Palestinian terror attack in Hebron.
(photo credit: screenshot)
Is it possible to take the steps necessary to fight terrorism while maintaining an open society that protects basic freedoms and liberties? Many would argue that it is not. Precisely those aspects of democracy that afford citizens privacy, freedom of movement and other liberties are what would-be terrorist exploit to strike at the heart of open societies. To stop the terrorists, it is argued, those freedoms must be curtailed, if only temporarily.
These steps are often justified as emergency measures designed to protect democracies from those who seek their destruction. A delicate balance must be maintained, however. If too many freedoms and liberties are curtailed, democratic countries risk deteriorating into police states in which the basic rights of citizens are trampled. The very raison d’etre of democracies is undermined in the process.
Freedom-loving citizens lose their patriotic zeal, and with it the conviction that justice is on their side.
A number of democracies have been forced to grapple with the moral dilemmas of waging a war with terrorism.
In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US launched a “war on terrorism” under the leadership of the Bush administration, which led to the adoption of controversial measures. Torture was used to extract information that turned out to be unreliable; suspects were held without due process on Guantanamo Bay long after they ceased to pose a threat; the privacy of hundreds of thousands of US citizens and foreigners was compromised; and non-combatants were killed in counter-terror insurgency.
In the wake of terrorist attacks in a number of European cities, political leaders are contemplating controversial measures of their own, from more widespread surveillance methods – particularly on the Internet – to restriction of movement to the revocation of citizenship. Europeans have criticized their leaders for failing to take measures necessary to prevent these attacks.
Some European leaders have now turned to Israel to learn how to combat terrorism without compromising their commitment to the freedoms of an open society.
Few democracies have confronted a more sustained Islamic terrorist offensive than Israel. From its inception, the Jewish state has been forced to fight an almost constant battle against terrorism while struggling to uphold the freedoms and liberties afforded citizens of a democracy. In the process, the Jewish state has adopted a number of controversial methods such as profiling at Ben-Gurion Airport, and the use of curfews and checkpoints on the West Bank.
European and UN delegations that visit Israel normally take the opportunity to criticize the attempts to protect itself from terrorist threats – whether from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or from Lebanon.
But last week a European visitor was here for a different purpose altogether: to learn from Israel’s extensive experience fighting terrorism at home, in the face of protecting democracy and freedom.
Georges Fenech, the French counter-terrorism “czar” and head of the country’s inquiries into its failure to stop major recent terrorist attacks – and also an opposition MP– was in Israel learning more about our country’s use of administrative detention. As part of his visit, Fenech met with IDF Judea and Samaria Court President Col. Netanel Benishu.
Fenech heard about Israel’s use of administrative detention to prevent terrorist activities before they take place.
Israel does this by placing suspects under arrest without a full-fledged criminal trial, and without having to publicize intelligence information that seemingly raises suspicions about a suspect.
He also learned about the restrictions on security bodies such as the IDF, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the police, such as the need to receive court approval for the detention, and the reappraisal of each case every six months.
Until now most of the international community, particularly in Europe, has been critical of Israeli methods, including its administrative detention policy, though the US and Australia have adopted similar measures.
Israel is not alone in grappling with the dilemma inherent in any war on terrorism. The US, Europe and other Western countries are facing similar threats. This shared challenge of struggling to maintain the freedoms and liberties of an open society, while at the same time taking the steps necessary to combat terrorism, has led some Europeans to finally appreciate Israel’s efforts to defend itself instead of disparaging them.