The New Israel Fund tracks legislation in the Knesset that could change the way Israeli democracy functions. We will provide regular updates throughout this Knesset session.
Netanyahu-Gantz Government Restricts the Right to Protest
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic this spring, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has used the crisis in various ways to advance anti-democratic measures—including refusing to allow Israel’s parliament to convene and shuttering the judicial branch on the eve of his corruption trial. Now, with a resurgence of the virus in Israel and a second nation-wide lockdown put into effect on the eve of the Jewish High Holidays, Netanyahu’s government has moved to restrict Israelis’ freedom to protest.
On Tuesday, September 29, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee ratified amendments to the law regulating Israel’s coronavirus policy, which allows the government to restrict citizens from travelling a certain distance from their homes in order to attend a protest. This effectively allows the government to bar large-scale demonstrations from taking place in front of the Prime Minister’s residence on Balfour Street. The government used this authority to enact a week-long restriction preventing citizens from demonstrating any further than a kilometer from their homes, and limiting protests to clusters no larger than twenty people.
As a result, these restrictions have severely curtailed the regular protests against the government’s mismanagement of the crisis and the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s premiership in the face of three corruption charges. Netanyahu has claimed — without evidence — that the outdoor protests have been a vector of disease. Three ministers from Blue and White voted against the government’s new restrictions, including Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay, Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir and Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen.
The prominent Israeli legal scholar Mordechai Kremitzer wrote in Haaretz: “What is being called restrictions on demonstrating are not limitations but the frustration of the right to demonstrate. Demonstrating against the regime is meaningless if you cannot demonstrate in front of the seat of government or in other central public places.”
Barred from congregating in a central location, Israelis have registered their discontent at 1,087 sites around the country — a rate of one demonstration virtually every kilometer. Nevertheless, three organizations involved with the protest movement have petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to overturn the government’s restrictions on the right to protest. NIF’s flagship grantee The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) sent a letter to the attorney general attesting to the damage caused to democratic rule in Israel by the restrictions on the right to protest.
Read: Netanyahu is Crushing Dissent Among Israeli Jews Now, Too (Washington Post)
The Disease Netanyahu Fears Isn’t COVID-19. It’s Dissent. (Washington Post)
Police Violence Escalates Against Anti-Corruption Protesters and Haredi Communities
Increasingly strict restrictions on public movement during Israel’s second nation-wide coronavirus lockdown has led to escalating police violence against Haredi communities in cities such as Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and Beitar Illit, as well as against anti-corruption demonstrators.
The national lockdown is partly a result of the resistance to a more targeted approach, which Haredi lawmakers claimed would have discriminated against ultra-Orthodox communities. That approach, originally championed by Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s chief public health official, and approved by the government, would have applied a selective lockdown to municipalities with the highest rate of new infections, disproportionately affecting ultra-Orthodox areas, which suffer from the highest infection rates in the country.
Now, widespread flaunting of the government’s public health restrictions on religious gatherings during the Jewish High Holidays has led to a crisis of authority, with direct confrontations between police and Haredi communities. Police tried to enforce the Health Ministry’s regulations, often using excessive force against ultra-Orthodox communities, including minors. One policeman was filmed shoving a seven year-old boy riding a scooter into the sidewalk; another throwing a bucket at a boy and later punching him in the head.
Meanwhile, anti-corruption protesters have also faced violence from police. Instances of police violently arresting, shoving, and assaulting protesters and visibly identified journalists were documented in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. Protesters have also reported violence from supporters of the prime minister. Organizers held Netanyahu personally accountable for inciting his supporters with false accusations about the nature of the protests and they have appealed in a letter to the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to protect civilians engaged in civil demonstrations.
According to the Mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ron Huldai, who took part in the popular protests against government corruption, the demonstration taking place at Habima Square on Saturday night was peaceful until police were given the order to use force to disperse the gathering. In an interview for the Israeli daily, Maariv, Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen said: “The role of the police in a democratic country is to enforce the laws, even when they do not have the full support of the entire public… We will not close our eyes to the flagrant violation either at protests or anyplace else.”
Back in July, Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana applied pressure on police to use more draconian measures to suppress the protests. Now, as reported in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, former senior police officials have accused the police of deploying excessive use of force against protesters in order to please Ohana. Former police commissioner Moshe Karadi told Yediot, “I’m disturbed by what we’ve seen on the ground. It looks as if the police are acting more out of obedience to the political echelon than obedience to the law.” Israeli opposition leaders announced that they would take parliamentary action to investigate police conduct.
Meanwhile, public disregard for the harsh nation-wide measures have been exacerbated by members of Netanyahu’s own government flouting regulations. Public outrage is focused on Likud Minister Gila Gamliel who violated the public health directives by travelling 150 kilometers from her home to pray on Yom Kippur in a synagogue which did not comply with government’s guidelines. She later refused to fully cooperate with contact tracing efforts.