Protesters on Rothschild Boulevard
Protesters tried to again erect tents on Rothschild Boulevard this summer, but this time around police tore the structures down within minutes. Photo by Alon Ron
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A Tel Aviv court Tuesday rejected a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel challenging the Tel Aviv Municipality’s policy of requiring permits for the establishment of tent camps in the city’s public spaces. ACRI plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

The Court for Administrative Affairs in Tel Aviv ruled that lifting the permit requirement would give the petitioners “a license to impose anarchy in the public spaces of the city of Tel Aviv, as regards the location of the tent camps, the duration of their existence, the possibility of sleeping on the premises, the nature of activity in and around the tents, et cetera, while the authorities and local residents are dependent upon their kindness and goodwill.”

“No one denies the existence, importance and constitutional status of the right to freedom of expression and the right to protest,” wrote Judge Zila Zfat in her verdict. “But even this right, like every other basic right, is limited and is relative to other basic rights and interests. The authorities have the right to control, limit and condition these rights, and to stipulate a priori conditions to preserve the rights of others.”

Relating to the municipality’s standing policy, which forbids the setting up of tents without a written permit, the judge continued: “Not only is there nothing improper about the municipality’s policy in its demand to obtain a permit prior to the setting up of tents on public property, but the public order demands a policy of organized regulation coexisting alongside the right to freedom of expression and of protest. This would prevent the difficult situations experienced by those who visited the city and its residents last year.”

Municipal officials welcomed the verdict. “The municipality enables use of the public space for the purpose of holding demonstrations and views the social protest as a legitimate and justified act. Nevertheless, the public space is intended for the use of the entire public and the municipality is entrusted with striking a balance between the right to protest and the maintenance of public order and concern for the needs of its residents.

“For this reason, the municipality appraises each request individually, and many of the requests to set up tents are approved; in the past year alone, hundreds of requests have been approved. As evidence, more demonstrations are held in Tel Aviv than anywhere else in Israel, at an average of one every three days. It should be noted that the court has already ruled in the past that setting up tents without authorization is against the law,” the municipality said.

The civil rights association responded that it is preparing to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. “The verdict lends legitimacy to the municipality’s sweeping policy of restricting the right to protest, without legal, clear or explicit authority to do so. The bureaucratic bullying of demonstrators, which also entails a significant financial outlay, is a tried-and-true means of repressing protests, particularly those of people who lack other means of making themselves in the public space,” ACRI attorney Sharona Eliahu Chai said.

“In the name of fear of the slight danger of ‘anarchy’ in the city’s streets, the court has allowed a harsh and far-reaching impediment – no less dangerous – to the freedom of expression,” she said.

The petition reveals how the municipality mounts obstacles before those wishing to set up tents in public spaces. For example, when one activist tried to obtain a license to set up a tent, he was sent on a runaround between the various municipal departments and was asked to provide detailed information about the purpose of the tent, its size and location, and how long he intended to keep it standing.

Afterward, he was asked to apply for a business license and told he needed a permit from the police, as well as from the fire and rescue services. To receive the police permit, he was asked to get the approval of a safety engineer, an electricity assessor and Magen David Adom emergency medical services. He also had to commit to placing a guard at the site.

To receive a permit from the fire and rescue services, the activist was asked to prove that the tent conformed to the requirements of Standard No. 5093 of the Israel Standards Institute, under the rubric “flammability of curtains for institutional or public use.”