Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Israelis have been subject to directives and emergency orders imposed or rescinded at a dizzying pace. Even legal experts are often at pains to try and understand them. It’s no wonder that tens of thousands of people and businesses have been slapped with fines for violations.
The public simply isn’t aware of all the rules; and that probably goes for the police and other authorities in charge of enforcing the rules too.
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One good example is the rule requiring people to wear face masks in public. In the past week, many Israelis were out on the streets wearing them assuming it was mandatory at all times outside the house. In fact, the directives say masks are mandatory only when entering a building that is not your home, but not in open areas.
The penalties connected with failing to wear a mask as required are unclear. Reading the directives issued this week, it appears violators face half a year in prison or a 14,000-shekel (about $4,000) fine, as per the penal code. Yet a more careful reading of the document reveals that administrative, not criminal, fines are used to enforce the rules, even after the first violation. Thus, a first-time violator is supposed to be let off with a warning and a second-time offender is subject to a fine of just 200 shekels. Only in case of the most serious violations of the mask rules will someone face criminal sanctions and serious penalties. We can only hope the police and others charged with enforcing the rules have been properly instructed.
According to the Law Enforcement and Collection Authority, as of Monday, 43,932 fines totaling 33 million shekels (USD9.3 million) had been issued. Violators must pay within 60 days. So far, 887 fines have been paid for a total of 466,000 shekels. For people who have violated the rules on not going out in public except for essential tasks, some 41,500 fines of 500 shekels each have been handed out, totaling 20.7 million shekels. For opening a business, violating quarantine, refusing to obey a police officer and the like, 2,437 fines worth 12.2 million shekels have been given out. For failure to make mandatory reports to the Health Ministry or refusal to follow police officer’s instructions, 28 3,000-shekel fines, amounting to 84,000 shekels, have been issued.
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The daily rate of fines has dropped since lockdown orders were eased this week from an average of 2,000 to just 1,200. As of Tuesday, 31 fines had been issued for not wearing a mask in public.
“Israeli citizens are careful to pay their fines, and we expect that 85% of them will be paid within 60 days,” said Doron Tashtit, the authority’s director. “The rest, unfortunately, will have to add late fees of 50% and we have taken enforcement steps against them, such as attachment orders on their bank account or salary.”
Dr. Ori Aronson, an expert on constitutional law at Bar-Ilan University, believes that after the coronavirus crisis has passed, a movement will develop to grant pardons to violators. The crisis created two exceptional conditions, in his view. One was the strict enforcement of actions that are not ordinarily immoral, but required to be restricted when such activities posed a danger to the public. The other exceptional condition is what Aronson called “an unstable, unclear and constantly changing system of rules.”
“That makes uniform compliance and enforcement of the rules very hard. People are likely to violate them simply because they aren’t clear,” he explained. “The policies of the police and inspectors aren’t expected to be consistent because of differences of interpretation and understanding.”
He said the dissonance will inevitably extend to the courts when they issue rulings on indictments related to the coronavirus lockdown.
“Several officials violated the rules on Passover night. Without any connection to the question of whether that exposes them to criminal liability, it creates the sense of selective compliance and adds to the feeling of unfairness among those penalized for violating the coronavirus rules,” Aronson said.
A general pardon would prevent accusations that one group or another was favored or discriminated against. Because of the exceptional nature of the coronavirus crisis, a general pardon would also not undermine the deterrent power of law enforcement on the long term, Aronson argues.
President Reuven Rivlin himself came under criticism for violating the rules when he invited his adult daughter for Passover Seder at the President’s Residence. Nevertheless, Aronson said, Rivlin’s issuing a general pardon wouldn’t present a conflict of interest. The president is only entitled to grant individual pardons; a general pardon would have to be approved by the Knesset.
Aronson is optimistic that something like this will happen. Once the crisis is over, people will want a sense of closure. “It’s reasonable to assume that this will also apply to criminal violations – unless the Finance Ministry is including the revenues from the penalties in its plans for overcoming the economic crisis,” he said.
The justice system may also push for a general pardon to prevent the courts from being overwhelmed by appeals against the penalties.
There have been two instances of general pardons in Israeli history. The first one was in 1949, shortly after the state was established, and the other was in 1967, following the Six Day War. In neither case were felons convicted of serious crimes included. There was also talk of a general pardon for Israel’s 70th anniversary, but it was never done due to political disagreements.
Aronson doubts a post-coronavirus pardon will be on the scale of the first two. “To do that, there would need to be a strong sense that we’ve been saved from disaster and that does not seem to be the direction we’re going in Israel,” he said.
“Of course, a pardon like that might help some defendants facing trial,” Aronson said, hinting at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose criminal trial is due to open May 24.
A more reasonable option would be granting general amnesty through legislation putting an end to legal proceedings, as was approved by the Knesset in 2010 regarding people who had resisted the 2005 Gaza disengagement without resorting to violence.
“It was a law that focused on certain offenses and certain violations and was justified on the grounds that it would make it easier to cope with the national trauma,” Aronson said. He added that the law passed muster with the High Court of Justice, even though it discriminated against people who had been penalized for other kinds of protests. In any event, a coronavirus amnesty won’t be open to charges of discrimination.