Democracy’s descent into darkness

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It is still unknown what will happen today and in the coming days in the newest face-off between the police and the tens of thousands of Israeli citizens who wish to assemble in Sderot to protest the Sharon government's plan to expel 10,000 Israeli citizens from their homes and communities in Gaza and northern Samaria.


On Sunday night, the police were sending their personnel to the Western Negev ahead of the expected order to close the entire area off to civilian traffic to prevent protesters from participating in the demonstration in Sderot called by the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.


During the cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prevented Education Minister Limor Livnat from starting a discussion of the government's position on the police's decision, which is backed by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, to prevent lawful protesters from arriving at Sderot. In so deciding the police and the attorney-general have made clear that they believe it is more important to prevent a political protest than to uphold the legal right of Israeli citizens to travel freely in the country.


In her request to discuss the issue, Livnat said that the decision to block protesters "is not a technical or operational decision, but a much wider issue. It involves the balance between democracy and the enactment of government and Knesset decisions. Democracy is not simply the holding of elections. It is also the safeguarding of the freedom of expression, of protest, and of demonstration. Here we are talking about a large public that is protesting and angry. And so a decision to prevent buses from traveling to Sderot is a decision the government has to discuss."


When Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attempted to add his voice to the discussion, Sharon cut him off saying, "The issue is not on the agenda, and it is not open for discussion."


Today there are three girls, aged 13 to 16, who are in jail until the end of proceedings against them. Moria Goldberg, 13, Chaya Belogrodsky, 14, and Pnina Ashkenazi, 16, have been incarcerated since June 29, when they were arrested while participating in an anti-withdrawal and expulsion demonstration aimed at blocking highway traffic.



In a letter I received from Chaya's father, Moshe, he relates that in her decision to uphold the lower court's ruling to remand his daughter in custody until the end of legal proceedings against her, Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia wrote that Chaya must remain in jail for a period that could last months because she constitutes a "danger to the society because of her ideological motivation." The amazing thing is that if Chaya is convicted, according to her father the maximum punishment she is liable to receive is a monetary fine.


THE FACT that a Supreme Court justice could label a young girl a danger to society because of her "ideological motivation" is no surprise to 50-year-old Vitaly Vovnoboy. At 5 a.m. on July 4, six men, in civilian dress, five of them armed with M-16 rifles, forcibly entered the Vovnoboys' home in Karnei Shomron. After a panic-stricken Vovnoboy screamed out "Terrorists!" the men identified themselves as police officers. Armed with a search and arrest warrant, which they refused to show Vovnoboy, who subsequently fainted, or his wife, they proceeded to confiscate two of the family's computers, and membership forms for the Likud Party that were piled on his desk.


Only after they had arrested Vovnoboy and taken him to the Russian Compound in Jerusalem was he informed that he had been arrested for sedition and distributing seditious materials. Vovnoboy was remanded in custody for four days the next morning by a Jerusalem district judge in spite of the fact that his lawyer showed that the arrest and search had been conducted illegally. According to the warrant, two witnesses were supposed to have been present during the execution of the warrant, and none were.


VOVNOBOY'S "crime" was having provided technical support for the Internet site belonging to the anti-withdrawal and anti-expulsion group "Habayit Haleumi" (the National Home), whose members organized the highway blocking protests. Both while under arrest, and since his release, Vovnoboy has not once been interrogated.


Vovnoboy, a senior software engineer for a major international hi-tech firm, is a well-known and highly respected figure in Russian immigrant circles. He is a long-time member of the Likud and serves as a member of the party's Central Committee. After making aliya in 1991 from Moscow, he was a member of the Zionist Forum led by Natan Sharansky, and later served as its acting chairman.


Word of his arrest sparked uproar in the community. Fifteen former Prisoners of Zion sent a letter of protest demanding his immediate release to President Moshe Katsav, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra and the prime minister. MKs Yuli Edelstein and Yuri Shtern wrote similar appeals.


In his view, the entire ordeal "was meant to terrorize and silence Sharon's political opposition." The forms confiscated from his home were signatures from Likud Central Committee members demanding a convening of the committee to debate the removal of Sharon from his leadership of the party. In order to convene the committee, 20 percent of its members must sign requests to do so. Vovnoboy had planned to submit the forms the day after he was arrested. The deadline for submission was the day before he was released. The police returned the forms to him two days after the deadline passed.


Last Wednesday, Yekutiel Ben Yaacov was arrested on charges of inciting racism. Ben Yaacov runs a Web site called where visitors are asked to decide whether they prefer Sharon's plan to expel Jews from Gaza and northern Samaria or the Web site's plan to expel Palestinians who refuse to commit to not carrying out violent activities against Israel. He was interrogated for several hours in Jerusalem and then released.


The arrests of Ben Yaacov and Vovnoboy and the remand of the girls are appalling and alarming because, at base, the police and court actions taken against them are all directed not at their actions, but at their thoughts and ideas. The "danger" they constitute is not the threat or commission of violent crimes, but rather the fact that they object to the government's policies.


In a rare move, on Sunday, President Katsav criticized the Supreme Court for refusing to rule on the legality of the police decision to block buses transporting protesters to the anti-withdrawal and expulsion demonstration at Netivot two weeks ago. "I would have expected the court to decide on this issue. There has to be a distinction between crimes. In this case there was no intention on the part of the opponents of withdrawal to commit a break-in or a theft, rather they wished to protest against the withdrawal," Katsav said.


Given Justice Procaccia's view that the opponents of the withdrawal and expulsion plan manifest a danger to society because of their "ideological motivation," it is hardly surprising that the she and her colleagues on the court are allowing Sharon, through the police, to trample the laws of the country. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly apparent that for supporters of Sharon's plan, the test of whether someone is or is not a danger to society has nothing to do with his respect for law. The litmus test that defines what is or is not "lawful" or "democratic" is whether a person, through action or thought, is obedient or disobedient to Sharon's withdrawal and expulsion regime.


These are dark days for Israeli democracy. We see in the behavior of the police, the courts and the Prime Minister's Office, that in their hysteria to push through a controversial plan whose benefits to I
srael's national interests and security are unclear at best, everyone who objects to this plan – regardless of age, station or action – is suspect. Their homes are raided, their liberties denied and their civil and legal rights discarded.


Is this really a price the Israeli public is willing to pay – for anything? Is this what we have come to?


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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