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Are We Free to Speak Out?

By Michael Freund
4/17/2005, 12:00 AM

The following is an article of mine that appeared in the Jerusalem Post the other day about the political climate here in Israel, and how many opponents of the Gaza withdrawal plan are feeling less and less free to express themselves and their opinions.

This is not a matter of "crying wolf" - there have simply been too many instances in which people exercising their basic democratic right to protest government policy have found themselves on the receiving end of some less than democratic treatment. We all need to speak out against this worrying trend.

A Chilling Pattern of Harassment

By Michael Freund

After listening to the joint press conference between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday, I curled up in front of my laptop ready to pen a blistering critique of the premier and his plan to withdraw from Gaza. But as the words began to flow, so did my perspiration, as I began to consider some of the heavy-handed tactics now being used against critics of the withdrawal.

In recent weeks especially, there have been a growing number of incidents in which those opposed to the plan, or even those merely assumed to hold such views, have found themselves and their most basic of freedoms trampled upon.

Take, for example, the mass arrest of dozens of Orthodox Jewish youth this past Sunday after protesters blocked Tel Aviv's Ayalon highway for several minutes.

According to various reports, many of those detained by the police had nothing to do with the demonstration. They were arrested simply because they were religious and happened to be in the vicinity of the protest. This included a 10-year-old boy wearing a kippa, and a religious soldier in uniform.

Several teenage kids in the area were said to have been taken to police stations and held incommunicado for hours without their parents receiving notification, as required by law.

There have also been a number of instances in which people standing on street corners and holding signs against the Gaza withdrawal were taken away by police – for no apparent reason other than exercising their right to protest peacefully.

In one case, a 14-year-old girl was arrested a few weeks ago and held for 24 hours in police custody without being allowed to see her parents. She was denied access to her medications, even though she suffers from chronic asthma and was at risk of a potentially dangerous asthma attack.

With less than 100 days to go until the proposed Gaza withdrawal, something terribly frightening is happening here in Israel. Some of the tactics being employed by the authorities simply have no place in a democratic society, calling into question their underlying commitment to that most fundamental of civil liberties – the right to disagree with government policy.

Now I don't consider myself an alarmist; nor do I belong to the category of those who employ frenzied language to get a point across. But I don't think it is exaggerating to say that many people opposed to the withdrawal are starting to wonder whether they can truly express themselves without fear.

Earlier this month, late one night, a prominent activist involved in organizing buses for people to visit Jewish communities in Hebron and Gaza was arrested at his home in the center of the country and held into the early hours of the morning. It remains unclear why he was taken into custody, other than to frighten and intimidate him.

Things have reached the point where even people who "look" like they might be going to a protest can find themselves receiving special attention from the security forces.

This past Monday evening, a busload of Jews from Samaria was stopped by police as it made its way toward the Gush Dan area to deliver Pessah goods to needy families. According to eyewitnesses, the police refused to let the bus continue on its way, claiming that it posed a "potential threat that may lead to the blocking of roads and other protest actions."

Only after being held up for 90 minutes were the 50 passengers allowed to continue with their charitable undertaking.

Say what you will about Sharon's plan to withdraw, there can be no excuse for such tactics. If it were just a matter of an isolated incident or two, it could perhaps be dismissed as an aberration. But the sad fact is that there is a clearly a pattern at work, one in which innocent Israeli citizens are being harassed and/or silenced because of their political views.

Of course, you won't read a great deal about this in much of the mainstream media; and don't expect to hear any of Israel's myriad human rights groups speaking up against this worrisome phenomenon. Their commitment to principle seems to extend only to those who share their liberal point of view.

But that should not deter the rest of us from speaking out, if only to ensure that Israel's democracy remains vibrant and strong. Just because someone wears a kippa, or holds a placard opposing the withdrawal from Gaza, it does not make him an "extremist" or "threat" to the country's future.

I thought twice about whether to submit this column, but realized in the end that I simply had no choice. Because if we ever reach a point where we can no longer legitimately criticize the prime minister and his policies without fear of reprisal, something will truly have gone wrong in Zion.

The only way to ensure that never occurs is to stand up without fear for what we know in our hearts to be true – that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, and to no one else.

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The writer served as an aide to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.