Several people behind Saturday’s protests against a government plan to resettle 30,000 Bedouin said the police or Shin Bet security service had threatened them and warned against staging the demonstration.
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One organizer received two summonses from the local police station Thursday. When he showed up on Friday, he was questioned by four police officers “who wanted us not to hold the protest,” he told Haaretz.
Israel police said they would not authorize the rally in the southern village of Hura unless the organizer signed a document saying he would take responsibility for anything that took place there, said the activist, who had been recruiting people to attend the protest.
According to the activist, when he refused to sign, the police threatened to arrest him if the demonstration turned violent, saying, “If something goes down tomorrow, you’ll be with us at the station.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adalah, a legal advocacy group for Arab rights in Israel, asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino – who condemned a similar incident in Jerusalem last year – to intervene in a bid to prevent security officials from threatening political activists.
“From the multiplicity of complaints, a worrying image is portrayed of an improper attempt to threaten citizens seeking to exercise their constitutional right to protest detrimental government policy and express their positions ahead of a Knesset vote,” the civil rights groups wrote to Weinstein and Danino.
Thousands of people took part in a “day of rage” Saturday against the Prawer-Begin Plan to resettle Bedouin in the Negev, with rallies in Hura, Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa. Two of the rallies, in Hura and Haifa, ended with violent clashes, resulting in 34 arrests. Protesters threw stones, a firebomb and blocked roads. A police officer was stabbed in the leg during the demonstraion in Haifa and 14 others sustained light injuries.
As part of the attempt to forestall the protest, activists said, police went to the homes of some organizers last week, warning them to halt their plans and threatening them with arrest if they took part in the rally.
“The police wanted me to sign a document saying that I take responsibility for the events that would take place at the rally,” said the Hura activist. “In exchange for that, they would grant permission for the demonstration, which had not yet been approved. I told them I wasn’t willing to take responsibility for what would happen there. I only take responsibility for my own actions.”
“I feel very threatened. I imagine there will be more arrests. It’s not going to end here," he added.
Describing a similar incident, another activist said police called him in and tried to convince him either to cancel the protest or take full responsibility for it. The police also told him this in repeated phone calls.
“I was at the station on Thursday,” he said. “There were sort-of threats from the police, who said everything that happened at the demonstration would be my responsibility. The officers talked to me for almost three hours... I explained that I’m just an activist and can’t take responsibility for these things.”
He said the police told him not to go to the rally and that he answered that it was his "democratic right" to protest against the demolition of our homes.
“Their actions are against the law,” he said, adding that he felt persecuted. “Protest is the minimum I can do when I’m harmed by the law. Now we’re waiting to see what happens with the protesters who are still under arrest.”
In response to the harassment complaints, police said they told people the protest was illegal because by Friday evening there was no request filed for a permit.
“People who wanted to participate in the rally asked the police if it was legal, and it was explained to them that it was not legal, in order to inform them in the event they intended to participate,” the police said in a statement. “All this happened up until the protest was approved.”
Police behaved similarly in May 2012, when an officer who identified himself only as “Yoni from the Jerusalem police” tried to prevent activists from demonstrating in favor of public housing in the capital. The organizers said "Yoni" phoned them to tell them they had to request a police permit, even though they were not legally required to do so.
After the complaints went public, Danino ordered the Jerusalem police to investigate the incident and said the officer involved should face disciplinary charges.
He said it is serious when “someone from the Israel Police uses this process to dissuade those seeking to hold a protest from exercising their democratic right to demonstrate legally.” Danino singled out the officer’s threats and pressure tactics as “more serious.”
The incident was apparently not limited to a single police officer in a single city, according to activists across the country who reported similar encounters with the police.
They said police tried to make it difficult for activists seeking to hold a demonstration and sometimes demanded a permit even when one was not required. Or the police told organizers they had to meet unreasonable conditions for a demonstration to be authorized.