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Supreme Court justices were highly critical yesterday of Jerusalem police after it refused a request by demonstrators at Sheikh Jarrah to hold a protest near a disputed home in the neighborhood. "The police is taking the right to demonstrate 30 years backward," Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch said during deliberations yesterday.

For the past six months, a group of independent left-wing activists have demonstrated every Friday in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, protesting the takeover of Palestinian homes by groups of settlers. Last week, the demonstrators asked Jerusalem police for permission to hold a large rally in the street leading to a contested house, to protest against the settlers and show solidarity with the Palestinian residents of the neighborhood.

The police refused to authorized the rally and instead approved a much smaller gathering at a soccer field situated 300 meters from the home. The demonstrators said that the field is surrounded by a wall, it cannot be seen from the outside and is entirely cut off from the area near the contested home, which is the main focus of the protest.

The protesters petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that the police decision violates their right to demonstrate, and makes their protest ineffective. The petitioners also argued that the police conduct is discriminatory, and favors the settlers because they are allowed to hold events at the site. Reflecting the popular character of the protest, the activists opted not to be represented by lawyers. Joining the petition was former minister and Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, as well as former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, as well as most Palestinian residents of the neighborhood.

During yesterday's deliberations before a panel of three justices, the justices accepted in principle the demonstrators' argument that the location of the protest is significant, and the fact that the site is "political" since the settlers are permitted to hold political events there. Police countered by arguing that accepting the protesters' demands may result in friction and violence with the settlers and cause severe traffic disruptions.

Jerusalem District police commander, Aharon Franko, was asked to appear before the panel of justices and said that the the contested house is in "one of the most explosive locations." He explained that "not a day goes by when there are not confrontations, fighting and stone throwing."

The senior police officer said that closing off the street, as the demonstrators would like, would make it difficult for worshipers to make their way to the nearby tomb of Simon the Just (Shimon HaTzadik).

The justices ended the deliberations with a compromise: The rally will be held in the area that the police decided, but 300 demonstrators will be allowed to approach the contested house at the conclusion of the rally.

"The responsibility of the police in Jerusalem is no doubt grave, but the police is obligated to take all reasonable means available in order to protect those participating in rallies or demonstrations," said the justices.