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Justice minister's hunt for Israeli NGO not about justice

Despite her lack of authority to even suggest it, Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is getting the investigation into Breaking the Silence spokesperson Dean Issacharoff she demanded.
Ayelet Shaked, Israel's new Justice Minister of the far-right Jewish Home party, attends a ceremony at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem May 17, 2015. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool/File Photo - RTX2RPZJ

The attitude of the Israeli government toward the pillars of democracy and human rights brings to mind the old story about the coachman who decided one day to save some money by cutting his horse’s daily portion of hay. He believed the animal would eventually get used to the forced diet and keep pulling the coach. The miserable horse stamped its feet, slowed its gait, turned to skin and bones and, of course, one day up and died.

The backbone of any democracy is, obviously, freedom of expression. The gradual erosion of this principle in Israel accelerated two years ago, when Culture Minister Miri Regev sought to withhold state funding from artistic creations that did not sit well with her views. The attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, was forced to explain to the minister that such a decision was not within her purview. When Regev persisted, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber made it clear to Shaked that state censorship of plays was venture that had gone out of business many years ago.

Another essential element in a healthy democratic society is the separation of powers. On June 7, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked trampled over the red line separating the executive branch, in which she serves, from the judicial one. In a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Shaked demanded a criminal investigation into Dean Issacharoff, the spokesman of Breaking the Silence. The nongovernmental organization opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories publishes testimonies from soldiers who witness violence against Palestinians. Issacharoff’s sin, it turns out, was an admission he made in a video posted by the group that during his military service in the West Bank city of Hebron, he beat up a Palestinian who had thrown stones at him.

The justice minister is not authorized, under any circumstances, to order or even suggest that the state prosecutor investigate anyone or desist from investigating anyone. The Justice Ministry’s website clearly states, “The justice minister does not intervene in specific cases.” She is only allowed to formulate instructions relating to the general policy of the state prosecution and decisions of the attorney general. But Shaked doesn’t care. She even boasted of her part in the decision to investigate Issacharoff, writing on Facebook, “In the past, the state asked that it be given all the testimonies reaching the organization so that it could investigate and determine the facts, and the state will keep insisting on this.”

Unlike Regev's case, this one went the justice minister’s way. The state prosecutor’s spokesman, Noam Sharvit, actually confirmed the minister’s intervention. In a statement this week, Sharvit noted that the prosecution had decided to investigate Issacharoff following a request by the military advocate general. But, he added, “during a preliminary review, several additional requests reached the attorney general and the prosecutor’s office, among them one from the minister of justice.” In a well-functioning democratic society, the attorney general should have returned the minister’s letter with a reprimand for abusing her power.

Shaked ended her post by calling the Israel Defense Forces “the most moral army in the world" and saying, "Incidents of violence are investigated and dealt with.” But her claim points to another central element of democracy that is missing in Israel: equality before the law. Monitoring conducted by Israeli human rights organizations — the ones that Shaked and her friends are trying to eliminate — clearly indicates that the Issacharoff incident is not like the thousands of similar incidents, many far more severe, that are an integral part of any military occupation. Even if there were no recourse other than to summon Issacharoff for questioning, as argued by Al-Monitor's Mazal Mualem, why did the minister and police not spend the same energy on countless similar and even far more serious cases of soldiers or Israeli settlers abusing Palestinians?

According to data compiled by the anti-occupation NGO Yesh Din organization, in 2015 the military police opened 186 criminal investigations into alleged offenses by soldiers against Palestinians following complaints by Palestinians or by human rights NGOs. Out of these 186 investigations, 120 were dismissed. Many cases in which Palestinians were killed in 2015 occurred during the wave of anti-Israel violence that erupted in the West Bank that year. Military police dismissed 55 of the 99 reported cases. Yesh Din data from that year also shows that IDF unit commanders received 187 reports of alleged offenses of soldiers against Palestinians. The units are obliged to share reports of all alleged violations of international law to the military police, but only seven such reports were actually shared.

Since the start of the second intifada in 2000, the human rights organization B’Tselem has demanded that the military advocate general investigate 739 cases in which Palestinians were killed, injured or beaten up by soldiers, had their property damaged by soldiers or were used as human shields to protect themselves from possible attacks by other Palestinians. About a quarter of the cases (182) were not investigated at all, almost half (343) were dismissed and only in very rare cases (25) were indictments served against the soldiers involved. Thirteen additional cases were passed on for disciplinary action, 132 are in various stages of being processed and the 44 others could not be investigated.

The questioning of the Breaking the Silence spokesman is a clear attack on transparency, yet another principle without which democracy is meaningless. It is a direct continuation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts, which he is seeking to enshrine in law, to ban funding for Israeli NGOs from foreign governments. By so doing, he wishes to expand the relatively new transparency law that requires NGOs to report such donations, essentially sentencing them to a slow death.

A politician who never misses an opportunity to accuse the Palestinian neighbors of inciting against Israel is leading the incitement against Israelis who have taken a stand in the battle for Israeli democracy — the same democracy that he and his friends in the government are starving to death. What more needs to happen for civil society to start fighting back? Half a million people, most of them young, took to the streets six years ago to protest the persistent erosion in their quality of life. It was Netanyahu who once said that life itself is more important than quality of life. But freedom of expression, separation of power, equality before the law and transparency are essential to the life of Israel itself.

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