Israel's Government Reaches a New Moral Low

A state that adopts the legal methods and laws of totalitarian states begins to look like those countries, even if it calls itself 'the only democracy in the Middle East.'

The remains of the home of Mohammed Harub in Deir Samet, who is charged with killing three at the Gush Etzion junction in November 2015.
Alex Levac

The right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is finding it difficult to cope with the “lone-wolf intifada,” which has been underway for more than five months. The frustration and helplessness of ministers in the face of public pressure is dragging them into a moral abyss.

A new moral low was recorded by Netanyahu last week, with his very public demand that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit legitimize the idea of deporting the families of terrorists from the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip. Mendelblit rejected the idea, explaining that it contravened international law, which prohibits the deportation of inhabitants from occupied lands.

Netanyahu’s letter to the attorney general looked like a transparent public relations exercise, intended to present the “jurists” as scapegoats – as if they are the ones preventing the government from dealing with rampant terror. The exercise is also intended to release pressure brought to bear by Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz, whose push for a law allowing for the deportation of such families presents Netanyahu as a weak and soft politician.

But even if Mendelblit stands his ground and reiterates the legal impediments against such deportation, the moral stain of Katz and Netanyahu’s proposals will not fade. Over the past few months, Israel has adopted the principle known in German as sippenhaft – meaning a family’s shared responsibility for a crime committed by one of its members. Its origins lie in ancient times, when an offender’s entire tribe would be punished for his crimes. In the modern era, this principle was characteristic of totalitarian regimes, when the relatives of “enemies of the state” were punished by exile, imprisonment or execution. Today, this method is common in North Korea.

The Netanyahu government’s response to shooting, knifing and car-ramming attacks is based on the same principle: The family that “supports and assists” the terrorist, as Netanyahu put it, is as guilty of terror as the offender. That is why house demolitions have been renewed. According to figures by the nonprofit B’Tselem, 31 Palestinian homes have been demolished whose relatives were involved in attacks, with other demolitions planned. That is also why Israel is holding the bodies of attackers from East Jerusalem and punishing their families by delaying burials. Israeli advocates of sippenhaft argue that it’s the only way to deter the Palestinians, citing cases in which families gave up suspects as proof that the method works. To them, the deportation of families to Gaza seems the ultimate weapon against lone-wolf attacks.

But the Palestinians are not the only ones who’ll pay the price for punishing the families; Israel will, too. Because a state that adopts the legal methods and laws of totalitarian states begins to look like those countries, even if it calls itself “the only democracy in the Middle East.”