The Knesset on Wednesday advanced a bill to curb attorney general oversight over punishments for publicly supporting terror organizations and waving their flags. Rather than seeking an indictment, the bill seeks to carve out a parallel track that would enable NIS 10,000 administrative fines to be levied on violators, without the involvement of the attorney general.
The Palestinian Authority and its flag, which has been officially recognized by Israel as the banner of the PA since the signing of the Oslo peace accords, are not covered by the bill. To be covered, the Defense Ministry must designate a group a terror organization.
Current Israeli law enables up to three years of imprisonment for waving terror organization flags or displaying their symbols, but bill-backers say that violations are under-enforced due to the requirement that the attorney general sign off on indictments.
The bill is part of a series of right-wing initiatives to punish “incitement,” including the national security minister’s January attempt to ban Palestinian flags in public places. The measure comes at a sensitive time, as violence heats up with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and after both senior Iranian and Hezbollah figures have said they think Israel is weak due to internal discord over the government’s proposal to overhaul the judiciary.
Sponsored by far-right Religious Zionism MK Zvi Sukkot, a former settler leader with a rap sheet for organizing violence against Palestinians, the bill cleared its preliminary reading on Wednesday 50-28. If finalized after its third reading, or fourth vote, it would be valid for four years.
According to explanatory notes accompanying the bill, the requirement for attorney general approval before filing an indictment under the current law “makes it impossible to deal effectively and immediately with incitement, which has long since become a ‘plague of the state,’ and turns this section of the law into a dead letter.”
The notes continue: “Incitement to terrorism creates an atmosphere that influences individuals and organizations to commit acts of terrorism and grants them legitimacy. Terrorism is a movement with an ideology, and therefore a legal and military struggle against its perpetrators is not enough; the battle is also over ideas, hearts and minds. In light of this, the fight against incitement to terrorism has become a central tool in the strategy of the struggle against terrorism itself, even in the international arena.”
Opposing the changes to the bill, legal scholar Mordechai Kremnitzer from the Israel Democracy Institute wrote that the shift from attorney general-approved investigation to administrative fines “completely removes the procedural filters in the existing law” and “will allow arbitrary abuse of citizens by the police.”
Kremnitzer also criticized the bill as stamping out freedom of expression, a right enshrined by the High Court of Justice. The bill does this by removing the attorney general filter and the need to prove a component of intent to identify with a terrorist organization from the administrative violation.
Far-left MK Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish lawmaker in the majority Arab Hadash-Ta’al party, decried the bill on the Knesset floor.
“The height of irony is that the bill’s sponsor is a terrorist operative himself,” Cassif said of Sukkot.
Tying the bill to the ignited conflict with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Cassif said that the government “is a colossal failure” and “is trying to divert attention from [the current conflict] and win support by killing Palestinians.”