Social protesters gather in Be'er Sheva on June 16, 2012.
Social protesters gather in Be'er Sheva on June 16, 2012. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Say a person wants to demonstrate and express his feelings. In a democratic state, the police should approve his request, subject to reasonable restrictions.

The unusual conditions set by the Be'er Sheva police two months ago in their permit for holding a protest in the city go way beyond the bounds of the permissible. Two conditions besides the usual ones were included in the permit for the Be'er Sheva demonstration: Demonstrators "may not hold up signs that harm the State of Israel's reputation," and "those who submitted the request will be responsible for the event."

It is evidently necessary to remind the police that they are not responsible for Israel's reputation. Such a demand would empty virtually any protest of all content. But no less troubling is the implied identity between the state's image and government policy. We must not acquiesce in attempts at censorship of this kind, which are more suitable to regimes that Israel boasts of not resembling.

The second condition posed by the police, which made the demonstration's organizers responsible for the event, was also meant to deter social activists from exercising their right to demonstrate. The police are the ones responsible for maintaining public order, not anyone else.

These attempts to deter demonstrators are joined by the "explanatory conversations" to which police summoned social activists in advance of the expected renewal of the protests this summer, and with the excessive violence used by police against demonstrators in Tel Aviv two weeks ago.

Particularly grave is that the list of restrictive conditions in Be'er Sheva was signed by the commander of one of the city's police stations, Tomer Badash. As the Association for Civil Rights in Israel noted in a letter to the police, this was not a case of "a junior policeman who exercised faulty judgment in a pressured situation, but a station commander acting after calm reflection in a way that completely violates his function and exceeds his authority."

The relative restraint police showed at last week's demonstration in Tel Aviv may herald a change of direction in police conduct. Nevertheless, this restraint may well have been prompted in part by publication of the harsh pictures of their previous clashes with demonstrators. The restrictive conditions imposed in Be'er Sheva, which somehow escaped publication and public discussion, imply that the police have not yet internalized their obligation to enable freedom of expression.