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Administrative detention and Israel's moral imperative

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Thursday, 17 September 2015

Palestinian lawyer Mohammed Allan, who went on hunger strike for 65 days to protest his indefinite detention in Israeli custody, was subsequently moved into medical care and had his detention suspended in August over fears that he might die in prison, potentially provoking massive Palestinian unrest. This raises serious questions about both the legality of Israel's administrative detention and the degree to which Israel is violating human rights. The most troubling aspect of Israel's preventive detention policy, however, is how dangerously Israel's moral standing is sliding, not only because of the unjust treatment of Palestinian detainees, but the extent to which the country is undermining the moral imperative that gave it birth from the ashes of World War II.

A review of Israel's detention policy reveals how outrageous and convoluted the legal system behind this policy is. Israel maintains a perpetual state of emergency as a political tool to provide the legal rationale, however twisted, for the policy of continuing administrative detention.

Israel has stitched together a complex system of various emergency measures borrowed from the British mandate era, Jordanian rule over the territories, and its own military and civilian laws, while making no effort for nearly seven decades to unify these legal procedures.


Successive Israeli governments maintained this hodgepodge administrative detention system to give it the flexibility to resort to one set of rules or another to enforce detention under the guise of legality, when in fact the whole complex of emergency 'laws' are nothing but a sham governing tool.

National security considerations are used, or rather abused, to justify the indefinite detention of hundreds of Palestinians without being charged with any crime; they are denied legal defense and left languishing in jails with little prospect of being released.

Irrespective of any efforts made to deradicalize Palestinian detainees, by keeping prisoners in indeterminate detention, the prison itself becomes an incubator of extremism. Hopelessness sets in, further nurturing their resentment of the state, which naturally has a ripple effect on their families and the communities to which they belong.

Moreover, regardless of how reformed and repentant a Palestinian prisoner may become, the majority of those who are eventually released return to violent resistance as they find themselves still living under occupation with no prospect of ever changing their dismal lot.

At the beginning of September, Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (who once advocated the mass killing of Palestinians) introduced a counter-terrorism bill that would, among other things, codify administrative detention, which would make matters even worse for the Palestinians and further debase the state's moral onus.

The bill would do away with all prior emergency measures and further increase the state's ability to withhold evidence from the suspect and their legal representative under the pretext that providing such information would jeopardize national security.


Moreover, this bill contradicts the very notion of law as such, which does not operate through brute force and terror but recognizes the equal worth and dignity of every individual who stands before the law. What the bill will do is make it much easier for the state to legally detain Palestinian suspects indefinitely without putting them on trial, adding yet another layer of moral decadence to the already bankrupt legal system.

[caption id="attachment_2718" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Cartoon by Sam Ben-Meir[/caption]That said, anyone who is familiar with Israel's state of being from the day of its inception to the present cannot deny the fact that the country has legitimate national security concerns. But when national security becomes a political tool, Israel opens up itself to intense criticism and condemnation.

Whereas every country is obligated, regardless of the nature of its governing authority, to safeguard human rights, Israel has a double burden to adhere to such norms of moral conduct not only because it claims to be a democracy, but especially because of the unique circumstances under which it was created.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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