The arrest of 17 civil rights activists demonstrating in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood on Friday and their detention by the police overnight represents another stage in the Israel Police's get-tough attitude and willingness to infringe on freedom of demonstration, protest and speech in this country. The right to demonstrate is an important component of freedom of expression, and something which Israeli courts have enshrined as a "supreme right."
The detainees, who included the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai Elad, endangered no one and broke no law; their arrest was therefore nothing less than false arrest. Moreover, the police's claim that the protesters had no license to demonstrate was rejected by a court, which declared that a protest vigil does not require a permit and there was no reason to disperse it or arrest the protesters.
The only conclusion is that the police have decided to wage war on the demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah and use force to end the protests, something they have neither the right nor authority to do.
The activists have been protesting in Sheikh Jarrah every Friday for the past three months against the takeover of Palestinians' homes by settler and far-right organizations. Not only do they have every right to do so, it is their civic duty as people concerned about events in the capital. As their protests are nonviolent, there is no reason for anyone to be detained. It's the police's duty to preserve order at demonstrations and no more, unless there is a reason to disperse protesters. But by no means should they prevent demonstrations from taking place.
The arrest of the protesters for no reason creates the suspicion that the police have had enough of these demonstrations. It also shows that the police discriminate between demonstrators from the right and left. While right-wing activists run amok in the West Bank to protest against the construction freeze and are almost never arrested, civil-rights demonstrators are being detained in increasing numbers. During Operation Cast Lead, around 800 left-wing protesters were arrested and criminal proceedings were opened against 700 of them.
The public security minister and police commissioner must stop this dangerous deterioration of their organizations. They must act immediately to closely guard freedom of demonstration and ensure that the police do not do anything to harm it. A society without protests is a sick society, afflicted by lethargy and complacency that breed evil. A police force that falsely arrests peaceful demonstrators is dangerous and harmful to democracy.
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