Knesset debate over civil law in Israel threatens settler protections

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HEBRON, West Bank — Noam Arnon and Issa Amro live a few blocks from each other in the center of this biblical city, but they live under two different sets of laws. Amro, along with the other 200,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron, is subject to military law imposed by the Israeli occupying forces. Soldiers can, and have, entered his home and strip-searched him in the streets without a warrant or warning.

Arnon and the other 800 residents of an Israeli settlement in the old city of Hebron live under Israeli civil law, enjoying the same protections against warrantless searches, arrest of minors and other police powers as their compatriots. living in Israel. “Israeli law must apply here,” said Arnon, who believes Jews have a biblical and historical claim to these ancient lands. “Hebron is more Israeli than Tel Aviv.

But the decades-old system in which Israel extends its legal code to its citizens settling in the Palestinian territories is suddenly in jeopardy. Jerusalem lawmakers are deadlocked over renewing the arrangement in a schism that could dissolve the unusual two-tier legal system and subject West Bank Israelis to the same martial law as their Palestinian neighbors.

It’s a dispute that threatens to topple the country’s year-old government.

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Politicians have until the end of the month to reconcile differences that have divided members of the diverse governing coalition, which includes right-wing, left-wing and Palestinian Israeli parties. The measure failed in a first attempt at renewal this month after several coalition members voted against the measure or abstained.

Members of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party enthusiastically support the extension of civil law, but voted against it in hopes of bringing down the fragile ruling coalition.

Recent defections have reduced the ruling coalition’s voting power to just 60 seats in a 120-seat parliament, and political observers have said the deadlock over civil rights may well be the blow that will collapse the government.

“We will probably have another election,” Tal Schneider, a veteran political reporter with The Times of Israel, said in remarks to The Jerusalem Press Club. “There’s a big divide here, and it didn’t go away just because we had a government that was very inclusive and very different from previous governments.”

The unusually diverse coalition, which formed last year after four inconclusive elections and two years of political stalemate, was a rare experiment in political pluralism in Israel, where ideological divisions are stark. The common motivation of most members was to break the decades-long grip on power of Netanyahu, who is being prosecuted on multiple corruption charges.

After months of relative success focused on fiscal and other pragmatic reforms, rifts have recently widened within the government over security issues, settlements and other flashpoints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Joint List party leader Mansour Abbas, whose political support was first courted by Netanyahu ahead of last year’s elections, has temporarily suspended his party’s participation in the coalition to protest the actions of Israeli police against protesters at the al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem.

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former leader of a settler group, has failed to convince enough Palestinian, Israeli or liberal members to support the extension of civil law to the settlements – which they consider fundamentally unjust – if only to keep the coalition viable. He and his coalition co-leader, foreign minister Yair Lapid, a centrist, have until June 30 to find additional votes.

“As always after a loss, we will come back stronger and win the next round,” Lapid said in a tweet after the measure failed to pass.

Failure to renew the civil legislation would mark a shift in Israeli governance – the legal umbrella over settlements has been regularly renewed for more than 50 years.

It could erode the carefully cultivated sense of Israeli normalcy that settlers covet in their towns and villages, which most of the international community sees as illegally built on Palestinian territory. For decades, this provision granted settlers the same status as citizens living in Israel regarding adoptions, policing, national health care, taxes, insurance and other matters.

Lawyers say ending the system could subject settlers to the same military law that governs Palestinians in nearly a third of the West Bank under direct Israeli control, though the military would likely find ways to accommodate Israelis in the territories. (Other areas of the West Bank are more directly under the control of the Palestinian Authority, although the Israeli military has a say everywhere.)

The Israel Defense Forces declined a request for comment on whether the military was ready to take over law enforcement in the settlements.

Few places in the West Bank offer a sharper contrast between the legal structures governing Israelis and Palestinians than Hebron, where the applicable law passes not just from city to city but from house to house.

“In Hebron, the law goes from person to person,” said Roni Pelli, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Pelli said two Hebron residents, an Israeli and a Palestinian — “let’s call them Abraham and Ibrahim” — who commit identical crimes face very different proceedings.

“Abraham will always end up in the regular courts of Israel,” she said. “He has freedom of expression, to protest his treatment or for any other cause.”

Palestinian “Ibrahim” would land in military court on a military base before uniformed judges, with far fewer protections for his rights, she said.

“This system is not put in place to protect the suspect. The penalties are much tougher,” Pelli said.

Among the differences, according to Pelli: Palestinians’ homes can be searched without court authorization, and Palestinians can be more easily detained without a warrant and held before charge for 48 hours – compared to 24 hours for settlers. Palestinian minors can be arrested at the age of 12, two years before Israeli children can be detained.

“I have seen Palestinian children fighting with Jewish children, and only the Palestinian boy is caught,” said Amro, an electrical engineer and political activist.

Amro said he was arrested several times during protests against the occupation. At an event in 2013, he and several Israeli peace activists wore masks of President Barack Obama and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. When soldiers cut him off, he was arrested and the Israelis were allowed to leave, did he declare.

“It’s two sets of laws for two different people in one place,” he said. “It’s apartheid.”

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