Netanyahu's 'Alignment' Of Law In The Territories

Ever since the occupation began, Israeli citizens traveling in the territories, in effect, carried the protections of Israeli criminal law on their backs, irrespective of place.The army could stop you, or declare that certain locations were "closed military zones" (where civilians could not enter). But otherwise, whatever civil freedoms an Israeli had in Israel, he or she had in the territories.

If you disturbed the peace, say, or stole something, or attacked someone, and an army unit caught you at it, the officer in charge could detain you, of course, but had to remand you to the local Israeli police, which alone could arrest you and press charges.

And if you were arrested, you could appeal for justice to Israeli civilian courts, which ran by strict rules of evidence, and tended to apply the Law of Human Dignity (the closest thing Israelis have to a Bill of Rights) broadly. Under the cover of these protections, arguably, settlers and hill-top youth often got away with serious crimes. The rightist attacks on the army have certainly been a kind of turning point for public opinion here, something like Joe McCarthy's attacks on the army were.

So last night, the Netanyahu government announced new regulations in the occupied territories meant--so it was  reported with a certain satisfaction in Israel's liberal press--to manage the conduct of right-wing Jewish settler youth engaging in violence against soldiers, "price-tag" attacks on mosques (the "price," in this case, is exacted against Arabs when the government enforces the law and tries to evicts settler), and random attacks on Arab farmers adjacent to settlements.

What has Netanyahu done? Henceforth, army officers will themselves be able to arrest and incarcerate Israeli citizens in the territories, bring them before military courts. These will then have the right to hold them more or less indefinitely under administrative detention procedures governed by the emergency regulations inherited, with certain modifications, from the British Mandate.

Anyone with a smattering of knowledge about the way the army operates in the territories knows that Palestinians have been subject to precisely these legal processes virtually from the start of the occupation. Now the same standards will apply to Israelis. As one high official in the prime minister's office told a journalist friend of mine, to date there have been two sets of laws and procedures in the occupied territories, one for Arabs, one for Jews. Now the two "have been brought into alignment." Only fair, right?

CAN WE PLEASE take a deep breath and pay attention to what is actually going on here? Let me repeat the changes introduced yesterday. Army officers will be able to arrest Israeli citizens in the territories. They will be able to haul citizens before military courts. The courts will then have the right to sentence them or hold them more or less indefinitely under administrative detention. Given the recent history of the Jewish people, it would be tactless to call these procedures fascist. So let's just say Costa-Gavras would see a pattern.

Yes, this will make it easier on the army in dealing with rightist fanatics. But peace groups have been rallying and protesting settlements in the territories for years, and organizers like Ezra Nawi are a fixture in the South Hebron Hills, often clashing with IDF patrols. More and more, IDF units in the West Bank are commanded by officers who are either sympathetic to the settlers or actually from settlement families. Who will these regulations likely be used against most often? Where has the army been most often challenged if not at places like Nabi Saleh and Bili'in?

Nor has Netanyahu made any bones about his determination to use these new regulations against the left, too. Tonight, he told a Likud gathering, at which some expressed anger at his treatment of the settlers, that any attack against the army in Bili'in would be treated the same way Jewish fanatics would be treated. No kidding.

Any legal change this potentially dangerous eventually proves, well, dangerous. Surely the relief we feel at watching the government finally take on the worst of the settlers ought not to obscure the suspension of civil rights. Such changes are always justified by the fight against disorder. More soon.