Call to Order / Why the Olive Harvest Is Up a Tree

There are some offenses that the judiciary system doesn't really deal with - it only seems as though it does. A few months ago, a parliamentary question elicited a response indicating that no complaint about Shin Bet security service investigators has ever reached the Justice Ministry's Police Investigation Department. Last week another such blind spot was revealed: the vandalizing of olive trees. While in 2006, 19 case files were opened as a result of damage done to 60 trees, and 10 suspects were questioned, only one indictment was filed.

These figures were provided by Minister of Internal Security Avi Dichter in response to a parliamentary question from the chairman of the National Union-National Religious Party faction, MK Uri Ariel. There is no final number yet of the cases investigated this year. But this year, too, only one indictment has been filed. The situation was a little better in 2005 - four indictments filed. But even this is anything but impressive because in that year alone, 21 case files were opened, complaining about damage to 800 trees, and 20 suspects were questioned.

At a government meeting at the beginning of January 2006, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz reported that within a short time span, 2,400 Palestinian-owned olive trees in the territories had been vandalized. "There is a pervading sense of lawlessness and the feeling that violence makes a real man," Mazuz said. According to him, this is part of "a broader phenomenon of the lack of adequate law enforcement against Israelis in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]." Mazuz also said that "the allegation that there is a lack of resources [to counteract this trend] is unacceptable. This is a matter of priorities. All the security and law enforcement agencies must join in a determined fight against this grave phenomenon. The guilty parties must be apprehended and brought to trial."

It is reasonable to assume that in answer to his question, Ariel was hoping to hear proof that the Jewish settlers are accused baselessly of uprooting trees. But he was quick to realize what the data does prove. "The reality as you describe it," he told Dichter, "is that no culprits were found. Cases were opened and closed again. That is why I am asking whether it is possible to give this activity extra emphasis and additional resources so there will be arrests, trials and verdicts in these cases."

Go straight to jail

Last Tuesday the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved on its first reading a proposal for a law that would impose a mandatory sentence of 10 years in prison on any individual who attacks an elderly person - regardless of whether the assailant uses brute force or a slap. Anyone who causes "real physical damage" to an elderly person will be jailed for 20 years, whether the case involves a broken arm or severe crippling.

Mandatory punishments are very rare in Israeli law. Committee Chairman Menachem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) took the view that these punishments should be reserved for murder and genocide. However, the committee approved the proposed law by a majority of six to two. It appears that the vote was at least in part motivated by the previous day's event: Rivka Buganim, 79, of Jerusalem, was cruelly beaten up by a burglar, an incident that made the headlines.

MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), who initiated the proposed law, said it is necessary to impose severe punishments, beginning with crimes committed against the elderly. According to him, "People need to learn to relate to the elderly as though they were Hanukkah candles - and not to touch them. It is possible to debate whether those who attack the elderly should be sentenced to 10 or to six years. But we have made it clear that the Knesset will impose harsh punishment."

Rotem is also spearheading a proposal for a law whereby the police will be able to request the imprisonment of anyone in possession of a knife until the completion of proceedings. At the November 5 meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee he explained that "the knife has become a live weapon, a murderous weapon. Every argument about a dog or a parking spot or a beach chair turns into a murder. A person doesn't need to go around with a knife in his pocket." Attorney Avi Gross, who represented the Israel Bar Association, responded that, "There is a difference between a collector from the black market who is caught with a knife and a person caught with a knife whose job it is to put up wallpaper."

It is reasonable to presume that in the end the coalition will knock down both proposals. In the case of the elderly, the proposal stands a chance if Rotem agrees to moderate the punishments considerably. But Rotem has four more proposals up his sleeve. The most comprehensive of them relates to recidivists. Under this proposal a repeat offender convicted of the same crime twice,will be sent to prison for at least one-third of the maximum period stipulated by law. That is, even if he has committed a very minor offense, the court will have to send the offender to prison. Rotem's proposal further states that if someone is convicted of the same offense for a third time, the court will be obligated to sentence him to the maximum period stipulated by law.

Another proposal: Sexual and gravely violent offenders will not be eligible for having their prison terms reduced by one-third - both because of the suspicion that they will repeat the offense and because then the punishment, according to Rotem, will be too light. Also, a prisoner who has been convicted of murder will not be entitled to furloughs.

Rotem's energetic legislative initiatives ostensibly reflects Yisrael Beiteinu's last campaign ad on television: "Who will fight the rampant crime on the streets? Bibi Netanyahu? Nyet. Ehud Olmert? Nyet. Avigdor Lieberman? Da!" But it is hard to say that at this stage Yisrael Beiteinu's role in the coalition is indeed helping to pass the harsher punishment laws.

Rotem says he considers the fight against increasing crime and violence as Israel's real war. "If education isn't doing the job, it is necessary to try other ways. I think this will discourage young people from entering the world of offenders." He explains the need for establishing mandatory punishment by saying that "the judges in Israel are much too lenient." In response to the argument that harsh punishments do not necessarily serve as a deterrent, he says "there is no such thing as deterrence not working," and that at least the lengthy punishments exempt society from being punished by those offenders.

"If there were a budget for tens of thousands of additional policemen," Rotem says, "maybe there would be no need for harsher punishments. But there isn't. So what? Are we going to sit around quietly and not do anything? So I say that we need harsher punishments and anyone who is not deterred will sit in prison for many years." Now all that remains is to recall that even without harsher punishments, there is a severe shortage of space in Israel's prisons.