Difficult questions about the thin line between legitimate protest and disturbing the peace have been raised by demonstrations organized by Israel's social protest movement and the methods used to police these events raise. What makes a protest legitimate? Is it the measure of 'righteousness' inherent in the cause? Or is it just a permit to demonstrate authorized by the police? And what makes a protest 'just'? Does justice exist only in the eye of the beholder? Or in the eyes of the political camps that we identify with? Are there any objective criteria for what constitutes a 'good' reason to demonstrate?
There are even more difficult questions: Is a little messiness actually a good thing when it brings the higher purpose of the demonstration to light, or is all violence unacceptable, regardless of which side initiates or commits it and regardless of circumstances? Is violence on the part of protesters a cause for police to violently disperse them?
We can take these questions and complicate them a bit further. Imagine that the police don't stop with kicks, hair-pulling, or throwing a protestor or two to the ground, but shoot tear gas canisters at the demonstrators, sometimes directly. Imagine that the demonstrators, for their part, instead of smashing windows and throwing eggs, lobby stones at military forces. Imagine that when the protest leaders are arrested, they are charged with grave offenses and detained for long months, not just a few hours.
Does this sound familiar? It happens every Friday in El-Ma'asra, Bil'in, Kfur Kaddum, A-Nabi Saleh and in other villages in the West Bank. It happens without headlines, opinion articles, or statements from politicians, but with scores of arrests, many wounded and from time to time, deaths.
When demonstrations in the Occupied Territories are suppressed with a heavy hand, no one in Israel – or almost no one – raises an eyebrow. In the Occupied Territories every Palestinian demonstration is a good enough reason for violent dispersal, regardless of the content of the protest, and regardless of the level of violence resorted to by the demonstrators.
This is because Palestinians have no right to protest. If they protest, they threaten order. And if they threaten order, they threaten state security. This is the sweeping approach employed by the military forces and anchored in military legislation. This approach is taken for granted, with an absolute lack of criticism, by Israeli society, the very same society that is rising up against police violence at the social protests in Tel Aviv.
Indeed, there is an essential difference between the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and the demos in the West Bank. In Tel Aviv, citizens are demonstrating for a better future in their country. In Nabi Salah, residents without citizenship are demonstrating against a military regime which has ruled over their lives for the past forty five years. They too want a better future. When voting day comes, the citizens protesting in Tel Aviv can go to the polls and choose a different regime. Palestinian residents in the West Bank don't have that option.
Among the many difficult questions being asked now, we would do well to also raise this one: Is there any justification for the absolute repression of freedom of expression and demonstration of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories?
Raghad Jaraisy is an Attorney at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
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