army conversion bill Olivier Fitoussi
Knesset members voting on a preliminary reading of the military conversion bill, which would validate army conversion to Judaism. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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At the heart of the uprisings in Arab states is the demand to rescind emergency laws that confer governments sweeping security powers, and seriously infringe upon civil rights. Yesterday Syria's President Bashar Assad surrendered to protesters' demands, and annulled emergency laws that had been in effect in the country since the Baath coup in 1963.

Emergency law in Israel long predates its institutionalization in Syria. Four days after the state's establishment in 1948, the acting government declared a state of emergency, which remains in effect. Israel effectively adopted the state of emergency that had been declared by the British Mandatory government nine years earlier.

A state of emergency allows a government to bypass regular legislative processes. It bestows upon the government broad powers that infringe on civil liberties. These include the power of administrative detention, seizure of land, arrest of infiltrators, and limitations on the rights of terror suspects. In Israel's improvisational style, numerous writs have been issued under emergency law guidelines for the monitoring of goods and services. In such case, the emergency law was used not because of any real concerns about state security, but rather for bureaucratic convenience.

In addition to laws that are meant to be implemented in times of declared emergency, such as various anti-terror measures and the law for the prevention of infiltration, Israel's security forces have broad powers under the 1945 "defense regulations," which were carried over from the British Mandate. These regulations can be implemented even when a state of emergency is not formally declared. They confer to security forces "draconian deterrence and punitive authority, including powers of seizure and confiscation, right of search and entry, the right to impound vehicles, censorship powers, the right to demolish homes, declare curfews, and more" (from "The Constitutional Law of the State of Israel," Amnon Rubinstein, Barak Medina ).

By the 1990s, criticism leveled by jurists about the extension of the state of emergency led to a revision in the law, whereby the Knesset can authorize a state of emergency for a year. However, any extension beyond a year requires discussion and approval of the Knesset. Since this revision was adopted, the Knesset has mechanically approved the extension of Israel's state of emergency every year. The last time such renewal was authorized was June 14, 2010.

In Israel, unlike Syria, citizens are accustomed to living under a state of emergency, and there is no public or political pressure to rescind emergency law. It is hard to imagine an Israeli prime minister standing up in the Knesset and declaring the annulment of the country's emergency laws, on grounds similar to the ones cited by Bashar Assad last weekend: "The annulment of the state of emergency will strengthen the security of Syria, and promote security while preserving the dignity of the Syrian citizen."

The Association of Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice 12 years ago, demanding that the declaration of a state of emergency be overturned on the grounds that it infringes free speech, the right to strike, the right of assembly and other liberties. Whether or not we face an emergency, the Court's judges are acting as though they have time on their hands; they are still considering the petition.

The government has promised the High Court that it will act to "normalize" legislation in areas such as monitoring of goods and services. It has also drafted a new anti-terror law. Judges have reprimanded the government for the slow pace of emergency law revision, yet there is no sign that the High Court will decide on this petition in the near future, or that the state of emergency will be annulled.

And so Syria, by cancelling its state of emergency, has surpassed Israel. Perhaps that provides cause to revisit and review Israel's emergency laws, before the present declaration is automatically renewed by the Knesset on June 13th?