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Democracy at War
Last uploaded : Thursday 2nd Aug 2007 at 20:06
Contributed by : Daniel Jason


When threatened with war, a democracy is astonishingly quick to change from a relatively accepting and liberal place to an authoritarian state almost indistinguishable from others, quashing freedom of speech, freedom of press and restricting or completely removing other basic freedoms and rights from their own citizens. We’ve seen this in the wake of terrorist attacks in the US and UK, but why not in Israel when it is a country that has effectively been at war for at least 40 years?

In the past, we’ve seen such actions by those countries supposedly at the forefront of liberal reforms and tolerance, such as in America, with their laws against the operation of private radio stations and against citizens possessing or operating radio transmitters or receivers during the First World War.

In the UK, the infamous Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) passed in 1914 bestowed upon the government wide ranging social-control mechanisms, including censorship of any materials and the implementation of British Summer Time, used to increase daylight and thus to increase the working day. Activities forbidden at the time included conversation about the war effort, flying kites and buying binoculars.

More worrying however, were the internment camps set up under those laws in both the First and Second World Wars across the British Empire, which were used to forcibly detain any alien civilians currently in British territory for the duration of the war. It was not uncommon to detain British subjects descended from parents or grandparents of another nationality, or holders of recently acquired British citizenship status.

Whilst some would still consider it unlikely for Britain and the US to engage in such anti-democratic activities today, evidence seems to point to the contrary. The name ‘Guantanamo Bay’ shall always be sullied with the allegations of torture against it and the ‘disappearance’ tactics used to fill it and other centres - one can’t help but draw the comparison between this detention centre and those of the early 20th century. One can only wonder how far that comparison goes and if they both held so many innocent people.

The recent ‘Terrorist Laws’ of the US and UK are similarly reminiscent of DORA and other early 20th century legislation curtailing civil freedoms. The flames of 9/11 were barely out before the US and UK rushed to pass their anti-terror laws, perfecting them in more recent years. Whilst the laws have often been decried unnecessary infringements on civil liberties, they have been met with as many shouts to the contrary. After all, the laws are there for the benefit of the people, to protect the people and to maintain security and peace – and anyway, why should you have anything to worry about if you’re not a terrorist?

With such apparently sound reasoning, one can’t help but wonder why a country such as Israel, which has experienced constant, widespread and devastating terrorism in the past few decades, has no such equivalent laws. Whilst the UK’s home Muslim population are amongst those who frequently speak out against the Terrorism Acts, claiming the government doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between Muslims and terrorists, Israeli-Arabs – the majority of whom are Muslims – feel no such hostility from the Israeli government. The Israeli Supreme Court seems to be competent in preserving the rights of its own subjects and more often than not, those of the Palestinian-Arabs.

In keeping with the concept of protecting civil liberties, all forms of torture – defined as any form of abuse to whatever degree – are illegal in Israel. Surprisingly, the question of the legality of psychological torture has only recently come before the courts in America. Likewise, ‘disappearance’ tactics – deporting people to other countries with no anti-torture laws for years at a time – is completely forbidden by Israeli law.

In yet another act of protecting civil liberties, Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled 20 miles of the new anti-terror fence illegal as it cuts off Palestinian-Arab’s from their farm land; consequently those 20 miles of fence have been removed and has led to a revision of the fence’s original route. Anyone is free to make an application against any part of the fence; the same could hardly be said of the Berlin wall to which many so readily compare this security fence.

Israel does not confiscate the private land it has built some parts of the fence on, but requisitions it, paying the owners full compensation and allowing them to protest to the courts. Whilst it is true that Israel has uprooted thousands of olive groves and fruit trees in the course of building the fence, the Defence Ministry has ordered them to be replanted at Israel’s cost, on land specified by their owners. Would that Britain could say the same – in 1965, the Burma Oil Company was refused compensation for the wilful destruction of its oil fields by the British Army during WW2. Whilst it was deemed that such an act was necessary in the light of the Japanese army’s advance, just as Israel deems its security fence to be necessary to slow terrorists, it is to Britain’s shame and Israel’s credit that compensation is being given.

One would almost expect a country which has, on average, the equivalent of 2 9/11s every year since 2000, to be ruled by a military junta, or have some of the strict laws and tight social controls one would expect in a police state. At the very least, one wouldn’t fault Israel for the type of anti-terrorist laws in place in Britain or America.

But for this small country barely 9 miles across at its narrowest point, surrounded by countries that are officially in a state of war with it, a country that has been the victim of so much terrorism, it is doing a tremendous job of standing up for the rights of Israelis and Arabs alike, citizen and non-citizen.


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