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Human Rights Watch today criticized the Israeli parliament for passing an "illegal combatants" law. The new law is designed to legalize the indefinite detention of anyone suspected of "taking part in hostile activity against Israel, directly or indirectly." It also permits the continued detention of two Lebanese nationals as bargaining chips for the return of missing Israeli soldiers.

Against a backdrop of spiraling violence, on March 4 the Israeli Knesset passed the "Imprisonment of Illegal Combatants Law." The law allows the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force to detain anyone if there is a basis to assume that he or she "takes part in hostile activity against Israel, directly or indirectly" or "belongs to a force engaged in hostile activity against the State of Israel." All detainees held under the law are automatically assumed to be a security threat and can be held without charge or trial as long as hostilities against Israel continue.

"This perverse legislation disregards basic principles of international law," said Hanny Megally, Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "In times of armed conflict international law recognizes two categories of individuals-combatants and civilians. The new law is just another example of Israel ignoring and manipulating international legal standards to suit its own purposes."

The new law also enables the military to hold individuals arbitrarily and indefinitely, on the basis of assumption rather than proven guilt. Detainees can be held for up to fourteen days without access to a lawyer and have limited choice of counsel. Judicial reviews are to be held in camera, using secret evidence unavailable to the detainee.

A detainee may appeal his or her continued detention to the Supreme Court. But, based on similar appeals lodged in the cases of administrative detainees, the court hardly ever queries a military decision to detain an individual.

One of the main reasons for the passing of this law is apparently an effort to legalize the continued detention as hostages of Sheikh 'Abd al-Karim 'Obeid (abducted from Lebanon in July 1989) and Mustafa al-Dirani (abducted from Lebanon in May 1994). Both 'Obeid and al-Dirani have been held as "bargaining chips" for the return of Israeli soldiers missing in action in Lebanon. In April 2000, the High Court of Justice ruled that Israel could not continue to detain Lebanese nationals solely to serve as hostages for the return of missing soldiers in Lebanon. Thirteen such hostages were released after the ruling, but 'Obeid and al-Dirani have remained in detention.

In June 2000, an earlier draft version of the "illegal combatant" law was introduced in the Knesset but came under intense local and international criticism. The new law was re-introduced in the Knesset in February 2002, shortly after US attempts to treat Taleban and al-Qaeda forces as "unlawful combatants" and automatically deny them Prisoner of War protections.

Megally said the law would be applied retroactively to continue the illegal detention as hostages of 'Obeid and al-Dirani.

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