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There is no reason to trust Israel's 'zero tolerance' policy

While the government claims to take a ‘zero tolerance’ stance on terrorism — whether Palestinian or Jewish — the reality on the ground paints a very different picture. 

An Israeli Border Police officer prepares to shoot toward protesters after the funeral of Hadeel al-Hashlamon, who was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, September 23, 2015. (Mohannad Darabee/Activestills.org)

An Israeli Border Police officer prepares to shoot toward protesters after the funeral of Hadeel al-Hashlamon, who was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, September 23, 2015. (Mohannad Darabee/Activestills.org)

The phrase “zero tolerance” is doing brisk business in Israel-Palestine. Public figures like to talk tough in violent times and 2015 has been a particularly bloody year here, even by our grim standards.

“Zero tolerance” sounds, at first, like an impartial expression of the intent to solve problems, impervious to bias or personal agendas. The term has consequently been jumped on by Israeli politicians and security personnel in an attempt to establish parity between the way they treat Israeli Jews and Palestinians suspected of terrorism.

“Our policy towards [Jewish terrorism] is zero tolerance,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet in August, during its first weekly meeting following the Duma arson that ended up killing three members of the Dawabshe family and the pride parade stabbing in Jerusalem that killed an Israeli teenager.

“We will show zero tolerance” to any attack that is ethnically or nationalistically motivated, said the Israel Police Negev District Commander in October, after an Israeli teenager stabbed four Palestinians.

“The policy is zero tolerance for stone-throwing and terror,” Netanyahu asserted in September (in relation to Palestinians this time), during a debate on whether to relax the open-fire regulations for stone-throwers.

The “equality through zero tolerance” mantra prompted Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett to openly support the death penalty for both Jewish Israeli and Palestinian terrorists. Minister of Culture Miri Regev, speaking on Channel 10 [Hebrew link] after the Duma arson, took up this line as well: “We need to treat terror with an iron fist,” she said, “whether it’s Jewish terror or Arab terror.”

When prodded as to whether Jewish terrorists should be interrogated in the same way as Palestinian terrorists, Regev didn’t miss a beat. “Of course!” she replied, apparently baffled that someone could ask such a preposterous question.

Yet this use of “zero tolerance” as a declaration of intent to apply, without prejudice, the letter of the law at the same time as making us all safer, is exactly where we find the phrase’s undoing.

Firefighters in a classroom that was set on fire in the bilingual Hand In Hand school in Jerusalem, November 29, 2014. (Photo by Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)

Firefighters in a classroom that was set on fire in the bilingual Hand In Hand school in Jerusalem, November 29, 2014. (Photo by Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)

Firstly — and this is a global phenomenon — the “zero tolerance” approach leads to governments using the pretext of national security to enact sweeping legislation that erodes civil liberties and fosters a culture of state impunity, all under the “emergency powers” prerogative. These draconian laws then remain in place, irrespective of whether the security situation improves, which governments are then free to apply as consistently (or inconsistently) as they choose. For its part, after the Dawabshe murders, the Israeli government rapidly passed legislation allowing for Jewish Israelis suspected of terrorism to be placed in administrative detention, as their Palestinian counterparts have been since the British Mandate era.

Secondly, the concept of zero tolerance is technically a logical fallacy. Tolerance is subjective, while zero is an absolute and objective measure. An inverse example would be to ask someone for the time and be told “it’s slightly half-past three.”

So while on an individual level it may be an acceptable shorthand when someone wishes to express their utter opposition to something, at a collective level we run into trouble. When applied to law enforcement the idea becomes even more problematic; instead of ensuring an unbiased approach to tackling crime, “zero tolerance” often does the opposite. In its application or lack thereof, governments actually reveal their own underlying prejudices.

Palestinians suspected of committing acts of terrorism are rapidly arrested, interrogated, tried and sentenced (provided they haven’t been simply shot in the street, which is happening so frequently it actually threatens to undermine Israel’s legal system), the arsonists who carried out the triple homicide in Duma have yet to be charged, nearly 100 days later. This is in spite of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s admission that he knows who is responsible.

“Zero tolerance” seems to have been overlooked, too, in the case of the burning down of Jerusalem’s Jewish-Arab Hand in Hand School. The defendants, all of them activists with the far-right, racist Lehava group, were charged with arson after a plea bargain ensured that the charge didn’t include a clause of racial motivation.

And the Jewish teenager who stabbed four Arabs in Dimona and after clarified that he had done so because they were Arabs? Following the regional police chief’s talk of “zero tolerance” towards racist violence, the teenager was charged with aggravated assault.

(The youth’s lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir of Honenu, brought forth the argument that he had mental health issues. This is not the first time that Honenu has used the “diminished responsibility” line in the wake of an Israeli committing a hate crime.)

Israeli settlers stand near Israeli soldiers during clashes erupted after the former set fire to Palestinian agricultural fields in Burin village near Nablus, as tensions remain high in the West Bank following the killing of two settlers and reprisal attacks on Palestinian villages, October 3, 2015. (Activestills.org)

Israeli settlers stand near Israeli soldiers during clashes erupted after the former set fire to Palestinian agricultural fields in Burin village near Nablus, as tensions remain high in the West Bank following the killing of two settlers and reprisal attacks on Palestinian villages, October 3, 2015. (Activestills.org)

And in perhaps the most common example of the inconsistency of “zero tolerance,” Palestinian stone-throwers are frequently shot with live ammunition by Israeli security forces. Settlers who throw stones at Palestinians, on the other hand, are generally free to do so under the watchful eye of the IDF or police.

***

In short, wherever and whenever we come across talk of “zero tolerance,” we are hearing a snappy-sounding Trojan horse through which governments smuggle in all sorts of extra powers that are packaged in such a way that make us feel safer. In fact they do nothing of the sort. The phrase plays on our sense of powerlessness when violence seems to be spiraling out of control. It is a concept that, deep down, we desperately want to work, because we want to believe that the powers that be can snap their fingers and make “this” stop (and “this” can be terrorism, drug crime, random shootings, or any other brand of violence that may currently seem endemic).

But in Israel-Palestine, it is painfully obvious how much of a myth this is. While the government tries to bolster “zero tolerance” with energetic, multi-directional legislation, the streets remain alight. Laws, incarceration, troops, boots, guns, walls, operations and wars have not ended the violence, nor will they. “Zero tolerance” will not put a stop to terrorism in Israel-Palestine. Ending the occupation probably would, given enough time and effort. But that would be far too tolerant.

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    1. Ginger Eis

      “Secondly, the concept of zero tolerance is technically a logical fallacy. Tolerance is subjective, while zero is an absolute and objective measure. An inverse example would be to ask someone for the time and be told “it’s slightly half-past three.”

      That’s not correct, Ms. Roth, for the following reasons:

      A “logical fallacy” is an argument of which the conclusion does not flow from the premise. The phrase “zero tolerance” is neither an ‘argument’ nor does it contain a premise and a conclusion c.q. a conclusion that does not flow from the premise thereof, and as such does not even meet the theoretically conditions required to conduct a test as to whether or not it is a logical fallacy, let alone make the conclusion that it is in fact a logical fallacy.

      The “zero” in the phrase “zero tolerance” plays the role of an adjective qualifying the noun “tolerance” – i.e. showing the degree thereof. The phrase “zero tolerance” is neither a logical fallacy, nor is it a theoretical impossibility. It expresses perfect rational thought-process. It is perfect logic!

      Get that right, Ms. Roth.

      Reply to Comment

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