Palestinians condemn Israeli bill giving broad powers to police

Israel taking steps towards ‘over-policing and surveillance’ under pretext of curbing high crime rate, Palestinians say.

A billboard raised during protests against police indifference in the Palestinian town of Umm al-Fahm [File: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]

Occupied East Jerusalem – Israel is taking steps towards over-policing and increasing its surveillance of the Palestinian population inside its 1949-borders under the pretext of curbing the high crime rate within the community, Palestinians say.

In the latest measure, the Israeli cabinet approved a proposal on Sunday granting police with what Palestinians view as overly broad powers – allowing them to freely search homes without a court warrant – “if they think they can find a suspect or evidence related to a serious crime”, according to Israeli media.

The bill, proposed by minister Gideon Saar, comes after a government decision last month to deploy the internal Israeli intelligence service, known as Shabak or Shin Bet, in Palestinian towns and villages as part of its “national fight against crime”.

With the cabinet’s support, the bill will be voted on in the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – before becoming a law. It is not yet clear whether the proposal will get a majority vote.

Hassan Jabareen, founder and director of Adalah, the main Palestinian legal defence organisation inside Israel, said the bill will give police the pretext to search any Palestinian home.

“In practice, they will be able to go into the majority of Arab homes, because in every [Arab] neighbourhood and town, there are shootings and killings,” Hassan told Al Jazeera. “It’s enough for them to be suspicious to do so.”

He said it means there would be “no judicial supervision” over the operation of entering into homes, which “strips homes of their sanctity”.

“This will allow the police to even enter homes and use them for manoeuvering, for example, if they are suspicious of the house next door,” continued Hassan.

“We are going from under-policing to over-policing – one extreme to another,” adding the new legislation could be used to “terrorise people”, particularly during times of protest.

Awad Abdelfattah, a political writer and former general-secretary of the National Democratic Alliance party, said it “creates a state of tension” for Palestinians.

“It will restrict our freedoms and put us under more surveillance,” he told Al Jazeera from the town of Kawkab near Haifa.

Last week, Israeli officials also advanced a plan to permit administrative detention against the community, a policy used by the Israeli occupation army in the West Bank which allows them to detain Palestinians indefinitely without trial or charges.

‘Cheap method of control’

During the past decade, the issue of crime and homicides has plagued the Palestinian community inside Israel, referred to as the “1948-occupied territories” or the “occupied interior” by Palestinians.

The number of killings has risen dramatically over the past few years. So far in 2021, more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in homicides, surpassing last year’s total of 97. In 2013, there were 53 killings.

On Monday morning, Salim Hasarmah, 44, was killed in a shooting in the town of al-Bi’neh east of Akka. Less than 24 hours later, 25-year-old Khalil Abu Je’o was killed in Umm al Fahm, northwest of Jenin.

While Israel opened a large number of police stations in and around Palestinian towns during and following the Second Intifada in 2000, shootings have mushroomed during the last decade, with the vast majority of cases going unsolved.

Historic mass protests and confrontations with police broke out in March 2021 in the focal town of Umm al-Fahm, against police indifference, and against what Palestinians say is Israel’s investment in the endurance of crime within the community to weaken it, and collusion with criminal gangs.

Abdelfattah said Israel is using internal violence as a “cheap method” to exert control over Palestinians.

“Internal violence in the ’48-occupied areas is the result of colonial violence and colonial policies that created all the social, cultural and economic conditions to block the path, the horizon, and hope, for Palestinians, until they turn against themselves,” said Abdelfattah.

Rights groups have long documented the struggle of Palestinians in Israel, who number 1.8 million. In addition to Israel’s efforts to suppress their Palestinian identity over the years, the majority live in densely populated towns and with little access to land and resources – most of which were seized during and after 1948 for Jewish settlers.

‘Police collusion’

Mohammad Taher Jabareen, one of the founders of the United Umm al-Fahm Hirak (movement), the main group to organise protests, said killings began to spread in the town following the opening of a police station in 2003.

“The crime and killings increased with the opening of police stations,” Mohammad told Al Jazeera.

“Some 100 metres away from the police station, there would be killings, and it is never investigated, and no one held accountable. The police are the ones who provide opportunities for people to carry out crimes, and turn a blind eye to them.”

Mohammad said “police corruption” and the Shin Bet are the “main feeders of organised crime and violence”.

“The majority of weapons come from Israeli police and army storage units,” he said, adding that “police officers were found to take bribes from crime groups in Umm al-Fahm”.

“How do they claim they are the strongest state, security-wise, when they claim they cannot figure out where the weapons are coming from?” he asked. “They know that these weapons are coming from their own storage rooms and are being sold in the Arab community.

“When problems happen in the Arab community, that means it is criminal. When it’s related to Jews, it’s always security,” added Mohammad.

In 2016, Israeli officials said 90 percent of illegal firearms originated from the army.

On August 11, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet announced the establishment of a “Ministerial Committee on Fighting Crime and Violence in the Arab Sector,” as part of a “national plan” to “wage an unceasing, constant and persistent fight, with full force, against crime and violence”.

Under the plan, steps laid out include increasing police presence in Palestinian towns, as well as “strengthening intelligence and investigation capabilities”, expanding the “legal toolkit” using “advanced technological means in support of enforcement and prevention efforts”, and “advancing legislation on the issue”.

Two new police stations will also be opened among Palestinian towns in the northern Marj Ibn Amer area, and in the coastal Palestinian town of Jisr az-Zarqa, as well as among Palestinian Bedouin communities in the Naqab desert.

‘Angry generation’ 

Following the recent decision to involve the Shin Bet in the crime problem, Adalah submitted a petition calling it “illegal” and a “direct continuation of military rule”, in reference to the period between 1948 and 1966 under which Palestinians in Israel lived under harsh military control.

Adalah argued it “creates two separate law-enforcement systems – one for Palestinian Arab towns, neighbourhoods, and citizens, and the other for the rest of the country”. It also “introduces the Shin Bet into a civilian space, where they have no legal authority”.

Abdelfattah described the Shin Bet as “one of the most powerful and dangerous devices of repression since 1948”, and said it pervades the Palestinian community inside Israel.

He said he is surveilled himself and was arrested from his home and taken for questioning on multiple occasions on the basis of “inciting against the state” – but never formally charged. He was also terminated from three workplaces.

“They are increasing surveillance and pressure on us, while weakening us politically to get us to leave the country voluntarily,” said Abdelfattah.

Despite the new measures, he said, “violence gives birth to counter-violence”.

“In the last popular outburst in May – the 1948-occupied areas played a major role. There is a young, angry generation, that is growing in awareness, that will not stay silent.”

Source: Al Jazeera