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Israel anti-terror laws: Effective or extreme?

September 3, 2011

JERSUALEM (AP) — Israel was dealing with terrorism long before al-Qaida attacked the United States a decade ago. So when two passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center, Washington looked to Israel for ideas.

American law-enforcement agencies have now adopted many Israeli technologies, according to Steven Emerson, executive director of the nonprofit Washington-based Investigative Project on Terrorism. The New York Police Department has a permanent representative in Israel to share intelligence and study its response to terrorism.

However, there are questions about whether Israel’s approach to anti-terrorism is extremely effective, or just too extreme. Israel’s extrajudicial detentions and killings, as well as its profiling of terror suspects, have been both lauded as revolutionary successes and lambasted as violations of human rights.

Boaz Ganor, an Israeli counterterrorism expert, said there is an inherent contradiction between battling terrorism and maintaining a democracy’s liberal values, because terrorism aims to exploit the weaknesses of liberal democracies. It sows fear and panic among people and, as a result, forces governments to yield to terrorist demands.

“Reality forces us to sacrifice some of these liberal values on the margins,” he said. “It’s a constant balance, and Israel has been the model for finding this balance.”

Israel officially has been in a state of emergency since independence in 1948. Israel is now putting forward a sweeping, 1,500-page counterterrorism bill that will gather all its anti-terror measures under one law. The parliament approved the first draft in August.

Israeli counterterrorism measures have included administrative detention, or incarceration without trial, expulsions, targeted killings, home demolitions and harsh interrogation techniques. Nearly all have faced legal challenges, and the Israeli Supreme Court has overturned some, placing restrictions on the government. There have been rulings against torture, mandating the length of time a suspect can be detained and how the military is allowed to act around unarmed civilians.

The U.S. had to revolutionize its laws after the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with The Patriot Act, and then was accused of bypassing them with the detention center in Guantanamo Bay. But Israel’s tools evolved over decades of coping with suicide bombings, highjackings and kidnappings.

“If the U.S. had our measures, they may not have needed a Guantanamo,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, a legal expert at the Israeli Democracy Institute. “The administrative detention is a far less draconian measure than sticking people in a black hole where the law does not apply.”

But Kremnitzer also said Israeli laws needed some softening and “modernization.”

In 1999, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel appealed to the Supreme Court to cancel the emergency measures that date back to the British-mandate era, arguing they violate basic rights and are inappropriate in a modern democracy. The court has yet to issue a ruling, as the state has promised to pursue alternative legislation.

The Justice Ministry said the new law would upgrade the state’s ability to crack down on recruitment, incitement and the transfer of funds to terror organizations. The bill also calls for tougher punishments for those aiding terrorists and a life sentence for those convicted of “acts of terror.”

Lila Margalit, an attorney for the rights association, said the bill’s broad definition of terror organizations and its approval of restraining orders without trial could lead to violations of human rights.

“The bill could turn law-abiding people and organizations into ‘terrorists,’” Margalit said.

Israel’s Deputy State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan defended the bill, saying it had eliminated some punitive measures, such as home demolitions, while introducing elements that made it tougher on terrorists.

“Israel has been at the forefront of this effort,” he said. “The country didn’t go crazy in the face of terror attacks and managed to maintain civil rights.”

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