ISRAEL: ‘We dream of hundreds of thousands demonstrating for democracy, equality and human rights’

DebbieGild HayoCIVICUS speaks about current protests against judicial changes in Israel with Debbie Gild-Hayo, Director of Public Advocacy of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

Founded in 1972, ACRI is an oldest and largest human rights civil society organisation (CSO) in Israel. It advocates for the human rights and civil liberties of everyone living in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

What are the judicial changes being proposed, and what is wrong with them?

The government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is promoting several pieces of legislation concerning the judicial system. The one that has advanced most and is the most controversial at the moment concerns the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee. This committee chooses judges for the High Court, which also plays the role of a Constitutional Court, and also all other courts.

The government wants the ruling coalition to have a majority in the Judicial Selection Committee so it can control the appointment of judges. It currently has to make compromises and reach agreements between all members of the committee, political and professional, to nominate judges. If the change is adopted, the nomination process will be totally political and will prioritise judges’ allegiance to the government over their professionalism.

The reform would also diminish the authority of the High Court to conduct judicial review of Basic Laws – which have the status of a constitution in Israel – drafted by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. For example, the coalition wants to pass a new Basic Law that will release ultra-Orthodox people from obligatory military duty, making their religious studies equivalent to army service. The High Court has already stated that this kind of arrangement would violate the principle of equality. But if the reform passes, then these kinds of unconstitutional amendments to Basic Laws will be possible and the High Court will not be able to intervene.

Another bill concerns regular laws passed by the Knesset that contradict Basic Laws. The bill determines that in order to annul an unconstitutional statute the High Court will need 80 per cent of its members to agree, which is practically impossible to achieve. On top of that, the bill includes an override clause, which determines that even if the High Court recognises legislation as unconstitutional, the Knesset will have the power to override its decision with a simple majority of 61 of its 120 members.

It’s important in this context to remember that Israel has a 20 per cent Arab population, so even if a majority of 80 out of 120 Knesset votes were needed for the override clause, like some suggestions that are on the table and quite widely accepted, it would still keep Arabs completely out of the law-making process in the most harming and controversial moments. The government wants to be able to pass laws deemed unconstitutional with a simple majority of 61 members, which could potentially harm an enormous part of the population.

The government also seeks to change the status of legal advisors in ministries, turning them from independent advisors into politically nominated counsel whose rulings would have non-binding status.

All of these bills would harm the independence of the judicial system and its ability to defend human rights, and specifically the rights of minorities.

How would you describe the protests against the changes?

I would describe them as amazing. As a human rights organisation, it is our dream to have hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating for democracy, equality and human rights. We wouldn’t have thought it possible only a short while ago. People are now attending parliamentary discussions – which, believe me, is incredible. I have been doing this job for a long time, and I used to always be there alone or with a few colleagues at most.

I think many people felt threatened personally by the reform initiative. This is what usually brings people out to the street. A lot of people who have never been involved in politics before are now mobilising.

In the last few months, I have talked to members of the Knesset as well as to protesters and advocated for other issues besides the judicial changes that are also harming democracy and human rights in Israel to be included on the agenda. Everything that is related to the occupation is excluded from the mainstream agenda. There is a perception that those demonstrating with Palestinian flags harm the protest.

But a few things are slowly widening the protesters’ agenda. For instance, people have been speaking up against the creation of a militia of armed citizens to support the police. It is a good sign that criticism is starting to go beyond the judicial changes.

Protesters include people of all ages and various professional groups, including doctors, social workers and teachers, as well as youth and student groups. But it is undeniable that most are middle or upper-middle class. A deep split has existed in Israeli society for many years, but now it has come to its peak. On the one hand you have the more liberal population and on the other the right-wing nationalist segment, including five per cent of the population who are settlers and 10 per cent who are ultra-Orthodox believers.

How has the government reacted to the protests?

From my point of view, there hasn’t been much repression. There are frequent clashes between police and protesters and there have been cases of police brutality, but the level of violence has not been that high. I have seen the police in action in other places, such as East Jerusalem, and they are much more violent. In this case, they have given quite a lot of room to protesters.

The main thing the government has attempted to do is to delegitimise the protests, referring to protesters as ‘anarchists’, ‘leftists’, ‘a minority against the country’ and so forth, disregarding the fact that hundreds of thousands are protesting every week and many of the people opposing the reforms and deeming them non-democratic are public officials, including members of security forces, or have positions in the financial system. The government also claims protesters are violent, but I personally have never seen such non-violent protesters in my life. If you just look at the protests against the pensions system changes taking place in Paris right now, there is no comparison.

What role are CSOs playing?

CSOs have been fully involved in many ways. CSOs are doing advocacy and campaigns, explaining to the public what this judicial reform is about, talking to the press and writing reports. They are also going to the courts when any rights violation occurs, especially regarding freedoms of speech and assembly, and to the police to defend arrested people. And they also take part in the parliamentary legislation procedures, including by attending committee sessions.

Do you think the protests will force the government to backtrack?

Protests have put a lot of pressure on the government, influencing Israel’s financial situation and bringing international support, which is also threatening to the government. But we have not stopped the process, but rather slowed it down. The government started pushing all these bills at once and ended up at the end of the Knesset session with only one passed, which protects Netanyahu’s position by limiting the ways a sitting prime minister can be declared unfit for office.

The judicial reform has been put off for a month, during which time its terms are supposed to be negotiated. The next session will take place in May, and it’s likely that there won’t be an agreement so the ruling coalition will accuse the opposition of obstruction and go on to push the bills forward. Even if there is an agreement between the coalition and the opposition, or part of it, about the details of the reform, it is not certain that the public will accept it.

If the bills pass, then there will be petitions against them and the High Court might deem them unconstitutional, which will farther intensify the controversy between the sides, and deepen the constitutional clash.

I don’t think protesters will give up. The worst worst-case scenario is that the ongoing constitutional clash will be accompanied by clashes on the streets. I don’t know what form they will take, whether it will be strikes, people refusing to join the army and the reserves, violent clashes on the street, or general chaos. The far right is more violent than its opponents, and we have already witnessed far-right violence in protests and attacks against Arabs on the streets. The ongoing clash could turn into a catastrophe, maybe also escalating to another major outbreak of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as we saw two years ago in May.

What forms of international support does Israeli civil society currently need?

International pressure seems to be one of the only things really influencing this government because Israel is dependent on international support, and financial support in particular. Since the government has a legislative majority, it can theoretically pass all these laws, and the only thing stopping it, or slowing it down at least, seems to be financial pressure within Israel – for example, some high-tech companies have already said that they will relocate or have started to open new companies in other countries – and outside financial or other international pressure.

Another worry is that although many people are on the streets now and protests seem to be very wide, they do not, and probably will not in the future, deal with the less mainstream issues, such as the rights of the Arab population in Israel and occupation issues. In fact, the Knesset has just passed an amendment to the Disengagement Law that would allow the reestablishment of former West Bank settlements that were evacuated in 2005. This was barely an issue in Israeli public debate. This is just one example. CSOs are currently, and will probably continue to be, the only ones dealing with these issues on the national level, and will also probably be attacked because of this.

Civic space in Israel is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with ACRI through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @acri_online on Twitter.