Opinion |

Right-wing Activists Attacked Us at Israel's Supreme Court

Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard
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Chief Justice Esther Hayut sits in the High Court of Justice, Jerusalem, October 27, 2020.
Chief Justice Esther Hayut sits in the High Court of Justice, Jerusalem, October 27, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard

For the attention of the Supreme Court president:

A few days ago, I was at the Supreme Court. The panel I was appearing before was also scheduled to hear another petition, filed by one of Israel’s most important and venerable human rights organizations, Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, representing a number of East Jerusalemites whose residency status had been revoked by the interior minister for alleged “breach of trust” to the State of Israel.

This is just one of the arduous and heroic battles Hamoked has been fighting for years, along with combatting home demolitions of the families of suspected terrorists and the struggle to secure Palestinian farmers access to their lands on the other side of the separation barrier (Full disclosure: I occasionally represent Hamoked).

Regarding the revocation of residency, bear in mind that the East Jerusalemites did not choose to become residents of the State of Israel. Israel conquered their city, annexed it, and contrary to the most basic principles of international law, did not grant them citizenship – only permanent residency. Unlike citizenship, this status is conditioned on presence in the city; East Jerusalem residents who leave for several years for study or work risk losing their residency status in Israel.

Additionally, in 2018 the Knesset amended the law and empowered the interior minister to revoke residency for “breach of trust” toward the state – a charge created out of thin air and imposed on the residents. Since the amendment went into effect, the interior minister has used his new authority in a number of cases, including ones involving residents who are active in Hamas or were involved in terror attacks and are now in prison. If the court approves these moves, residents who were involved in security offenses could become perpetual tourists in their city, without social rights and at risk of expulsion.

For a long time now, hearings on cases involving Hamoked have drawn activists from right-wing organizations, who come to the courthouse to harass the organization’s lawyers. They recruit bereaved families and arrange for them to confront the Hamoked representatives, filming the encounters to be posted on social media. These activists also invite politicians from right-wing parties to come to the courthouse, and the hearings generally turn into a carnival from hell.

On this particular day, because of the coronavirus regulations, Hamoked’s lawyers had to wait outside the courtroom while my hearing was taking place. When I stepped out for a break, I found the following scene: Dozens of right-wing activists following the Hamoked lawyers and shouting things at them, photographers shoving their cameras in their faces and haranguing them with accusations that they collaborate with murderers. Within moments, one of the right-wing activists recognized me, and they pounced on the new target, demanding that I tell them if I enjoy “defending murderers of Jews.” It was really insulting. I think I’ve done enough in my life for them to go after me about cases that I actually litigated, not on a case I am not involved in.

Court security guards saw that the situation was getting out of hand and hustled us into a cafeteria on the floor below the large vestibule. One of the guards stood by the stairway and made sure the hostile crowd couldn’t reach us. These guards may be the kindest and most effective policing force in the country, but this solution – of smuggling us into the basement – awarded a prize to the thugs and created an incentive for them to continue behaving aggressively toward lawyers who are just doing their jobs.

During our minutes in isolation, I chatted with the three lawyers for Hamoked, Adi Lustigman, Daniel Shenhar and Benjamin Agsteribbe. They’re used to this sort of thing, they said: The shouts and harassment are part of the job, and this particular event wasn’t even so bad compared to what they sometimes have to deal with. In previous cases, the harassment went beyond the vestibule and into the courtroom itself, with representatives of bereaved families exploiting the right to speak granted to them by the justices to denigrate Hamoked and those who work for it.

These are untenable working conditions for human rights lawyers and mustn’t be reconciled with. The problem is less the right-wing activists and more the system, which allows them to create a hostile environment. This “tolerance” is part of the anti-democratic process delegitimizing dissenting voices of those who oppose the government’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict policies unacceptable.

A lawyer has the right to know there will be zero tolerance for any thuggish conduct toward her, and should receive a clear message from the system that she is completely free to do her job and that no harm will come to her because of any positions she expresses in court. The system promises this to criminal defense attorneys and public prosecutors and should also secure this for attorneys who represent petitioners against the government, attorneys who are also indispensable to any justice system.

The lawyers for civil society organizations fulfill a critical role in restraining the most powerful party of all – the government – and should not also have to cope with curses and fear of harassment and possible violence. Therefore, the court’s security guards should remove the harassers and shouters and cursers from the courthouse and not simply act to protect those who come under attack. And therefore, the justices must defend the honor of the attorneys and the petitioning organizations and not allow the court to become a platform for incitement.

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