Israeli High Court hears petitions against Ben-Gvir's Police Law

The Movement for the Quality of Government says the proposed law didn’t clearly establish the terms of relationship between police chief and the minister.

 Israel Police officers are seen at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, on March 28, 2022. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Israel Police officers are seen at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, on March 28, 2022.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

A High Court of Justice panel on Wednesday held a hearing for five petitions against the Police Law, which subordinates law enforcement to the National Security Ministry.

The petitioners included Labor leader Merav Michaeli, Yesh Atid MK Yoav Segalovitz, Movement for Quality Government in Israel founder and chairman Eliad Shraga, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attended the hearing and was flanked by security officers.

The petitioners said the amendment to police ordinances promotes politicization of law enforcement and allows for the pursuit of political interests by allowing the national security minister to set guidelines and principles for the police and their investigations. During the several hours of arguments, the petitioners said the law allowed for the damaging of individual rights through unclear limits on the minister’s powers.

Shraga said the Police Law was part of a broader picture – a movement of antidemocratic measures that includes the amendment to allow Shas chairman Arye Deri to resume his ministerial positions, changes to the Judicial Selection Committee and other judicial reform efforts.

 National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to the press outside the police headquarters during the annual Jerusalem pride march on June 1, 2023 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to the press outside the police headquarters during the annual Jerusalem pride march on June 1, 2023 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Police amendments promoting politicization of law enforcement 

Justice Uzi Vogelman was critical of Shraga’s narrative framing and advised him to focus on the details of the legal formula.

In response, Shraga said, “This amendment, Amendment 37 [of police ordinances], creates a reality with the police” in which law enforcement is not independent “as part of the government under the national security minister.”

Shraga said the impact of the amendment did not need to be discussed in the theoretical realm, as the consequences were already being felt in the field with excessive use of force, the minister giving orders in the field, officers throwing stun grenades at protesters and the arresting of journalists. The amendment had led to Ben-Gvir demoting a Tel Aviv police superintendent because he was too lenient with judicial reform protesters, he said.

Attorney Oded Gazit, representing Segalovich and Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy, said the impact of the law was an indication of the amendment’s interpretation by the government. Ben-Gvir had said in the past that the amendment would allow him to guide the police to his desired objectives, he said.

The past few months had served as a test of Ben-Gvir’s interpretation, in which he interfered in field operations in Jerusalem protests, Gazit said. Actors within his office had also been contacting officers throughout the police force, he added.

The defense said the standards for how to interpret policy had not changed with the new law, since the same approach was effectively in place from before its implementation.

A representative of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee said the problem with blurred divisions between political leaders and law enforcement was that regardless of the orientation of the government in power, it is always suspected that external interests are guiding a national security minister’s actions. The role of the police could also change from government to government, the representative said.

Shraga said the provision allowing the national security minister to set guidelines for the police was “very vague and amorphous” and allowed a great degree of control of the police by not clearly establishing the terms of the relationship between the police chief and the minister. The result was a situation in which officers were uncertain about to whom they report, he said.

Aner Hellman, representing the Attorney-General’s Office, said if the law made Ben-Gvir a “super-police chief,” it was illegal. The defense said there had been vague guidelines in previous administrations about how the police should conduct themselves, but even though not enshrined in hard legislation, the conduct of police was still enforced.

Shraga said the minister’s ability to set guidelines for police investigations was equally unclear and expansive.

“Something that was clear to everyone until today was that ministers did not involve themselves in an investigation,” he said.

Hellman said an investigation was always an extremely sensitive issue, and even a minister releasing statements about an ongoing one could be considered interference in the process.

Vogelman repeatedly challenged both the petitioners and the respondents about what a policy entailed within the context of police operations.

Hellman said it was important to establish clear positions on the rules of the police so that rights could be safeguarded. The attorney-general’s position was that the national security minister could issue general guidelines, but the line was drawn at ongoing field operations and active investigations, he said.

Hellman framed the difference as policies that always apply versus terms specific to a particular case.

The defense said the law was clear about the limits of the minister’s powers, and the text stated that it applied to general policy. For more specifics on where the limits lay, particularly in extreme cases, the Knesset could pass additional laws, or it could be fleshed out in administrative law, it said.

In response, Shraga said administrative law was under attack by judicial reform, and it could not be relied on as a solution. It was important to protect the checks and balances that are fundamental to democracy, he said, adding that the amendment’s removal of the divisions between political authorities and law enforcement threatened these principles. Ben-Gvir’s party members had made it clear that the objective was the subservience of the police to the minister instead of the police chief, he added.

The petitioners challenged the legislative process of the amendment, but the defense said Ben-Gvir had the privilege as an MK to submit a private bill and for the Knesset to vote on it. It law gone through multiple committee sessions, with commentary and advice from experts, it said.

The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee said the broad powers would result in the harming of rights.

“We don’t think the previous situation with the police was good,” with the police constantly harming the rights of Arabs and Palestinians,” but the amendment would make the situation much worse,” its representative said.

The defense said the objective of the law was not to harm rights but to fill a gap in the legal framework and allow the national security minister to prioritize issues such as crime in the Arab sector.

The lacuna in the Israeli system, Ben-Gvir’s representatives said, was that the police were not placed under the government in the same way that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) or the IDF were. The police were placed under the national security minister in the same way that the IDF was the responsibility of the defense minister, they said.

Gazit said the police had a far more expansive and complicated role than the direct mission of the IDF.

Hellman said the army needs the cabinet’s permission to go to war and has far more oversight.

Ben-Gvir said the real issue was the person behind the law. There had been no questions about the independence of different security bodies in previous administrations, he said.

The real motives behind the attacks on the police law were a political movement and personal animus, Ben-Gvir and the defense said.