Israel's Human Rights Record Is No Source of Pride

High Court rulings are used to portray Israel as a country that safeguards human rights, even as the government and the Knesset flout them.

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Archive photo of African migrants held at Saharonim detention center.
Archive photo of African migrants held at Saharonim detention center. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

At a debate last week at the UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Justice Ministry director general Emmy Palmor proudly recounted the two rulings by Israel’s High Court of Justice that struck down the amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which had allowed the detention of asylum seekers without trial. This was part of her survey of Israeli developments in the field of human rights.

Palmor did not raise the issue of why the second ruling was necessary; if the first ruling, in September 2013, was such a source of pride in the realm of human rights, why was another law subsequently passed that was, as Justice Edna Arbel put it, the same woman in different clothing? Palmor also neglected to mention that her country’s interior minister had announced that he had no intention of accepting the High Court’s ruling, nor taking into account all of the court’s comments.

This demonstrates how High Court rulings are used to portray Israel as a country that safeguards human rights, even as the government and the Knesset flout them. If we talk about “pinkwashing” (using LGBT rights as propaganda for Israel), perhaps we can also refer to “courtwashing” – using High Court rulings to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to human rights, even when it has no intention of honoring the rulings, and the violations of human rights continue. We might also ask whether the need for a second High Court ruling to establish that the Prevention of Infiltration Law was violating human rights is a source of pride for the Knesset and the government, or a source of shame.

In this context we ought to take note of what is anticipated with regard to the “override amendment” being proposed for the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, which the Ministerial Committee for Legislation has decided to support. Associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say that he plans to “bury” this bill. If so, this is to be welcomed.

But we must also note that at the same time, officials who object to the “override amendment” – whether it be the justice minister and the attorney general, who vocally oppose it, or Netanyahu, who quietly objects– support trying yet again to legislate a bill that would allow asylum seekers to be detained in Saharonim and Holot detention centers. Thus, while they are ostensibly committed to the rule of law, to human rights, to democracy and to honoring High Court rulings, in practice – even if the Justice Ministry wants a softer version of an amendment to the anti-infiltration law than the one the Interior Ministry would like to see – they will yet again be trampling on the rights of asylum seekers.

Even shortening the maximum period of detention in these facilities, as the new bill will propose, will not resolve the constitutional flaw of detaining asylum seekers without trial. We are talking about people who, under the principle of non-refoulement, cannot be deported to places that pose a risk to their lives or their freedom, while the High Court of Justice has twice established that detention that is not part of a deportation process is invalid.

Therefore, it behooves the prime minister and the justice minister to relate to the High Court rulings not merely as something that can be waved about abroad to show how committed Israel is to human rights, but as an opportunity to open the gates of Saharonim and Holot and give the asylum seekers the freedom they deserve.

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