These days, Israel’s leaders are desperate, or at least at a loss on how to stop a fringe element of Jewish extremists that has long figured out how to dictate the path of this country, no matter how few they are.
Desperation was the message put out Sunday by the diplomatic-security cabinet when it approved the use of administrative detention for Jewish extremists suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism directed at Palestinians.
A controversial practice, administrative detention involves the jailing of terrorist suspects, often indefinitely, without them being able to see the evidence against them and without needing to charge them with a crime.
In recent years the practice has been considered something of a cure-all, or at least a measure to hype up when a security official is feeling the heat. In late 2013, then-public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch expressed his support for the use of administrative detention to fight organized crime, saying it was just another tool they needed at their disposal to get the upper hand.
Make no mistake, on a purely practical level, it would help. Police wouldn’t need evidence of any sort to arrest and jail entire crime families, with only the vaguest argument that so-and-so “poses a security threat to the public.” The suspects and their attorneys wouldn’t be able to see the evidence against them, safeguarding police informants and preventing criminals from learning what methods police are using.
The same goes for “price-tag” suspects.
Though the police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) regularly scoop up “price-tag” suspects with little evidence against them, those suspects must be brought before a magistrate, a judge must be shown evidence that justifies keeping them in custody. Lacking sufficient evidence – as is typically the case – the suspects are released by the police within days, something that wouldn’t happen with administrative detentions.
Since some estimates put the number of hard-core, violent “price-tag” extremists at only a few dozen, the authorities could just lock them all up for “security reasons” or “for intelligence purposes and fear of impending terrorist attacks,” and not have to worry about building a case or gathering the type of evidence derived from serious police fieldwork, deep sources and solid intelligence. In the meantime, they’d all be in custody, case or no case.
However, universal human rights can be inconvenient. They include such pesky principles as due process, the concept that every person has the right to a fair and speedy trial.
Though for decades that has not been the case for Palestinians in the West Bank, Jews living in Israeli settlements have been able to sleep soundly knowing that the same rights that protect Israeli citizens within the Green Line apply to them, too.
This is at the root of why Jewish terrorism has been so hard to stop. The acts are committed by a small, highly motivated and ideologically driven group of extremists who refuse to cooperate with police and know very well what their rights are when in custody. They have legal support and the knowledge that they only have to wait out police and keep their mouths shut, and the courts will release them due to what is typically a lack of forensic evidence, just as they have to release criminal defendants under such circumstances.
Using administrative detentions against Jewish terrorist suspects would indicate that Israel applies the same injustice to Jews as it does to Palestinians, but would also send the message that the deep security state that can dictate the lives of Palestinians without legal oversight can also ensnare Jewish Israelis.
The approval of administrative detentions is an admission that the current methods aren’t working, and that there is growing support for using the same methods against Jewish terrorists as are used against Palestinians.
The question Israelis must ask, though, is where does this end? Surely the Shin Bet is not going to start ordering “targeted assassinations” on Jewish terrorist suspects, nor can one really imagine a situation where they’ll start torturing “price-tag” suspects under interrogation or performing surveillance on suspects and their families to secure ammunition to blackmail them into cooperating.
And if these Jewish terrorist suspects in administrative detention go on hunger strike, will they be force-fed? However small or fringe they are in number now, police and the Shin Bet must know that if such methods were put into place against Jewish terrorist suspects, it could be a great recruiting tool for future extremists.
Not everything that is kosher for the war on Palestinian terrorism will be considered kosher for Jewish terrorists, and the authorities will have to operate within the confines of the law and what Israeli society will allow its security establishment to do to fellow Jews, no matter how dangerous they are.
People are often puzzled by how the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police can have such success rooting out Palestinian terrorists and yet are seemingly so powerless against a bunch of teenagers and young men running around the West Bank torching mosques.
Part of the answer is simple: Israel is not going to send undercover hit squads and helicopter gunships to their outposts.
It won’t torture them in custody.
It won’t bribe and blackmail their families into being informants and can’t use the offer of work permits to lure them into cooperation. It simply cannot instill the same fear into their hearts as it instills in the Palestinian population.
Besides the constraints on their actions when it comes to Jewish suspects, there’s also the fact that the security services simply have not managed to infiltrate this very small group of extremists or successfully recruit informants among them.
The murder of Palestinian toddler Ali Dawabsha in Duma on July 31 was a horrifying act that has the potential to bring Israelis and Palestinians into a new, terrible circle of violence whose end we can’t predict.
It makes sense that the Israeli leadership is looking for serious measures to counter Jewish terrorism – including extreme, legally vague measures. But the public must keep in mind that it’s often very easy to apply these measures but much harder to remove them down the road. These measures could also cause a great deal of collateral damage in the form of innocent citizens drawn into the criminal justice system without the legal protections that they expect as members of a Western, democratic country.
The Shin Bet and the Israel Police care greatly about stopping “price-tag” attacks, and the police in particular could surely use the good publicity that success in stopping these attacks would accrue them.
Nonetheless, the road is long, indirect and unclear, and any shortcuts like administrative detentions have the potential to blemish us all.