THE JERUSALEM POST - March 1, 2005

A CHILLING EFFECT ON LEGITIMATE DISSENT

by Evelyn Gordon

As the disengagement plan progresses, I am increasingly starting to wonder where Israel stands in Natan Sharansky's famous distinction between "free societies" and "fear societies."

Clearly, the government should not tolerate criminal behavior under the guise of political protest. But many of its initiatives seem intended not to combat genuine criminal activity but to intimidate legitimate opposition to the plan.

On Sunday, for instance, the cabinet approved Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's proposal to establish a new ministry unit, with 15 full-time lawyers, devoted solely to combating incitement and violence by disengagement opponents. Yet the Justice Ministry already deals extensively with crimes of incitement and violence; a special unit would add nothing to its existing law-enforcement capabilities. All it does is exercise a chilling effect on legitimate dissent.

First, it sends the message that anti-disengagement protests will be scrutinized far more carefully than other protests: Fifteen lawyers will do nothing else. Second, it proclaims that "borderline cases," which the ministry would usually ignore, are liable to be prosecuted where disengagement is involved, as the unit will need indictments to justify its existence.

For the average citizen, ignorant of the exact boundaries between legal and illegal dissent, both of these constitute strong incentives to simply avoid protest activity altogether.

Thirdly, however, a special unit sends the message that opposition to the disengagement is inherently less legitimate than opposition to anything else -- otherwise, why would it deserve special treatment? And indeed, Livni did not even pretend that disengagement opponents would be treated with the tolerance accorded to other protesters.

For instance, she said, one of the unit's key tasks would be prosecuting people who block roads to protest the disengagement. Yet in summer 2003, when pensioners organized by the Histadrut blocked roads almost daily for weeks to protest the Knesset's enactment of a pension reform, the ministry never even considered issuing indictments.

Another disturbing development was Prison Service Commissioner Yaakov Ganot's revelation to the Knesset last Tuesday that he has been allocated NIS 19 million to prepare 900 prison spaces for people who disrupt the disengagement. One does not build jail cells unless one expects to use them; thus the state evidently intends to jail substantial numbers of disengagement opponents.

For ordinary citizens, who prefer to avoid events where arrests are likely, that is reason enough to shun anti-disengagement activity.

Even worse, however, this decision brands disengagement opponents as a particularly violent group, for whom extra jail cells must be built: If they were mainly law-abiding citizens with only the usual lunatic fringe, existing cells would suffice. And what ordinary citizen wants to be mixed up with a violent crowd like that?

The enabling legislation for the disengagement, which proposed draconian penalties (some of which the Knesset later softened or eliminated) for actions that might hinder the plan's implementation, was similarly troubling.

NONE OF the proposed penalties were actually needed, since all the actions listed (such as interfering with a policeman in the line of duty, or entering a closed military area) were already criminal offenses. The only purpose of these articles was to send a message: Obstructing the disengagement -- illegally, but by implication also legally -- is worse than obstructing other governmental activities, and therefore merits special penalties.

Finally, there are the government's persistent efforts to paint disengagement opponents as violent lunatics with whom no normal person would want to associate. Particularly egregious are MKs' repeated complaints about "threats" (mainly from Likud Central Committee members) not to vote for them again if they support disengagement.

Since when, in a democracy, is it illegitimate for a citizen to refuse to reelect a parliamentarian with whom he disagrees on a major policy issue? Yet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly declared this month that threatening an MK's livelihood -- i.e., reelection -- is no different from sending him death threats: Both are "a grave threat to democracy"!

The government has also frequently inflated minor incidents in order to brand disengagement opponents as violent, as in the much-publicized "assaults" on Ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Limor Livnat. These actually boiled down to nothing more than a few catcalls by protesters. In neither case was there physical contact; in Netanyahu's case the protesters were so far away that he could not even hear them. And since when -- especially in Israel's political culture -- have catcalls against politicians been beyond the pale?

Still another tactic is the use of incidents unrelated to the disengagement to tar disengagement opponents. Last week, for instance, police discovered that death threats against Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi -- which the government had decried as examples of anti-disengagement violence -- were actually written by a Bat Yam woman who has been sending similar letters to public figures every day for 14 years.

This is hardly atypical: Politicians often receive threatening letters from lunatics and, usually, simply ignore them. Recently, however, all such letters are being publicized and blamed, without evidence, on disengagement opponents in order to characterize them as violent and fanatical.

None of this will stop the serial hecklers or the lunatic letter writers. But it will deter law-abiding citizens from engaging in legitimate protest against the disengagement -- because law-abiding citizens do not like being associated with violent lunatics.

Genuine incitement or violence obviously must not be ignored: In fact, the legal system needs to treat such acts more severely than it often does. But neither the creation of special tools for use solely against disengagement opponents nor the hysterical exaggeration of "threats" against government officials in any way improves the state's ability to deal with genuine criminals.

Measures such as these serve only to discourage legitimate dissent against the disengagement -- and that is something no government in a democracy should be allowed to get away with.


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