Sunday, June 08, 2008

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Jews like to think we invented the rule of Law. And there is no doubt Jewish culture, starting in the Bible itself, places a great emphasis on the rule of law: on having fair courts and a citizenry (or failing that magistrates) that enforce the courts' orders.

Israel, too, has long and proudly claimed to be a country of Law. The Israeli supreme court has a (in my opinion, exaggerated) reputation for being a fair and liberal institution.

But the trouble in Israel is that no one enforces the Law, and that the courts are powerless to make them do so. Add to that the fact that many Israeli laws are deliberately vague and discretionary - e.g. "The Minister of the Interior may, at his discretion, allocate ... " - and you have, de-facto, an unjust and weak legal system. Israel has been, and remains, a country where who you know matters: where assets and power and state favours and protection are allocated based on politics, not justice, fairness, or common legal principals.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the relations between Jews and non-Jews.

This disturbing article in Haaretz - by recently laid off reported Meron Rapoport - is a case in point. In it he shows how Israeli Jews are illegally building in the heart of an Arab neighborhood and no one will stop them, despite repeated court orders to do so. This is particularly unjust in light of the virtual impossibility for Jerusalem Arabs to get building permits, and the very strict enforcement of demolition orders in the the Arab sector. My friend Ronni Jager has recently joined a group called CourtWatch in Israel, and she tells me the rule of law, due process, and fairness are under extreme stress in Israel today. This story just re-enforces that impression.

... The building is seven stories high and is located in the Silwan quarter of East Jerusalem. It was erected for the Ateret Cohanim settlers' association, which deals with "Judaizing" the eastern part of the city. The structure was built some five years ago without a permit and in contravention of the city's master plan, and all attempts to make it legal have failed. Two years ago, a local Jerusalem court decided that the building had to be sealed; a year ago, the Jerusalem District Court rejected an appeal by the occupants. Subsequently, the High Court of Justice refused to allow them to appeal again, and turned down their request to postpone the demolition. The Justice Ministry declared it was forbidden to hold up the process any further, and the police began preparing to destroy the house - but nothing has been sealed or destroyed. Yossi Havilo [the City of Jerusalem's legal adviser] .. claim[s] this is due solely to the pressure being applied by the settlers.

Eight Jewish families live in the building, which the settlers call Beit Yehonatan, making it one of the largest Jewish outposts in the eastern part of the city. This is apparently the reason why such tremendous pressure is being wielded on law-enforcement agencies to prevent it from being sealed up - pressure from Knesset members on the right, from elements inside the municipality, members of the municipal council and even Mayor Uri Lupolianski himself. Last Thursday, this pressure reached new heights. The city council, at the initiative of Lupolianski, convened and decided to change the order of priorities for executing demolition orders in the city. The decision was taken despite the fact Havilio stated "it is not in accordance with the law, the rulings of the courts, the instructions of the attorney general, or the basic precepts of law in Israel."

... in the eyes of legal adviser Havilio, this is an extremely problematic decision because it expropriates the authority over implementation of demolition orders from the hands of the courts and the municipal legal adviser, and transfers it to the local planning and building committee - which consists of representatives of political parties.

"It is as if the public security minister would tell the police not to deal with murder cases until they have finished investigating all the cases of burglary first," says one legal source. "This is inconceivable."

In a legal opinion he sent to the municipality, Hovav Artzi of the Justice Ministry's department for enforcing property laws, wrote that the local building committee can propose criteria for demolitions to the municipal legal adviser, but that the decision should remain in his hands alone. "It must be forbidden for elected representatives to give instructions about the way in which the prosecutor should act, and under no circumstances should the prosecutor take into consideration the political considerations of public representatives," Artzi explains, quoting the instructions of Attorney General Menahem Mazuz.

But, according to Havilio, the real goal of the city council's decision is to prevent the implementation of the order to close down Beit Yehonatan. The building stands on private land and therefore, if the council's decision is implemented, it will be sealed only after the municipality finishes demolishing all the problematic buildings in public areas - "something which could take years or may never be completed," Havilio notes.

... [Left wing Jerusalem City Councilor Peppe] Allalo shares Havilio's fears. ...

"When it comes to Ateret Cohanim or Beit Yehonatan, the rule of law does not exist," Allalo says. "After the court ruled that the settlers' association has to vacate the building, members of the association, with the help of the Jerusalem Municipality and political elements, are now trying to circumvent the courts via the local building committee." ....


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