At a time when the Arab regimes are suspending state-of-emergency laws in the face of popular protests, Israeli lawmakers have quietly voted to extend them another year into their seventh decade.
A joint meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense committee and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee this week accepted a government request to extend the state of emergency for 12 months. This wasn’t because there was a looming threat on the Jewish state, but because after more than 60 years parliament hasn’t found the time to regularize the rule in ordinary legislation
Nevertheless, Israelis are getting some relief. While government supervision remains in force over the sale of car air conditioners, diamonds and even ice cream, restrictions on trade in camel meat and Turkish delight, a gooey confection usually made from almonds, was lifted. For human rights groups, however, the fact that the emergency laws exist at all is an outrage.
“This state of emergency gives the government great power, almost limitless power to be able to circumvent the laws of the Knesset,” said Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for The Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which has sought to end the state of emergency.
“The Middle East is changing. Syria has lifted its state of emergency. Egypt has announced that it was doing so. Only Israel, which claims to be the sole democratic state in the Middle East is still in a state of emergency,” Yakir told The Media Line.
Israel declared a state of emergency upon its birth in 1948, allowing it to bypass legislation ensuring human rights and basic freedoms in order to fight terror and infiltration and maintain state security. Even though some of its terms have been gradually eased and the country hasn’t fought a life-and-death war since 1973, the regulations still give the government broad powers.
They give security forces the authority for seizure and confiscation, and search and entry, as well as the right to impound vehicles, censor the media, demolish homes and declare curfews, supervise shipping and regulate foreign travel. Handed down from the time of the British Mandatory government, it also bestows powers of supervision over commodities and services and even breaks from work.
Unlike Egyptians and Tunisians, whose governments used emergency laws to repress basic freedoms, Israeli rarely feel the pinch of their old emergency laws, many of which are never employed. Palestinians in the West Bank, however, are often ensnared in Madatory-era provisions, most notably those allowing home demolitions and administrative detentions.
A representative of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, urged to the joint committee, which as a testament to public indifference to the emergency rules, was attended by just three legislators, to extend them for another year. The official said it would allow security agencies to do their job to prevent terror.
Legislators agreed, despite a request by ACRI that the extension be limited to six months. But they also took the opportunity to annul some antiquated laws and ordinances.
“There are some laws which have no connection at all with security such as the law governing work and rest hours,” a committee statement said.
The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that the Knesset had to start reducing the number of laws and ordinances that depend on the state of emergency. There are currently about a dozen laws and 40 ordinances regulating the state of emergency and these are in the slow process of being turned into ordinary laws. Over the years, some 45 ordinances have been revoked, but the going has been slow.
“The criticism of the Supreme Court on this matter was very justified and it intends to act to cancel the laws which have no connection to security issues as any normal country would,” said Avraham Michaeli, a Knesset member for the Shas Party and the head of the team reviewing the emergency laws.
Next week, the Knesset plenum is scheduled to vote on the issue, but this is a mere formality since the committee’s recommendation will likely be approved.
It will be the same day that Bahrain has announced it will lift its state of emergency. Last month, Syria’s President Bashar Al-Asad surrendered to protesters’ demands, and annulled emergency laws that had been in effect in the country since the Baath coup in 1963.
“It’s time to get rid of the emergency regulations, which date back to the British Mandate and should have been revoked long ago, said Nitzan Horowitz, a lawmaker for the left-wing Meretz party.
“They are intended to give the cabinet undemocratic powers and enable it to circumvent laws Democracy should be strengthened via Knesset legislation. After 63 years, it's time to turn Israel into a more normal state,” he said in a statement.
Yakir of ACRI speculated that the government was dragging its feet about drafting anti-terror and security laws that would allow the state of emergency to be annulled. He said that if the measures used now were legislated it would not be able to meet the standards set by the country’s Basic Rights Laws, which are Israel’s equivalent to a constitution.