Not Without a Warrant

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Police guard the home of senior police officer Maj. Gen. Jamal Hakrush in Kafr Kana, Israel, last month.

One day after it was approved by the cabinet and the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the government submitted a bill to the Knesset whose goal is to expand the police’s powers by enabling them to search private homes without the need for a warrant. The stated explanation for the bill is a justified concern about rising crime in the Arab community. But the legislation threatens to severely undermine human rights in Israel, and particularly people’s right to privacy, the right to preserve privacy in their lives.

The police, who already have broad powers, seek to expand them more and more and get rid of “headaches” like the need to go to court and ask a judge to approve a search warrant. Public panic over the extent of crime is serving these aspirations, which turn out to be shared by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. He presented the bill as another tool in the battle to fight crime in Arab towns. But in practice, this bill will worsen the situation of every segment of society and every town in Israel.

It’s important to note that even today, police are allowed to enter someone’s home, conduct a search and seize evidence if that person is suspected of committing a crime there at the time, or if an escaped criminal is on the premises. The bill adds another justification for searching without a warrant – if, in the police’s view, there are reasonable suspicions that evidence will be found there that will prove a serious crime has been committed, and there are also grounds for fearing that this evidence will be destroyed by the time a search warrant is obtained. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation did insist that in any such situation, the police officer entertaining this suspicion will need approval from a senior officer. But in practice, the police can always claim that a reasonable suspicion existed, even it if turns out the officer in question was wrong.

In democratic countries, a balance is struck between individual rights and the Draconian powers of investigative and enforcement agencies, even at the price of undermining those agencies’ ability to prevent and investigate crimes. This is the price that free societies pay for the right to be called free. It was sad to discover that the Labor and Meretz parties – which are supposed to be the protectors of human rights in this government – prefer to turn a blind eye.

In other days, and under other governments, Meretz and Labor would have led the parliamentary opposition to legislation that threatens to violate human rights so sweepingly and disproportionately. It’s still not too late for them to do so.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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