x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rights groups see bills as targeting Arabs

Two legislative initiatives appear to be the latest attempt by Israel's predominantly right-wing parliament to target Israeli Arabs, who make up about a fifth's of Israel's population.

TEL AVIV //Proposed legislation that would hand the government broad powers to suppress those it deems as terrorists as well as possibly scrap Arabic as an official Israeli language are being blasted by Israeli civil-rights activists as a bid to target the country's Arab minority.

One bill, which passed its first reading in Israel's predominantly hard-line parliament this month, is partly aimed at making permanent emergency regulations that have been in effect since Israel's creation in 1948. The so-called anti-terror legislation would allow security forces to continue to use secret evidence to make arrests or label a group as "terrorist", to detain individuals for months without charging them and to jail anyone viewed as expressing support for terrorism.

The second bill, expected to become law in the coming months, would make Hebrew the country's only official language and give Jewish law more influence over court decisions and parliamentary legislation. The bill has surprised some analysts and rights' activists because it has attracted support not only from the right-wing parties in the ruling coalition but also from the centrist and more moderate movements in the opposition.

The initiatives appear to be the latest attempt by the predominantly right-wing parliament to target Israeli Arabs, who make up about a fifth's of Israel's population and have long claimed they faced discrimination by security forces in workplaces, education, health care and other areas.

"Arabs would be the main group affected by the these two laws, if they pass," said Orna Kohn, an attorney with Adalah, a Haifa-based organisation that provides Palestinians who are Israeli citizens or who are West Bank residents with legal aid. "In today's parliament, the most extreme racist bills have passed, so I wouldn't be surprised if this legislation passes as well."

Israel's predominantly right-wing parliament has passed laws enabling the denial of state funding to institutions that question the country's existence as a Jewish state and one requiring non-Jewish immigrants to take a loyalty oath.

Another bill passed last month would fine any Israeli calling for a boycott of Israel or of its Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The anti-terror bill was partly triggered by a 1999 petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, or ACRI, that challenged Israel's emergency regulations. Those regulations were first established in 1945 by the British during their rule in Palestine and adopted by Israel after its 1948 creation, when the government declared a state of emergency that has not been lifted. Since then, the regulations were renewed by the country's parliament annually.

The bill incorporates many of the already existing emergency regulations, including several - such as administrative detentions, limitations to freedom of expression and the use of secret evidence - that activists say are used in few western countries.

"This legislation normalises the abnormal," Lila Margalit, a lawyer with ACRI, said yesterday. "The bill grants the state draconian and unchecked authority to take extreme measures against individuals and organisations without due process, on suspicion alone, without guaranteeing the minimal right of self-defence."

She added that the bill raises concern of "misuse or overuse" with Palestinian citizens and the possibility that their "legitimate" political activities or ties with the Arab or Muslim world would be viewed as security threats.

Ms Margalit said one of the main worries is that the legislation defines a terrorist organisation too broadly. For example, she said, an organisation that raises funds for Palestinian kindergartens may be labelled as terrorist if it also helps kindergartens run by the Islamic group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Another concern, she said, is the bill's inclusion of administrative detention, under which one could be jailed for an extended period based on secret evidence and without being charged or tried.

Israel has until now rarely used administrative detentions against its own citizens.

However, in the occupied West Bank, which is under a different system of Israeli military law, Israel now holds about 228 Palestinians in administrative detention and will hold them for at least six months at a time, according to the Israeli rights group B'Tselem. Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B'Tselem, said that Israel uses detentions in the West Bank as a "blanket measure," while international law states that they should be used "with extreme caution".

Rights advocates are also blasting a new proposal for a law submitted by at least 40 legislators - from parties including from the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, the ruling right-wing Likud and the opposition centrist Kadima and Labour.

The law would require the courts to adhere to Jewish law in some decisions in which they can find no other legal references.

It would also eliminate Arabic and English as the country's official languages along with Hebrew, a policy that has been in place since the British mandate. However, it would accord Arabic a "special status" and provide Arabic speakers "the right to linguistic access to the services of the state".

"Arabic will officially be classified as second class - it'll mean that Israeli Arabs will be further stripped of the few guarantees they have today," said Ms Kohn from Adalah.

The bill is expected to be passed during the upcoming parliamentary winter session.

vbekker@thenational.ae