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Israel’s battle with itself

Not only is imprisonment without filing charges unlawful, it actually threatens Israel's security

There’s a line in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that explains how Jewish terrorism has recently penetrated Israel with such acute intensity. When a character is asked how he went bankrupt, he says, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

The tragic events that took place in less than a 24-hour period from July 30 to July 31 — the fatal stabbing spree by an ultra-Orthodox extremist at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade (which killed a 16-year-old girl) and the firebombing of a home in the West Bank Village of Duma (which killed an infant and his father) — struck a chord beyond the barbarity of the acts themselves. They evoked feelings of morbid familiarity.

In recent years, 15 Palestinian homes have been set on fire, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization. What was the Israeli response? Twelve of those instances triggered police investigations with 10 of them resulting in no indictments.

Contrast this response with what followed the brutal 2011 murder of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar. The IDF’s response was to lock down the city of Nablus, hold more than 100 residents from a neighboring Arab village in administrative detention and conduct nightly raids for nearly a month until two Palestinian cousins were arrested and later confessed to the crime.

Because of this apparent disparity, there is another dimension of tragedy in the Duma case: The understandable Palestinian expectation that justice won’t be carried out.

When Israeli leaders across the political spectrum delivered sharp condemnations of the latest violence and thousands of Israelis poured into the streets demanding action, the moment also seemed to provide some sense of possibility for change. Think of the old diplomatic adage: Never waste a crisis.

Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, soon captured the critical challenge facing Israel in a tweet: “An opportunity presents itself to Netanyahu – to treat Jewish terrorists the way his government treats Muslim terrorists.”

Given the brutality of the Duma slaying, which garnered international outrage and scrutiny, Israeli security forces faced a particular dilemma over what kind of action was needed with these Jewish terrorists.

And the response came within two days when Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon issued administrative detention orders for Meir Ettinger, Evyatar Slonim and Mordechai Meyer. While none are believed to have committed the arson attack in Duma, they are being held for “involvement in Jewish extremist organizations,” according to the Ministry of Defense.

Though this move may appear to be an initial step toward enforcing equitable treatment for Israeli and Palestinian terror suspects, it is a grossly misguided approach.

Administrative detention entails arresting and detaining people for an extended period of time without charge or trial. It is authorized by administrative order and not judicial decree. After the attorney general approves the defense minister’s request, the suspect is given a six-month sentence, which can then be extended upon its completion. Evidence is often not provided to the detainee or the public, removing any means of recourse or defense.

Generally, administrative detention is practiced because either the security agency wants to protect the identity of an inside source or suspects the detainee is a “ticking bomb” planning to carry out a crime in the future.

In an interview with Channel 10, Ya’alon recognized the controversial method as extreme but said, “the draconian step was necessary in this case, because if we hadn’t taken it, we would have seen a string of attacks against Arabs.”

A better way for Israel’s security apparatus to protect Arabs, however, would be to demonstrate that Jewish violence against them has real and serious consequences. An extensive investigation leading to the discovery of the perpetrators and enabling a fair trial with appropriate sentencing for these heinous crimes will do far more than overriding the legal system.

Administrative detention violates the core democratic principle of due process – a citizen’s entitlement to fair treatment through the judicial system. Ignoring the rule of law and depriving people of their fundamental rights is not a legitimate or sustainable counter-terrorism policy.

To be sure, Israel isn’t alone in making difficult choices for the sake of its security, and the threats in this dangerous neighborhood are real and dire. Israeli security forces have anything but an easy job. But in authorizing the use of administrative detention, Israel’s security leaders didn’t adequately account for the damage that will be inflicted on Israel’s democratic foundation.

Instead, they responded to the pressure of this latest crisis by offering security theater — countermeasures that provide the feeling of security without actually strengthening it — to compensate for the state’s historical record of not enforcing the law against Jewish terrorists.

Regardless of whether suspects are Israeli or Palestinian, administrative detention is no remedy for combating terrorism.

Part of what explains Israel’s success as a nation-state is that, at its core, it is a functional democracy. That’s Israel’s greatest strategic strength. In recent years, however, that strength has been increasingly undermined through the unresolved Palestinian issue (albeit with both sides standing in the way of progress). And in continue to use and expand its policy of administrative detention, Israel will further tear away at its center.

Certainly, strong action must be taken to capture Jewish assailants and deter future acts of violence. It is in Israel’s overwhelming moral and strategic interest to do so. Alongside the harm it inflicts on Palestinians, Jewish terrorism harms Jewish interests in multiple ways, by endangering lives that will inevitably taken in acts of retaliation and by providing more fuel to those who hate Israel.

The intense fear for safety can culminate in a willingness to go any lengths in the interest of self-preservation. But there is a real line that can be crossed when the strongest defense of the state descends into the strongest erosion of civil liberties. At what point does a nation recognize it has stopped addressing a threat and has instead introduced a new one?

If Israel becomes a place where its citizens can be imprisoned without having to be proven guilty, the fabric of its democratic structure will start to unravel. And just as it experienced with Jewish terrorism, the ramifications will be realized in two ways: gradually, then suddenly.

About the Author
Eric Cortellessa is The Times of Israel's Washington correspondent, where he covers American politics and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. His writings have also appeared in The New Republic, The American Prospect, Newsweek, The Huffington Post and The Buffalo News.