Call to Order / No More Excuses - 10 Days to a Committee

The Supreme Court is infuriated by the state's violation of a law - passed 8 months ago - to establish a special committee to address exceptional family reunification cases

The Supreme Court justices are fed up. "For two months," they wrote, "state representatives have been appearing before us, sending petitioners [seeking family reunification - S.I.] on a special committee track for humanitarian cases and declaring that the committee will be appointed shortly. However, to this day, the state has not fulfilled its duty to set up the committee."

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Justices Ayala Procaccia and Uzi Fogelman went even further: "We view with concern the fact that the legislator's instruction, which was intended to provide a humanitarian solution to alleviate the strict conditions of the law, has not been upheld. Eight months have elapsed since the law was passed and the committee has not yet been established. This blatant violation of the law blocks the path to legal aid for people who require it and who lack an alternative way of solving their serious hardship. We cannot tolerate this ongoing violation of the law." They instructed the state to announce "to the court within 10 days whether the committee has been set up in accordance with the law."

The law that the justices refer to is the Law of Citizenship and Entry to Israel, which is better know as "the citizenship law" - although the real citizenship law is another law altogether. The law in question prevents family reunification between Israelis and Palestinians who have married, if the spouse has not reached the age of 35 (men) or 25 (women). Last march, the Knesset decided to extend the law until the end of July 2008.

In order to sweeten the bitter pill and increase the chances that the law will be able to withstand petitions to the High Court of Justice, the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, headed by Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz, decided to set up a committee for exceptional cases dealing with humanitarian issues.

Truth be told, no one pinned high hopes on the committee, especially as three of its five appointed members were said to come from the Shin Bet security service, Israel Defense Forces and Population Registry. Only two of the appointed members would have been public officials. But about a month ago, I reported that even this supposedly humanitarian committee had not yet been established. The 120 appeals that have been sent to the committee so far have not received any attention.

Last Thursday, the High Court of Justice reviewed a petition submitted by Physicians for Human Rights, the Ki'an nonprofit and a family seeking reunification, all of whom were represented by Attorney Johanna Lerman. The family comprises an Israeli citizen and his Palestinian wife, who has health problems and needs ongoing medical care. The state gave her a work permit but refuses to give her temporary residence that would also grant her health insurance. It proposed that she appeal to - you got it - the committee that was never established. How convenient indeed.

Two weeks ago, the Adam Teva Ve'Din organization delivered a report to the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee about the way the Freedom of Information Law on had been used to address environmental issues. The report examines a series of legal processes adopted to coerce ministries into providing information on the environment. The information was provided in the end in all of the cases. In 42 percent of the cases, information was relayed even before rulings were handed down. The obvious conclusion was: "Many authorities refrain as long as they can from providing information, and force the public to resort to expensive and long legal processes."

Members of the Knesset panel took the opportunity to summarize the decade since the Freedom of Information Law was passed in 1998. They believe it has been a total failure. "The impression created," said MK Ophir Pines-Paz, the committee's chairman, "is that in quite a few cases the freedom of information law has just made things worse." How can that be possible? MK Dov Khenin of Hadash explained that "in the past, I would turn to a clerk. If he did not see any special reason to refuse, he would give me the information. Now he says that there is a law and we must fill out forms and pay a fee." Pines said: "Information which in the past was simple and available now requires an entire bureaucracy. This is a reality that we cannot put up with."

A good example of how the public does not use the law is the Environment Ministry. Despite the fact that the ministry has a large amount of information on "green" subjects, it received a mere 87 requests to provide information in 2006. "I would have expected 10 requests a day," Pines-Paz said. Pines-Paz believes the solution should be criminal sanctions. He says that only if the Freedom of Information Law is given "criminal teeth" will the process of providing information become simple and accessible to all.

Khenin said, "The Knesset must do some soul-searching with regard to everything relating to freedom of information."

He says: "On the face of it, everyone has the right to information. All you have to do is to submit a request. On the practical level, though, how exactly can Masouda from Sderot do so? Anyone who doesn't have the time, money and means, will get stuck. The law on freedom of information needs to be reformed to have a much more accessible system."

Two MKs have already submitted a draft law for a reform of this kind: the chairman of the Knesset's House Committee, David Tal from Kadima, and Michael Eitan of the Likud. They propose, among other things, for the law to state that it will be possible to prosecute an authority that does not keep the law and provide information, and to oblige it to pay compensation of up to NIS 50,000 without having to prove damage. MK Orit Noked submitted another draft law to exempt private citizens, who make use of the process of freedom of information very little, from the fee for requesting information. But the two proposals have not yet even undergone a preliminary reading.

One of the spheres in which Israel did not disengage at all from the Gaza Strip was the sphere of investigations and arrests. No fewer than 270 arrested men from Gaza have been interrogated since the beginning of the year by the Shin Bet security service. Such were the conclusions of a report the Shin Bet presented last Monday to the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. In 45 cases - that is, one in six (17 percent) - the Shin Bet used irregular means to make the arrest. In 44 cases, the Shin bet delayed bringing the detainee before a judge by 48 hours; in three of these cases, for 72 hours, and in one case, it did not bring the detainee to a judge for a full 96 hours. In 16 cases, the Shin Bet took advantage of the possibility of extending a remand without the detainee being present.

It is clear from the statistics that the Shin Bet used irregular powers with regard to some of the detainees. A senior Shin Bet officer told the committee, for example, about a case in which the detainee was not brought before a judge for 96 hours, and his remand was extended for 30 days without him being present. The officer said this was the case of one of the men, a senior Hamas activist who had abducted missing soldier Gilad Shalit and whose arrest "brought about the foiling of a terrorist attack."

The validity of the temporary measure allowing the Shin Bet to arrest and interrogate Gazan residents post-disengagement will expire at the end of the year. The temporary measure grants the Shin Bet much wider powers to arrest and interrogate, in order to thwart terror, than those granted by the regular law regarding arrests. At the same time, these are much less extensive powers than those the Shin Bet has in the West Bank. The Shin Bet has asked that the temporary measure be extended for another 18 months. Last Monday, the committee began discussing the proposed law. The public defense has presented a document to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in which it expresses opposition to extending the temporary measure. Officials at the public defense say that "the temporary measure harms basic rights such as the right to personal freedom, the right to remain silent, the right to consult a lawyer" and so forth. This is particularly true of the cases in which the Shin Bet denied those being interrogated the right to meet with a lawyer and did not bring them before a judge. As is customary, the Shin Bet, rather than the public defense, will be win and the temporary measure will be extended. Nevertheless, the chairman of the committee, Kadima MK Menachem Ben-Sasson, has made it clear that he will consider reducing the wide powers that the law grants to the Shin Bet.

MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism has a habit that has gone on for years: He walks out of Knesset House Committee meetings when members of the Reform movement speak. In the past few months, he upheld this precept of walking out very frequently. That is because the associate director of the Israel Religious Action Center, Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement, is playing an especially central role in ongoing discussions on the constitution. The committee usually works with three texts - a text representing rightist views that was prepared by the Institute of Zionist Strategy, a text representing centrist views that was submitted by the Israel Democracy Institute and a leftist liberal text that Kariv is submitting in installments.

Gafni is one of the MKs who steadfastly participates in discussions on the constitution. Every time Kariv begins to talk, Gafni gets up and leaves. If he were allowed to smoke outside, he could use these breaks to take a smoke, but since the corner allocated for smoking is far away, he has to make do with talking on his cell phone or with the passersby. And of course, he asks whoever leaves the room whether "he has already stopped talking." Gafni says: "The only people with whom I am not prepared to sit are the Reform Jews."

Are the Conservative Jews acceptable?

Gafni: "No, no. Call them what you want. I sit down with secular Jews and with anti-religious people. But they take the Torah and tear it to pieces."

Kariv says in response that the exit that I witnessed from the meeting on equality was relatively quiet but that Gafni's exits are often accompanied by abusive remarks. Kariv says, "It is possible to see the qualitative difference in UTJ members, between MK Avraham Ravitz who behaves like a human being and listens without agreeing, and MK Moshe Gafni who acts like a hooligan."