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Administrative detention of Jewish extremists sends a message, but doesn't go to the heart of the problem

Israel has long been criticised by human rights groups for its use of "administrative detention". The term refers to detaining people – always Palestinians – without charge or trial. Under these rules, people can be jailed for months or even years, as the orders are renewable. Israel has defended the administrative detention of Palestinians as a necessary tool for preventing militant attacks, saying that it prevents further violence in cases where there is not enough evidence to prosecute suspects, or where going to court would reveal the identity of secret informants.

Now, however, a suspected Jewish militant has been detained without trial, a highly unusual step that is part of the government's crackdown on Jewish terrorism. The crackdown comes after two violent and high profile attacks by Jewish extremists. At the end of July, an arson attack on a Palestinian home in the West Bank killed an 18 month old baby, leaving his parents and four year old brother severely injured. A day before that, at Jerusalem's gay pride march, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people. One, a 16 year old girl, died of her wounds.

The use of administrative detention orders against Jewish suspects was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. A day later, Mordechai Meyer, a resident of an illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, was placed under administrative detention for six months. The defence ministry said that he was detained for "involvement in violent activity and recent terrorist attacks as part of a Jewish terror group." The authorities did not say whether his detention was linked to the arson attack.

In the aftermath of last week's violence, Netanyahu condemned the attacks, pledging "zero tolerance" of Jewish terrorism. "We are determined to vigorously fight manifestations of hate, fanaticism and terrorism from whatever side," he said at the weekend. It is a delayed reaction, to say the least. The government has thus far failed to prosecute the perpetrators of so-called "price tag" attacks and other hate crimes against Palestinians. In the past four years, 17 Palestinian mosques and churches have been set ablaze, but not a single person has been arrested. Last year, Netanyahu rejected a proposal to deem the perpetrators of these attacks as terrorists and to allow them to be held under administrative detention orders, implying that it would be out of the question to put these groups in the same category as Hamas or other Palestinian militant groups. Instead, the Jewish extremists were classified as "illegal groups". Against this backdrop, his description of the recent attacks as "terrorist" represents some progress, at least in terms of recognising that this is a serious issue which needs to be tackled.

The use of administrative detention against Jewish extremists may represent the government finally trying to do something about such violence, but it is questionable whether extending a policy that inhibits civil liberties severely is the best method of doing so. According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, around 391 Palestinians are currently held under administrative detention. Amnesty International has been critical of the policy, saying that "its use may result in arbitrary detention and if prolonged or repeated can amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment." On Monday, Israeli officials said that they might use harsh interrogation methods to tackle violent Jewish extremism. Interior Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Israel Radio that suspected Jewish extremists could be shaken violently in custody, a controversial interrogation technidque used on Palestinian suspects.

Placing the same emphasis on Jewish terrorism and Palestinian terrorism is a good thing. The attitude that some violence is more acceptable than other violence –based solely on who the victims are – is nothing other than state-sanctioned racism. However, those who argue for better conditions and rights for Palestinian prisoners should not welcome the extension of such inhumane policies to Jewish settlers, despite the fact that Palestinian suspects have endured injustice for decades. Equal treatment before the law is an important principle that has too often been lacking in Israel and the occupied territories; but that law should match up to international standards of justice and fairness.

Critics of Netanyahu's government argue that it has gone dangerously far in its support of ultra-nationalist settler groups, thus feeding the polarisation of the debate and fostering the political atmosphere that allows violence to flourish. More will have to be done to address these deep-seated issues if the problem is truly to be tackled. Detaining a few individuals without charge might send a message, but it does not go to the heart of the problem.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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