Jerusalem's Zion Square, which has served as the backdrop for boisterous protest rallies for decades, will no longer host demonstrations because of the contract between the Jerusalem municipality and CityPass, which operates the city's light rail system.
The contract prohibits the train being stopped by a roadblock. This means no more demonstrations will be held at the venue, which has long been the site of protests that have, in essence, mirrored the history of the state. Among the historic events that have taken place at Zion Square are: a protest in 1952 led by then-opposition leader Menachem Begin against accepting reparations from Germany; a demonstration by the Black Panthers in the 1970s; and Benjamin Netanyahu's appearence on a balcony overlooking the square during a right-wing demonstration just before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
Rona Orovano and Roi Fruman, leaders of the social protest movement in Jerusalem, applied two weeks ago to the police for a permit to hold a 5,000-strong demonstration in Zion Square or Paris Square, which were rally focal points last summer. Late last week they were denied permission to hold their rally at Zion Square, or to shut down the streets around Paris Square, because it would disrupt the light rail.
Last summer, before the light rail went into service, protesters marched from the Mashbir Square to Zion Square and on to Paris Square.
When Orovano asked a police officer from the Central District why their permit to protest was denied, she was told that the district commander, Nisso Shaham, had told his officers that Paris Square, the nearby prime minister's official residence and King George Street are "around the same circle. You are shutting down the whole city and then you want to do it again, and that cannot happen."
The police proposed the area known to Jerusalemites as Hatulot Square as an alternative site, which is not far from Zion Square but is not considered as central. The area of the Knesset was also proposed.
The organizers rejected the compromise proposals and are threatening to petition the High Court of Justice. "If the government is privatizing health, education and welfare, it doesn't surprise us that it is trying to privatize the public space to prevent people from protesting," Orovano said.
The Jerusalem police responded, "The police will allow legitimate, legal and authorized protest; however, it protects the balance between freedom of expression and routine life and freedom of movement. Last year the social protests did serious damage to routine. This year the police suggested alternative sites to the organizers, which are only 200 meters from the requested site. These sites will not shut down the light rail and disrupt routine life."
CityPass responded that "unlike buses, the train has only one route and any event along the way could stop service entirely."
Reuven Abargil, one of the founders of the Israeli Black Panthers, remembers the beating he took in Zion Square. "It was the day we decided to change the name of the square to Edot Hamizrach Square," referring to communities that come from the Middle East. "There were serious clashes and the police did not hold back," he recalls. Abargil does not believe the police's refusal to issue a protest permit has anything to do with the light rail. "When they say no demonstrations, I understand they mean no demonstrations that they don't want," he said.
"The right, the religious and the establishment can protest. There will soon be no place left for us to protest in Jerusalem. Independence Park bothers the American Consulate, the Convention Center disrupts the concerts. What's left? They want everybody to stay indoors and cry alone," Abargil said, adding that the protesters' mistake was to request a permit. "It's our full right to protest and we'll set the time and the place."