Supreme Court. This, in most Israeli jurists view, is a unique concession to a population under military occupation.

 

Settlers and Palestinians clashed almost immediately. The first “West Bank team” of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel – made up of a lawyer, an archaeologist, a university professor and a journalist (myself) could do little more, in the 1980s, than try to check on allegations of brutality by the army and fighting between Palestinians and settlers.  Procedures were haphazard.

 

When settlers attacked the Arab village of Beita on a Jewish holiday, the army, instead of arresting the settlers, blew up 14 houses. ACRI’s  archaeologist alerted an adviser – a professor of international law. He in turn alerted colleagues in the Supreme Court, which ordered a halt – one of the first occasions on which that austere body intervened. Subsequent demolitions were now  “judiciable” – if the Court was reached in time to rule on them.

 

On another occasion, when a settler’s car was stoned, the driver went after the assailants and shot one in the back. He was never charged, and today is one of the leaders of the settler community. At that time, documentation was difficult and the Israeli press largely indifferent.

 

The outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, like the first suicide bombings, meant the beginning of further repressive measures and mass arrests of suspects that overwhelmed the military courts. Many of these measures, from curfews to house demolitions, replicate the British Mandate’s Emergency Regulations that have never been repealed.  It was no accident that most civil rights organisations were created thereafter, beginning with HaMoked, the Centre for Defence of the Individual, in 1988. Until then, it was possible for most Israelis to be unaware what was happening in “the territories”.

 

Very few knew the details of the judicial system under which the Palestinians lived. But with the involvement of so many young soldier conscripts in putting down the revolt, manning the checkpoints, or supervising the demolition of the houses of suspects leaving whole families homeless, it henceforth meant either ignoring or approving the abuses of human rights taking place a few miles away from Israeli homes.    At the same time, bombs in public places (I myself was in the cinema where one of the first was planted and removed by an alert usher) and other terrorist attacks meant that there was little sympathy for the Palestinians. The second intifada at the turn of the century, which claimed over a thousand Israeli lives, hardened Israeli hearts even further. As one military court judge put it: “Security and justice don’t go hand and hand.”

The Oslo accords of 1993 gave the Palestinians a measure of autonomy in areas A and B of the West Bank with the largest Arab population, and Palestinian security forces became the subcontractors of the IDF. But although Israel and Jordan concluded a peace treaty in 1994, the status of the Palestinians, previously Jordanian citizens, remained undecided. The number of Israelis domiciled in the West Bank grew steadily, most of them just over the old frontier.

 

Area C, a predominantly arid area controlled entirely by Israel, constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank. Here, any traveller can see  modern Israeli settlements, linked to new roads, electricity grids and water networks, overlooking poverty stricken Arab villages, sometimes no more than caves and tents, their only source of water a local well, and with no power supply.

 

When two Israeli physicists set up an alternative energy centre, Comet, providing wind turbines and solar panels, these were threatened with demolition. Still, civil rights volunteers, from Peace Now, the Committee against House Demolitions, Ta’ayush and others regularly stage demonstrations, help rebuild houses destroyed because they were built without a permit, and replant olive trees uprooted by vandals from the settlements, many of which are illegal even in Israeli law.

 

The civil rights groups function in two main ways: first, contesting the appropriation of land both by the government and by settlers. This means supporting the Palestinians’ legal claims, generally in petitions to the Supreme Court. Second, by monitoring the activities of the army, and procedures in the military courts, they provide testimony to the abuses of civil rights by the settlers and the army alike. B’tselem in particular, with its encyclopaedic documentation – including issuing video cameras to Palestinians – has enabled victims of brutality to contradict the official versions of events provided by government and army spokesmen.

 

But all too often when the Supreme Court rules against settlers, the ruling is only implemented after long delay. The army still has the right to declare an area a “closed military zone”, sometimes evicting Palestinian villagers, and preventing the entry of civil rights groups. Where the military courts are concerned, lawyers representing the Palestinians, and even the judges, are often refused access to evidence gathered by the Shin Bet to achieve a conviction. The army still raids homes at night to arrest not only terrorist suspects, but young boys charged with stone throwing. To see them brought into court in a heavily armed military compound, chained together by the ankles, with most of them released in plea bargains – often after incriminating others – is sufficient to cast doubt on the humanity, let alone the legality, of the entire procedure.

 

Some successes have been registered nonetheless. Following an appeal, the 1979 Elon Moreh ruling by the Supreme Court prevented land confiscated “for security reasons” from being handed over to settlers. In 1993, the Supreme Court, in answer to a petition by the Public Committee Against Torture, ruled that the methods employed by the Shin Bet during interrogations were illegal.

 

Property and land has been returned to Palestinian owners who could afford to hire lawyers to navigate the procedure of applying to the Court. Individual civil rights lawyers achieve small victories, such as returning herds confiscated by the army to Palestinian shepherds. Under pressure from civil rights organisations, the minimum age for charging Palestinian children has been raised, and their interrogation procedure eased. But the Supreme Court has never taken a stand on the question of the legality or otherwise of the settlements themselves, which limits what it can achieve.

 

*                               *                               *                               *

Civil rights for Israel’s Arab minority (now 20 percent of the population) have been flawed from the state’s inception. Until 1966, Israeli Arabs lived under military law, which deprived them of freedom of movement and made them perennial suspects. The official promise of return for those evicted from their villages during the 1948 war, was never implemented.

 

Amendments to land laws have prevented Arabs from reclaiming or building on land available for Jewish settlement. On paper, Arab citizens have equal rights, but they have never enjoyed support proportionate to their numbers in government budgets for town planning, housing, or education as their Jewish fellow citizens. Not one new Arab town has been built.

 

On such issues, Jewish and Arab civil rights organisations stand together:   both Adalah and ACRI, with support from Rabbis for Human Rights, have opposed the Prawer plan for the Negev Bedouin, which would displace tens of thousands from unrecognised villages into already overcrowded Arab towns.

Several attempts have been made to remove Arab politicians from the Knesset. In 2009, the Central Elections Committee banned Arab parties it regarded as subversive from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections – a ban promptly reversed by the Supreme Court. This year, the Knesset voted to raise the electoral threshold (the number of votes gathered by a political party to qualify them for entry) from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. On the surface, this is a sensible move to reduce the number of competing parties at elections. But unless Arab factions as far apart as Islamists and Communists can combine, this might leave the Arab minority unrepresented in the next Israeli parliament. Only one tiny political party, the left-wing Hadash, has both Jewish and Arab leaders.

 

The syllabus in schools for Arab children, separate from Jewish schools (state, state religious, and orthodox) is decided by committees over which Jews preside. Arabic is an official language, but is absent from most places where English is displayed, and attempts have been made to deny it even nominal status. Recent legislation by a right-wing government indicate that freedoms guaranteed under the Basic Laws are increasingly limited where the Arab minority is concerned. Both ACRI and Adalah opposed the 2011 law denying government funding to any organisation commemorating the Nakba (catastrophe) which overtook Palestinians at the founding of the state.

 

The same organisations petitioned the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully, against the 2011 Admissions Committees Law, which has enabled rural communities on state land to reject applicants “unsuitable for the social life of the community” – ie. Arabs seeking a better quality of life. Every possible obstacle is placed in the way of Palestinians from the West Bank marrying into an Arab family in Israel. Most recently, a new Basic Law has been proposed by the extreme right wing parties, redefining Israel as a Jewish state, rather than the state of all its citizens. As it would clearly prejudice the rights of Arab minority, it has been condemned by the Justice Minister, and is unlikely to pass.

 

 

*                           *                  *                                   *

All this has overshadowed another anomaly in a democratic society.    Israel has relatively liberal laws for gay Israelis; same sex activity was legalised in 1988, and same sex couples can jointly adopt, while same sex marriages performed elsewhere, like other civil marriages, are recognised.

 

Tel Aviv is internationally famous for its permissive atmosphere. But the restrictive culture of the extreme orthodox (haredim) has begun to extend beyond its closed communities. Chapters on reproduction in the state religious schools have been removed from science texts. There is no mention of women’s rights in the Basic Laws, and only the more privileged Israelis can sidestep or evade the orthodox monopoly of marriage and divorce proceedings by marrying or obtaining a divorce abroad.  Even non-religious women registering for marriage at the rabbinate undergo intimate questioning by female officials and are given tickets for the mikve (ritual bath). In orthodox districts women are seated separately at the back of the buses. Women whose husbands refuse to divorce them are “chained” and unable to remarry. The indignities of mandatory orthodox burial can only be avoided by finding a place in a kibbutz cemetery. Most Israelis accommodate orthodox rulings out of respect for tradition; these are areas where civil rights organisations rarely venture.

 

The one issue where the orthodox have been frontally challenged is the question of military service for yeshiva students. Traditionally, they have been exempt from the army, though they have been encouraged to serve in special units. A new law to limit exemption is currently under debate, but causes fierce controversy, as has the introduction of religious lectures and ceremonies into army routine. In a few decades, it is estimated that the majority of primary school students will be those in religious schools;  whether as adults they will be prepared to challenge the institutionalised power of the orthodox is an open question.

*                                       *                            *                             *

 

The arrival of some 50,000 African refugees and asylum seekers, who crossed into Israel from Sinai – a route now closed – is just the latest problem facing civil rights lawyers. The majority became underpaid  workers crowded together in the poorer districts of south Tel Aviv. But an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (originally a security law) allowed several hundred refugees to be corralled for up to three years, without trial, in a detention camp in the desert region of the Negev.     The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this illegal, an infringement of the Basic Laws. But a new amendment still allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely, and increases the compensation for those who leave.

*                              *                          *                            *

 

Israel is an immigrant society, and one still psychologically on a war footing. Although a majority of Israelis now are native born, many of their parents came from authoritarian states. The civil rights organisations’ basic challenge is therefore not just to correct abuses, but to defend Israeli democracy itself. As a young civil rights activist says,  speaking of those she fights for: “Their struggle is ours.”

 

******

 

Naomi Shepherd is the author of a number of books on Palestinian and Jewish history, a biography which won the Wingate Prize, and short stories set in Israel. She lived for 45 years in Jerusalem, at various times correspondent for papers in the UK and US, documentary film scriptwriter, and member of two civil rights organisations.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Naomi Shepherd.

 

Israeli civil rights groups have multiplied at a dizzying rate over the last 40 years. Between the foundation of the Association for Civil Rights (ACRI 1972), with its roster of distinguished lawyers and academics, to that of Yesh Din (2005), which provides legal assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank, over 25 separate organisations have been set up.

 

ACRI covers the widest range of issues. Several have specific agendas:  Bimkom deals with planning, Machsom Watch monitors checkpoints and military courts, while Adalah (the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, need no explanation.

 

Some groups represent specific professions – Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights. B’Tselem documents abuses of  human rights in the occupied territories. Other groups concentrate on specific areas: Ir Amim in Jerusalem; Ta’ayush,a joint Israeli-Palestinian grassroots organisation, is active among the fellahin of the South Hebron hills, and a recent copycat contestant, the ‘Human Rights Organisation of Judea and Samaria’(aka the West Bank) represents settlers who regard themselves as victimized by the army.

 

Even this brief selection indicates that the main challenge for civil rights lawyers and activists is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, now in its 48th year; the other main concern is the status of Israel’s Arab minority.Civil rights for Jewish Israelis are barely part of the picture. Preoccupied with security issues, Israelis are far less worried about the power of the orthodox rabbinate,which has sole jurisdiction in matters of “personal status” – marriage, divorce, and Jewish identity.The need to separate religion and state is not among the “key issues” currently dealt with by ACRI; the League Against Religious Coercion, which advocates a secular, rather than a religious identity for Israelis, has few adherents.

 

The civil rights organisations represent only a small minority of Israelis.  But even a mainstream organisation like the Israel Democracy Institute has expressed deep concern about antidemocratic trends menacing civil rights, which have been increasing in recent years. For instance; the most recent survey carried out by the Institute showed that nearly half of Israelis thought Jews should have more rights than Arabs, slightly fewer that the government should “encourage Arabs to emigrate”, and nearly a third regarded the ‘Jewish’ character of the state more important than the ‘democratic’.

 

The current religious issue preoccupying the IDI is the fact that three hundred thousand immigrants from Russia are not considered Jews by orthodox standards; hence those who wish to marry Jews in Israel cannot do so without lengthy,difficult conversion procedures, as civil marriage does not exist.

 

 

A fundamental problem for civil rights is that Israel has no constitution.    The Declaration of Independence promised equality to all Israel’s citizens, but the continuing conflict with the Palestinians has made this problematic. Instead, Israel has a set of Basic Laws covering subjects as diverse as the Knesset, the army, freedom of occupation and the unique, Israeli status of Jerusalem.

 

The most specific definition of civil rights is contained in the vaguely described “Human Dignity and Freedom” basic law, which defines that freedom as “the right to leave and enter the country”, “privacy” (under which freedom of speech is subsumed) “intimacy” and protection from unlawful searches.

All this has promoted the Supreme Court to Olympian status. It traditionally has upheld libertarian principles, though on matters of security and the relationship between state and rabbinate it exercises caution.If civil rights lawyers sometimes act,together with fringe parties, as a de facto opposition (since the near demise of the Israeli Labour party), the Supreme Court defines civil rights in the absence of a constitution.

 

*                             *                            *                                *

 

What has caused the growth of civil rights organisations in Israel? The Six Day War brought hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (many who had fled or been expelled from what is now Israel) under Israeli rule.These new subjects now live under what is known in international law as “belligerent occupation”, that is, subject to military control, and with no political representation or say in their own future. International law also obliges the occupier to respect property ownership and freedom of movement, among other fundamental rights.

 

The occupation was initially conceived as a temporary measure. In the postwar period, Jews and Arabs met in Jerusalem,visiting their former homes in a brief period of coexistence.Arab women from the West Bank paddled at the seaside, unseen for 20 years.ButIsrael had annexed Arab Jerusalem and made its Palestinian population into “residents” of a Jewish city. For the West Bank, there was discussion of a “Jordanian option” – but the Hashemite ruler Hussein,was not interested in resuming control of a large Palestinian population.  The ‘Allon plan’ for borders that would satisfy Israel’s minimal security needs suggested compromise.

 

However, once Labour’s domination of Israel’s politics ended, and the right-wing under Menahem Begin came to power in 1977, politicians began to talk openly of a Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland where Jews should be free to settle, in direct confrontation with Clause 4 of the Geneva Convention which forbids colonising a territory under occupation with the citizens of the occupying power.This has been the sticking point of negotiations ever since; it has also created a situation in which Jewish settlers live under Israeli law, and Palestinians under a newly improvised set of laws, regulations and ordinances issued with bewildering frequency by the ‘Civil Administration’ military government and with no recourse for the Palestinians in the Israeli courts.

 

The land itself has become a battleground as Palestinianlandowners,acting through both Palestinian and Israeli lawyers, attempt to stem the confiscation of land both public and private. In 1971,Israel annulled all local and district planning committees that had existed under Jordanian law, and placed planning and building powers in the hands of the Civil Administration. Soon after, Israel resurrected an old Ottoman law defining land untilled for a certain period as “state land”,enabling Israel eventually to commandeer some 40 percent of the territory of the West Bank and establish settlements there – mostly in big “blocs”just over the old pre 1967 frontier. In an attempt to withstand criticism, Israelauthorised the Palestinians to appeal to the Supreme Court. This,in most Israeli jurists view,is a unique concession to a population under military occupation.

 

Settlers and Palestinians clashed almost immediately. The first “West Bank team” of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel – made up of a lawyer, an archaeologist, a university professor and a journalist (myself) could do little more,in the 1980s, than try to check on allegations of brutality by the army and fighting between Palestinians and settlers.  Procedures were haphazard.

 

When settlers attacked the Arab village of Beita on a Jewish holiday, the army, instead of arresting the settlers, blew up 14 houses. ACRI’s archaeologist alerted an adviser – a professor of international law. He in turn alerted colleagues in the Supreme Court, which ordered a halt – one of the first occasions on which that austere body intervened. Subsequent demolitions were now  “judiciable” – if the Court was reached in time to rule on them.

 

On another occasion, when a settler’s car was stoned, the driver went after the assailants and shot one in the back. He was never charged, and today is one of the leaders of the settler community. At that time, documentation was difficult and the Israeli press largely indifferent.

 

The outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, like the first suicide bombings, meant the beginning of further repressive measures and mass arrests of suspects that overwhelmed the military courts. Many of these measures, from curfews to house demolitions, replicate the British Mandate’s Emergency Regulations that have never been repealed.  It was no accident that most civil rights organisations were created thereafter, beginning with HaMoked, the Centre for Defence of the Individual, in 1988. Until then, it was possible for most Israelis to be unaware what was happening in “the territories”.

 

Very few knew the details of the judicial system under which the Palestinians lived. But with the involvement of so many young soldier conscripts in putting down the revolt, manning the checkpoints, or supervising the demolition of the houses of suspects leaving whole families homeless, it henceforth meant either ignoring or approving the abuses of human rights taking place a few miles away from Israeli homes.    At the same time, bombs in public places (I myself was in the cinema where one of the first was plantedand removed by an alert usher) and other terrorist attacks meant that there was little sympathy for the Palestinians. The second intifada at the turn of the century, which claimed over a thousand Israeli lives, hardened Israeli hearts even further. As one military court judge put it: “Security and justice don’t go hand and hand.”

The Oslo accords of 1993 gave the Palestinians a measure of autonomy in areas A and B of the West Bank with the largest Arab population, and Palestinian security forces became the subcontractors of the IDF. But although Israel and Jordan concluded a peace treaty in 1994, the status of the Palestinians, previously Jordanian citizens, remained undecided. The number of Israelis domiciled in the West Bank grew steadily,most of them just over the old frontier.

 

Area C, a predominantly arid area controlled entirely by Israel, constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank. Here, any traveller can see  modern Israeli settlements, linked to new roads, electricity grids and water networks, overlooking poverty stricken Arab villages, sometimes no more than caves and tents, their only source of water a local well, and with no power supply.

 

When two Israeli physicists set up an alternative energy centre,Comet, providing wind turbines and solar panels, these were threatened with demolition. Still, civil rights volunteers, from Peace Now,the Committee against House Demolitions,Ta’ayush and others regularly stage demonstrations, help rebuild houses destroyed because they were built without a permit, and replant olive trees uprooted by vandals from the settlements, many of which are illegal even in Israeli law.

 

 

 

The civil rights groups function in two main ways: first, contesting the appropriation of land both by the government and by settlers. This means supporting the Palestinians’ legal claims, generally in petitions to the Supreme Court.Second, by monitoring the activities of the army, and procedures in the military courts, they provide testimony to the abuses of civil rights by the settlers and the army alike.B’tselem in particular, with its encyclopaedic documentation – including issuing video cameras to Palestinians –

has enabled victims of brutality to contradict the official versions of events provided by government and army spokesmen.

 

But all too often when the Supreme Court rules against settlers, the ruling is only implemented after long delay. The army still has the right to declare an area a “closed military zone”, sometimes evicting Palestinian villagers, and preventing the entry of civil rights groups. Where the military courts are concerned, lawyers representing the Palestinians, and even the judges, are often refused access to evidence gathered by the Shin Bet to achieve a conviction.The army still raids homes at night to arrest not only terrorist suspects, but young boys charged with stone throwing. To see them brought into court in a heavily armed military compound, chained together by the ankles, with most of them released in plea bargains – often after incriminating others – is sufficient to cast doubt on the humanity, let alone the legality, of the entire procedure.

 

Some successes have been registered nonetheless. Following an appeal, the 1979 Elon Moreh ruling by the Supreme Court prevented land confiscated “for security reasons” from being handed over to settlers.In 1993, the Supreme Court, in answer to a petition by the Public Committee Against Torture, ruled that the methods employed by the Shin Bet during interrogations were illegal.

 

Property and land has been returned to Palestinian owners who could afford to hire lawyers to navigate the procedure of applying to the Court.Individual civil rights lawyers achieve small victories, such as returning herds confiscated by the army to Palestinian shepherds. Under pressure from civil rights organisations, the minimum age for charging Palestinian children has been raised, and their interrogation procedure eased. But the Supreme Court has never taken a stand on the question of the legality or otherwise of the settlements themselves, which limits what it can achieve.

 

*                               *                               *                               *

Civil rights for Israel’s Arab minority (now 20 percent of the population) have been flawed from the state’s inception. Until 1966, Israeli Arabs lived under military law, which deprived them of freedom of movement and made them perennial suspects. The official promise of return for those evicted from their villages during the 1948 war, was never implemented.

 

Amendments to land laws have preventedArabs from reclaiming or building on land available for Jewish settlement.On paper, Arab citizens have equal rights, but they have never enjoyed support proportionate to their numbers in government budgets for town planning, housing,or education as their Jewish fellow citizens. Not one new Arab town has been built.

 

On such issues, Jewish and Arab civil rights organisations stand together:   both Adalah and ACRI, with support from Rabbis for Human Rights, have opposed the Prawer plan for the Negev Bedouin, which would displace tens of thousands from unrecognised villages into already overcrowded Arab towns.

Several attempts have been made to remove Arab politicians from the Knesset. In 2009, the Central Elections Committee banned Arab parties it regarded as subversive from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections – a ban promptly reversed by the Supreme Court. This year, the Knesset voted to raise the electoral threshold (the number of votes gathered by a political party to qualify them for entry) from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. On the surface, this is a sensible move to reduce the number of competing parties at elections. But unless Arab factions as far apart as Islamists and Communists can combine, this might leave the Arab minority unrepresented in the next Israeli parliament. Only one tiny political party, the left-wing Hadash, has both Jewish and Arab leaders.

 

The syllabus in schools for Arab children, separate from Jewish schools (state, state religious, and orthodox) is decided by committees over which Jews preside.Arabic is an official language, but is absent from most places where English is displayed, and attempts have been made to deny it even nominal status. Recent legislation by a right-wing government indicate that freedoms guaranteed under the Basic Laws are increasingly limited where the Arab minority is concerned. Both ACRI and Adalah opposed the 2011 law denying government funding to any organisation commemorating the Nakba (catastrophe)which overtook Palestinians at the founding of the state.

 

The same organisations petitioned the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully, against the 2011 Admissions Committees Law, which has enabled rural communities on state land to reject applicants “unsuitable for the social life of the community” – ie. Arabs seeking a better quality of life. Every possible obstacle is placed in the way of Palestinians from the West Bank marrying into an Arab family in Israel. Most recently, a new Basic Law has been proposed by the extreme right wing parties, redefining Israel as a Jewish state, rather than the state of all its citizens. As it would clearly prejudice the rights of Arab minority, ithas been condemned by the Justice Minister, and is unlikely to pass.

 

 

*                           *                  *                                   *

All this has overshadowed another anomaly in a democratic society.    Israel has relatively liberal laws for gay Israelis; same sex activity was legalised in 1988, and same sex couples can jointly adopt,while same sex marriages performed elsewhere, like other civil marriages, are recognised.

 

Tel Aviv is internationally famous for its permissive atmosphere. But the restrictive culture of the extreme orthodox (haredim) has begun to extend beyond its closed communities. Chapters on reproduction in the state religious schools have been removed from science texts.There is no mention of women’s rights in the Basic Laws, and only the more privileged Israelis can sidestep or evade the orthodox monopoly of marriage and divorce proceedings by marrying or obtaining a divorce abroad.  Even non-religious women registering for marriage at the rabbinate undergo intimate questioning by female officials and are given tickets for the mikve (ritual bath). In orthodox districts women are seated separately at the back of the buses. Women whose husbands refuse to divorce them are “chained” and unable to remarry. The indignities of mandatory orthodox burial can only be avoided by finding a place in a kibbutz cemetery. Most Israelis accommodate orthodox rulings out of respect for tradition;these are areas where civil rights organisations rarely venture.

 

The one issue where the orthodox have been frontally challenged is the question of military service for yeshiva students.Traditionally, they have been exempt from the army, though they have been encouraged to serve in special units.A new law to limit exemption is currently under debate, but causes fierce controversy, as has the introduction of religious lectures and ceremonies into army routine. In a few decades, it is estimated that the majority of primary school students will be those in religious schools;  whether as adults they will be prepared to challenge the institutionalised power of the orthodox is an open question.

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The arrival of some 50,000 African refugees and asylum seekers, who crossed into Israel from Sinai – a route now closed – is just the latest problem facing civil rights lawyers. The majority became underpaid  workers crowded together in the poorer districts of south Tel Aviv. But an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (originally a security law) allowed several hundred refugees to be corralled for up to three years, without trial, in a detention camp in the desert region of the Negev.     The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this illegal, an infringement of the Basic Laws.But a new amendment still allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely, and increases the compensation for those who leave.

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Israel is an immigrant society, and one still psychologically on a war footing.Although a majority of Israelis now are native born, many of their parents came from authoritarian states.The civil rights organisations’ basic challenge is therefore not just to correct abuses, butto defend Israeli democracy itself. As a young civil rights activist says,  speaking of those she fights for: “Their struggle is ours.”

 

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Naomi Shepherd is the author of a number of books on Palestinian and Jewish history, a biography which won the Wingate Prize, and short stories set in Israel. She lived for 45 years in Jerusalem, at various times correspondent for papers in the UK and US, documentary film scriptwriter, and member of two civil rights organisations.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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