The Friday arrest of Association for Civil Rights in Israel director Hagai El-Ad and 16 other left-wing activists was illegal, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court ruled early yesterday.

Judge Eilata Ziskind ordered the unconditional release of the activists, who were freed at 3 A.M. Sunday.

They were arrested during their weekly demonstration in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, held to protest a Jewish takeover of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem through the use of ownership documents dating from the period of the British mandate in Palestine.

Ziskind rejected the police argument that the demonstration required a license because the protesters shouted anti-occupation slogans and used a megaphone, saying they "failed to present me with proof that the gathering at this place required advanced licensing."

The judge also rejected the claim that the arrests were carried out because the demonstrators were "dangerous," and ruled that there was no proof that there would have been violence or disturbances if the demonstration would have continued as planned.

The incarcerated activists were brought to court late Saturday night, and the police asked that they be released on condition that they stay away from Sheikh Jarrah for the next 60 days and post personal bonds of NIS 5,000 each.

ACRI legal adviser Dan Yakir and other activist lawyers told the court that the arrests were illegal since the demonstration was not an event that required police authorization.

By law, a license is required for a demonstration only when "political" speeches are made at a demonstration.

Jerusalem police argued that the activists were arrested after the demonstration was declared illegal and after they had been warned several times not to hold the protest.

The demonstrators said the arrests were aimed at breaking the spirit of protest at Sheikh Jarah and that the police arrested those it considered leaders of the demonstration.

One of the activists arrested was Yonatan Shapira, an Israel Air Force pilot who publicly refused to attack illegitimate targets.

Although Ziskind rejected the police arguments, she did not criticize them for accusing the protesters of attacking police officers.

Anticipating the court deliberations, some 150 activists stood outside the courtroom and held a demonstration demanding the release of those arrested.

To date, more than 70 people have been arrested during demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah. The demonstrations are organized by groups of independent activists.

In recent weeks the police and the activists had reached an agreement that the demonstrators would be granted permits, and consequently the demonstrations have been relatively uneventful.

However, the activists say they were not given a permit for the last demonstration because a day earlier a different event had taken place that included a rap party with groups singing in Arabic.