Israel attempts to redefine terrorism, but is its definition too broad?

Some observers are concerned that a draft Israeli law's wide-ranging definition of what constitutes terrorism could outlaw opposition to the occupation and suppress political opposition in Israel.

al-monitor Israeli policemen patrol a street in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber following clashes in Jerusalem, Sept. 18, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.
Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab


Topics covered

terrorism, resistance, political oppression, political opposition, law, israeli occupation, israeli-palestinian conflict

Sep 23, 2015

A troubling anti-terrorism law to replace the 1945 Defense (Emergency) Regulations passed its first reading in the Israeli Knesset by an overwhelming 45-14 vote on Sept. 2. The 100-page piece of legislation had been opposed by the left-wing Meretz Party and the predominantly Arab Joint List, but appears to have the support of the two major Israeli parties, the Likud and the Zionist Camp.

For a time, the mandate-era British regulations continued to be used by Israel as the legal basis for collective punishment, such as deportations, home demolitions and administrative detention in the occupied Palestinian territories. In 1999, however, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to “start reducing the number of laws and ordinances that depend on the state of emergency.” An attempt to rewrite the regulations as original Israeli law was made during Tzipi Livni's tenure as justice minister (2013-14), but the Association for Civil Rights in Israel strongly opposed it. The effort remained mired in the Knesset's legislative process.

The current draft legislation is so extensive and repressive that Yael Berda, a leading Israeli lawyer and professor of law at Hebrew University, called it “scary and undemocratic” and a “regime change” in an interview with Al-Monitor. In a Sept. 18 Times of Israel article, reporter Marisa Newman outlined eight changes in the law in regard to the Israeli government's approach to the issue of terrorism. They include an expansion of the definition of terror, a lack of distinction between attacks on civilians versus soldiers and the designation as a terror organization of any nongovernmental organizations, including humanitarian groups, “that assist terror organizations in any way.”

Sympathy with a group deemed a terror organization is severely punishable. Newman wrote, “If done publicly — whether waving a sign at a rally, posting on social media or wearing a T-shirt — the individual will be eligible to serve three years in prison.” The legislation also enshrines administrative detention into Israeli law and gives Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency, wide-ranging powers to hack into private citizens’ computers.

According to the bill, the punishment for threatening to perform a terrorist act would be equivalent to having performed the act. The bill also doubles the maximum punishment for terror-related activities to up to 30 years in prison. Anyone over the age of 12 can be prosecuted for terrorist involvement, and a broad range of activities — including, for instance, wearing a shirt with a designated terror organization’s name on it — constitutes such involvement.

Leah Tzemel, one of Israel's best-known lawyers and who has defended Palestinian detainees for decades, told Al-Monitor that she was disturbed by the wide-ranging powers in the new law. “It is not a law about terrorism. It is a law removing restrictions from everything to do with opposition to occupation,” she said. Tzemel also expressed concern about the prevailing right-wing atmosphere, which aims to criminalize anyone who dares speak out against the occupation. She asserted, “When it comes to the occupation, there is no rule of law.”

Adalah, the leading Palestinian human rights organization in Israel, was one of the few human rights NGOs to immediately speak out against the draft law, issuing a scathing report on Sept. 3. In it, Adalah echoes Tzemel’s view that the proposed law defines political activities opposing the occupation or supporting its victims as terrorist acts.

The report reads, in part, “The law substantially strengthens and widens the powers of the police and the General Security Services (Shabak or Shin Bet) to suppress any legitimate protest activities against Israeli policies. It also enables the use of 'secret evidence' in order to take preventative measures against these activities, which impedes the possibility of objecting to these repressive decisions based on their merits before the judiciary.”​ If the new law passes, Adalah emphasized, it would “seriously escalate the level of repression and intimidation targeted against the political activity of Palestinian citizens of Israel through the criminalization of political, cultural and social relationships between them and the rest of the Palestinian people.”

Berda noted how the new law aims to rewrite British emergency regulations that Jewish leaders had opposed at the time. She said leaders of the Jewish underground had called them “Nazi-like." Berda commented, “The new law criminalizes an entire population for identifying with an organization that Israel considers terrorist.” She explained that someone might support Hamas politically, but not its military actions, but according to the new law, such individuals would nonetheless be considered guilty of terrorism.

She stated, “You don’t have to do anything to be considered a terrorist. You can publish an article or make a comment in cyberspace, and you will be criminalized. If you are located in the physical environment of terrorist activities, you are guilty.” She believes that many Israelis don’t yet understand what is at stake in terms of political oppression. “This law can be used for all sorts of political opposition by Jews as well,” she said.

The Israeli jurist is concerned that opponents to the draft law are moving too slowly and ineffectively against it, asserting, “Everyone is waiting to see who will carry the flag and sound the warning bell.” Berda said the law will be in committee for some time before it is brought to a second vote. Regardless, she is worried at present that the only opposition being voiced is by right-wing activists who are concerned about how it will affect their activities.

A quick survey of major Israeli and international human rights websites revealed little or no coverage or statements on the issue. A source working with the New York-based Human Rights Watch told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the organization’s Middle East team is understaffed, is following five wars and simply lacks the resources to comment on the law.

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