“Guess which country arrested 17 human rights activists today?” asked blogger and former Yedioth journalist Gal Mor on his Facebook status on January 15, 2010.
Among the activists arrested in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah was the Executive Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) Hagai Elad. The activists participated in a series of ongoing weekly demonstrations of both Palestinian and Jewish activists, against Jewish settlers moving into the neighborhood while banning Palestinian families from their homes by a court order, claiming those were former Jewish homes illegally colonized by local families. Li Lurian of Peace Now, who has taken this video of the demonstration, was among the arrested, as well as blogger Didi Remez.
Two weeks before his arrest, Elad wrote in a column on Ynet website saying:
“Many protesters felt during this year that their freedom of speech in the only democracy in the Middle East isn't taken for granted. The oppression of protest isn't a police job in a democratic country; its job is in fact to protect the freedom of speech”
Lawyer and blogger Jonathan Klinger writes that Elad's arrest is against the law and another sign for the death of Israeli democracy:
“Elad was arrested as a punishment for protesting and not because he posed any danger to the public. Such ‘punishment arrests’ are described as illegal by law and their aim is to prevent others from protesting and choosing to act on their democratic rights. Without protest there's no democracy.”
The Israeli court indeed ordered to release the activists immediately (after 36 hours), However, blogger Lisa Goldman who attended the weekly demonstration on Friday (January 22, 2010), reported Remez (@DidiRemez) was arrested again along with 15 Israeli activists. Further personal account of the “Sheikh Jarrah round ups” is available in English on Ibn-Ezra‘s blog.
Human rights, from various perspectives, has been the main issue on the agenda of Israeli bloggers and tweeps (Twitter people) in recent months, in light of some of the current administration's policies perceived as a threat on Israel's democracy. On December 11th, 2009, ACRI initiated a unique human rights parade in Tel Aviv, uniting 116 NGOs supporting human rights from various points of view and with varied agendas.
The protest focused on a range of policies marking a peak in the deterioration of human rights in Israel as it was described by ACRI on the protest blog: policies like the Nakba law, the deportation of foreign workers, the biometric database law (see detailed report below), and a “general atmosphere of growing social gaps, silencing of protest, racism and violence”. Thousands of people attended the parade (see video clips), held just one day after the international human rights day.
Bloggers are “giving the finger” to the biometric database
Of all human rights related activity that took place in recent months, the anti-biometric law activity was among the largest web campaigns that Israel has known so far, including the cooperation of 160 Israeli bloggers, a dedicated blog and Twitter account, and a busy Facebook page.
The biometric legislation proposal suggests a compulsory biometric database of all Israeli citizens as part of switching to biometric IDs and passports. Blogger Hani Zuveida explains the perils:
“The biometric law or better yet ‘the big brother law’ aims at creating a detailed digital database of all citizens, that can easily be exposed to commercial firms and their interests but also be vulnerable to criminal offenses like identity theft and framing of innocent citizens by breaking into the database. And all of this in the name of “protecting” IDs from being forged – out of the frying pan into the fire. Public servants are a peculiar species: these are the people we elect to represent our best interests as legislators or ministers but suddenly they ‘disconnect their wires’ and set out to an independent life reversing the circumstances: instead of doing what we tell them to do they start telling us what's best for us. In my opinion this is one of the most dangerous situations in a democracy.”
Bloggers have taken a personal issue with minister Meir Shitrit, who pushed this law forward, questioning his motives and integrity. A-list bloggers Gal Mor and Effi Fuks, who dug up circumstantial evidence against Shitrit's motives and demanded a through inquiry, have deleted their original posts after reaching an agreement with Shitrit's family and published an official apology and denial. However, blogger Rehavia Berman, often referred to as “the bad boy of the Israeli blogosphere” republished the alleged accusation suggesting commercial interests behind the database and a backstage link between Shitrit and OTI, the company who is to carry out the database.
Bloggers have frequently attended Knesset sessions discussing the biometric legislation reporting on Shitrit's conduct in pushing this law. As a result, Shitrit attempted to ban bloggers from these public sessions, as documented on camera by blogger Eran Vered. At the same time, a blogger, who is also a hacker, set up a website showing the public that the allegedly protected database of the internal affairs ministry has actually leaked to the web and this information on each citizen is available to everyone (the website is now down). On his blog he explained this demo was designed to show the same can easily happen to the biometric database.
Blogger Karine Barzilai-Nahon, head of the Washington University iSchool, has prepared a special report on biometric policies worldwide which was presented to the Knesset as well. She writes:
“To date, there is no western democratic country that keeps a biometric database of all its citizens without their consent. There is only one country that keeps a compulsory database: Hong Kong, but this database is temporary and is deleted immediately after issuing the ID. England, France and Japan have a voluntary database that wasn't made compulsory because of public critic. A few countries are considering various biometric policies but not implementing them although it is an approved legislation, because of ongoing public debate and fear of giving too much power to political bodies. The chairman of the Knesset's science and technology committee asks not to demonize the proposed legislation because they're not inventing the wheel and Israel's no different than other countries, but this report shows it actually is.”
Bloggers and activists’ efforts led to several setbacks and compromises in the law, however, key bloggers involved in the protest reported these setbacks are aimed at cooling down and evading public protest and manipulations prompting “voluntary” inclusion through sanctions discriminating non-volunteers. Human rights activists have lost this round on December 7, 2009, when the database law was accepted by the Israeli Knesset, yet they marched against its implementation in the human rights march a few days later.
As fewer and fewer media channels and individual reporters cover such policies from a critical human rights perspective, the activists have taken their issues to the web, finding common grounds and blending with key bloggers and tweeps to fully employ alternative media platforms in attempt to influence public opinion and struggle for democracy de-facto.