Knesset Passes Sweeping Anti-terrorism Law

New law, which was backed by most parties, expands both the state’s counterterrorism powers and its definitions of terrorist organizations and terrorist acts. Law is 'draconian and unacceptable,' Arab parties say.

Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli troops in Bethlehem.
Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli troops in Bethlehem. AP

The Knesset gave final approval on Wednesday to a new counterterrorism law, which significantly expands both the state’s counterterrorism powers and its definitions of terrorist organizations and terrorist acts. 

The law was supported by most of the parties in the Knesset, with the exception of Meretz and the Arab parties' Joint List, which termed it "draconian and unacceptable."

The new law – which applies only inside Israel, not in the West Bank – is an omnibus that combines most provisions of existing counterterrorism law, thereby finally replacing numerous defense regulations enacted by the British Mandate more than 70 years ago. It was supported by most of the parties in the Knesset.

The legislation, which was promoted by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, stiffens the penalty for terrorist activity and for assisting in the commission of terrorist acts. For example, it provides for imprisonment for up to seven years for threatening to commit an act that, if it had been carried out, would have been punishable by a life sentence. The law also creates new terrorist offenses, including identifying with a terrorist organization, incitement to terrorism and failure to prevent a terrorist act.

Following the passage of the legislation, Justice Minister Shaked made reference to last week's terrorist attack at the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv and Sunday's attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, saying: "The terrorist attacks in Orlando and Tel Aviv show more than ever that there is no reason for terrorism. There are excuses. It can only be vanquished through appropriate punishment and deterrence."

For the first time, the legislation also enshrines the use of various means to combat terrorism into law rather than through emergency regulations, including administrative detention and orders barring individuals from leaving the country. The new law authorizes law enforcement officials to hold suspects for 48 hours before being brought before a judge for the first time and before they can consult a lawyer. The law also allows the Shin Bet security service, on the approval of the prime minister, to conduct computerized surveillance of those suspected of having a connection to terrorist activity. The law also authorizes the expropriation of money and property from individuals and entities suspected of terrorism-related offenses.

Zionist Union casts vote in favor

Zionist Union, the largest opposition faction, voted for the law even though two major changes it had demanded weren’t made.

“It’s an important law,” explained Zionist Union MK Omer Bar-Lev. “Some of these counterterrorism regulations are from the time of the British Mandate, and it’s time to turn them into law.”

One clause to which his party objected would define members of a terrorist organization to include “passive members,” who play no active role in the organization’s activity, and allow them to be indicted. The other clause it deemed problematic would allow the defense minister to confiscate a terrorist organization’s property. Bar-Lev said Zionist Union doesn’t object to asset confiscation, but thinks this decision should be left to the courts – or at least an independent professional like the head of the Shin Bet security service – rather than to a politician.

“This is an Israeli Independence Day,” Knesset Constitution Committee Chairman Nissan Slomiansky declared when he presented the bill to the Knesset before the vote. “Sixty regulations from the days of King George are being abolished, and we’re applying Israeli law in their stead.”

Slomiansky said the new law “gives the defense establishment a great deal of power to fight terror, but also contains delicate balances so this power won’t be abused.”

The Arab parties’ Joint List, in contrast, opposed the bill, with MK Ahmad Tibi terming it “draconian and unacceptable.”

“You can demolish houses, arrest people, deport people, kill them and shoot them when they’re on the ground bleeding,” he said. “But you can’t suppress a nation’s desire to liberate itself from the occupation.”

Joint List Chairman Aymah Odeh said that when he looks at the bill, “I see panic, the panic of the final stage of all colonialism worldwide. The panic of the French at the end of the occupation of Algeria. I see the panic of the Americans in the final phase of the occupation of Vietnam.”

Odeh gibed that the law would define Israel itself as a terrorist, since Israel engages in security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and members of the PLO, and by Israel’s definition, both the PA and the PLO are terrorist groups.

“The real terror is your occupation, which hasn’t yet ended,” he added.

MK Eyal Ben-Reuven (Zionist Union) said the law gives both the defense and the legal establishments important tools with which to fight terror, and he therefore supported it. Nevertheless, he said, he worries about how it will be implemented in practice, and urged that it be carried out with “judgment and restraint.”

Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On, whose party opposed the bill, said she supports the battle against terror, but this battle must be waged “effectively and morally,” without violating fundamental rights. The best way to fight terror, she argued, is to end the 49-year-old occupation, “which is the fuel and the motivation for terror.”