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Democracy in jeopardy: Israel intensifying efforts to quash dissent

Today a friend asked if I thought the story of Israel's recent deportation of Jared Malsin - the American (and Jewish) editor of a Palestinian news outlet - was important.  I responded that if you consider it important that Israel arrests a working journalist, holds him in virtual solitary confinement under miserable conditions for a week until he can't stand it anymore, and then deports him under highly dubious legal circumstances - then yes, it is.

But that is not the whole story.  Because this is not an isolated issue.

It is clear to all of us who work on issues related to peace, human rights or Israeli civil society, that the government of Israel is deliberately and systematically upping the ante and increasing the pressure on those who do not toe the Israel policy line.

We are seeing this in the treatment of foreigners who have anything to do with the Palestinians.  For anyone who missed it, Israel also deported Faith Rowold, Jared's girlfriend who works as a volunteer for a Lutheran NGO that helps Palestinians in the Bethlehem area. And that, too, was not an isolated incident - for some context, check out this piece in yesterday's Haaretz about Israel withholding entry visas for people working for NGOs.  

We are seeing it, too, in the outrageous tactics being used against peaceful and legal protests against the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, where peaceful protesters were arrested last week and spent the Sabbath in jail (36 hours), only to be released without charges as soon as they were brought before a judge (it is expected that they will be treated even worse this week).  

And we are seeing this in the heavy-handed approach to foreign diplomats posted to Israel.  The world is of course aware of Israel's diplomatic mauling of the Turkish ambassador, but did they notice Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon's comments a few days later threatening to expel ambassadors of countries that criticize Israel?  Or did they notice the report yesterday that Israel's foreign minister is accusing diplomats of smuggling money into Gaza and is establishing a new policy requiring that diplomats and their cars be searched before entering Gaza?  In one fell swoop Israel is (a) implicitly accusing foreign diplomats of financing Hamas and (b) throwing away hundreds of years of diplomatic custom that makes diplomats (their persons and their vehicles) immune from search.  Does Israel seriously expect diplomats to agree to this?  Of course not, but the result will be a "chilling effect" - as in, no country will agree to have its diplomats subjected to such treatment and therefore diplomats will stop going to Gaza.

This is just the latest effort to make life difficult for diplomats whose job it is to deal with the Palestinians.  Precedents include the harassment of US diplomats entering and exiting the West Bank, under the pretext that they might be smuggling Palestinians into Israel.  The implication, of course, is that Israel cannot trust US diplomats - like General Keith Dayton - not to smuggle terrorists into Israel.  (The original headline of the linked article, which ran as a Jerusalem Post "exclusive," read "US consulate car tried to run over checkpoint guard" - this is the headline that still shows up in google and in the tab on the top of the JPost page; it was subsequently amended to "nearly runs over guard" - perhaps after a US protest - but the original has been copied all over the internet).

We are also seeing this with attacks - some by the government, some by Knesset firebrands and their supporters (and not opposed in any way publicly by the government) - on funding for Israeli NGOs working on these issues.

No, the Jared Malsin case is not an isolated one.  It is part of what appears to be a determined effort by Israel to stamp out voices and activities that it doesn't like.  And of course, Israel's desire to do so is quite understandable - no government likes to be criticized.  But actually doing so is, of course, wholly undemocratic.  

So yes, the Malsin case is important - or should be important - for all of us who care about Israel.  It is important for all of us who treasure Israeli democracy.  And it is important for all of us who believe that one of Israel's chief national security assets is its recognition as a legitimate member of the international community - a nation governed by democracy and the rule of law.   

The Malsin case is just the latest evidence of the fact that Israel's democracy is under threat and in jeopardy.  For all of us who care about Israel, we should consider it very important indeed.