Defending the Right to Protest

22 August 2019

Protest sits at the heart of a civil society. The right to peaceable assembly is at the core of any democracy. It is the first right protected by the American Bill of Rights. And public protest has been part and parcel of building Israeli democracy too.

Citizens, especially those marginalized in communities that are too often excluded, turn to protests as a means to shine a light on their legitimate grievances—and have their questions answered, especially at times when the government is looking the other way.

But with the rise of global, right-wing populism, we are seeing a clampdown on civil society protests around the globe. In Russia, in 2012, under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, the Russian Duma passed laws that increased the fees for “unsanctioned meetings” by thousands of dollars, effectively restricting the right to assemble. In Hong Kong, millions have been pouring into the public square for weeks, testing whether they can maintain their liberal city-state and hold on to their right to peaceful assembly.

Unfortunately, our democracy in Israel is sadly implicated in this global trend. We know from the research of NIF grantee the Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF) that in the occupied territories, Israeli authorities routinely prevent legal demonstrations and rallies through various tactics, including arrests or legal harassment for engaging in “illegal assembly.” And now we have learned, as a result of the freedom of information request filed by NIF grantee, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), that in June 2019 the police tried to limit Israeli citizens’ rights to assemble by introducing new regulations that would restrict any gathering or march of more than 50 people without a permit.

The police are attempting to circumvent the Israel’s Supreme Court decision after it struck down prior efforts to restrict the right to protest. To do so, they have invented a new term — a “protest event.” This is a concept that is not mentioned in any law, but police are using it to crack down on legitimate protests.

We have seen the police begin to implement their scandalous restriction of Israelis’ free speech rights in Petah Tikvah, where protesters gathered about a week ago to demand an investigation into police brutality targeting demonstrators, which included several elderly civilians. The Police district commander issued unprecedented restrictions on demonstrations and protests of any kind. These actions by the police fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s rulings.

Back in 2017, the Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that peaceful assembly was a protected right and permitted holding demonstrations, regardless of size, without the need for a permit. The new regulations are an effort to reintroduce the restrictions on the right to protest that the court already struck down.

But the Court was clear as day. Then, Associate Justice (and current Chief Justice), Esther Hayut, said that “criticism of the authorities and public figures is the life-breath of democracy and neither the authorities nor public figures are immune from criticism in a democratic country.” The right to free expression and peaceful assembly, she said, “is at the core of the basic liberties in a democratic country.” The Court and Hayut were clear: demonstrations could not be restricted barring extraordinary circumstances, regardless of their size.

We Israelis protest a great deal: We have seen that the public square filled again and again. Against wars, against the rising cost of living, against racist laws like the Nation-State Law that favors Jewish citizens over Arab citizens. Just this year alone:

  • Hundreds turned out to protest the Attorney General’s Avichai Mandeblit over his handling of the prime minister’s corruption probes in Petah Tikva.
  • Citizens registered their dissent over the State of Israel’s decision to deport Filipino foreign workers and their Israeli-born children in Tel Aviv.
  • Tel Aviv residents protested child abuse in local pre-schools.
  • And citizens of Ethiopian descent and their many allies blocked traffic and took to the streets to protest police brutality targeting their communities.

The year 2018 was marked by regular demonstrations in city squares against government corruption, culminating in a “march of shame” against the corruption of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

The public square is where Israeli citizens – and citizens of any democracy – gather to make demands of their government. In 2015, NIF identified the chilling effect on public protest caused by government restrictions, which made activists think twice before going out to demonstrate. And since then, NIF has prioritized protecting the right to protest.

So it is no surprise that in the face of these recent crackdown on the right to assembly, NIF grantees have taken action. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and others have jointly filed a complaint to challenge the new regulations before the Supreme Court. ACRI intends to “use all the tools at its disposal so that every person in the State of Israel can make her or his voice heard.”

We know that the right to assembly is a fundamental democratic freedom — and that efforts to restrict it are a warning sign of creeping authoritarianism. And you can be certain that the New Israel Fund will be there to fight for the rights of Israel’s citizens at every turn.