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Sunday, July 11, 1999

The New Government and Human Rights

By Gideon Levy


Will the new government bring about a change in the field of human rights? Will it maintain the policy of the occupation that can only be defined as cruelty? The first answer to this lies of course in the extent to which progress is made in the peace process, as there is no moral alternative to the occupation apart from putting an end to it. But the 32 years of the occupation have taught us that the hand of the occupier can be crueler or less cruel. The record of the Labor governments does not bode well in this respect. It was the Labor governments that over the years carried out the worst injustices in the territories. Menachem Begin as prime minister, who neither expelled nor destroyed, was perhaps the most humane occupier; Dan Meridor as minister of justice, who entered into many conflicts with the Shin Bet security services, was perhaps the most enlightened justice minister. The closure, the curfew, the demolishing of houses, the Shin Bet tortures, the expulsions and the breaking of bones all increased under the "left." However, there are several appointments in the new government that could nonetheless be harbingers of change and could give some hope to those for whom human rights, even under conditions of occupation, are important. Some of the appointments are less promising. There are no great expectations of the new Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the most influential person of all. Though in his inaugural speech Barak addressed the suffering of the Palestinians, a fine gesture, he also in the same speech defined the Arabs of Israel as "a minority group." Will Barak reduce the Palestinians' suffering, even at the price of what he sees as "damage to security?" Will he think about the suffering of a million men and women before he decides to prolong a closure? Has he ever seen what the Civil Administration bulldozers leave behind after they have demolished a home? Does he know the emotional significance of confiscated ancestral lands? Does he care how hundreds of Palestinians are interrogated every year? Does he know what daily life is like under an infinite closure? It is hard to believe that for Barak the rights of human beings will ever be as important as the value of security, which is more sanctified for him than anything, at least as much as it was for his predecessors.

The new Interior Minister Natan Sharansky is also not a figure who bodes well. In recent years, the interior minister has become a key figure in determining the fate of Palestinians and other foreigners who live in our midst and an important factor in their suffering. Interior Minister Sharansky will perhaps do well by the immigrants whose Judaism is in doubt, but it is very doubtful that he will do well by the Palestinians and the foreign workers. Ever since he arrived here as the champion of human rights in the Soviet Union, Sharansky has not ceased to demonstrate that his international image is nothing but deception and false enchantment. Sharansky is interested, explicitly, only in the rights of Jews. Palestinians and foreign workers are beyond the Pale.

Detentions without trial, tortures during interrogations, expulsions and exiles, as in the USSR - which should arouse in him, more than anyone else, a bitter outcry - have never interested him, only because their victims were not Jews. When he entered office last week, he hastened to declare, characteristically, that he will be an interior minister "for the good of the entire Jewish people." However, in his position he has to be concerned not only for "the Jewish people." Will Sharansky put an end to the "silent transfer" of residents of East Jerusalem who are expelled from their city? Will he take the trouble to go to his ministry's office in the eastern part of the city to see how they hassle Palestinians there every day and treat them like a herd of beasts? Will he stop the cruel manhunt of foreign workers and realize that they too are human beings who are entitled to their rights? Will his heart be touched by the fate of a Palestinian child stricken by cancer from whom medical treatment has been denied by his ministry? It is hard to believe that this will happen. He is, after all the interior minister of the Jewish people alone.

However, as noted, there are also a few genuine rays of light. Shlomo Ben Ami as internal security minister will know, it may be hoped, how to introduce a new spirit into the police, the Prison Service and the Border Police. If Ben Ami instills his declared principles in the police and especially the Border Police under his authority, perhaps they will be a bit more humane and less violent and humiliating, particularly toward the Palestinians and the foreign workers. Ben Ami can see to it that the hand on the trigger is not so quick and that the police will do less beating and shooting, not only at Palestinians at roadblocks but also at his students in Ramat Aviv. Ben Ami is an appointment that arouses great hopes that must not be disappointed.

The appointment of Yossi Beilin as justice minister is also encouraging. Though not himself a jurist, he is more of a man of principle than many of his predecessors, and it is possible to believe that Beilin will work toward putting an end to some legal and moral disgraces, first and foremost among them administrative detentions and Shin Bet tortures. It must be recalled that Osama Barham has been detained in an Israeli jail for no less than six years without a trial. Justice Minister Beilin must become the voice of justice in the new government. There is a good chance that this will happen. If he is joined by some of the other new ministers, it will turn out that this new government does indeed presage a change, at least in this area the influence of which cannot be exaggerated both on our relations with our neighbors and our character and image


(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved



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