Hundreds of demonstrators protested Thursday evening in Tel Aviv against the police’s curbs on demonstrations, curbs the police say will help contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The protesters, who are members of the so-called Black Flag movement, assert that the restrictions infringe on their right to demonstrate.
The Israel Police are requiring that protesters in the Tel Aviv area remain at least 10 meters (33 feet) apart from one another, which prompted the demonstrators at Habima Square to mark Xs on the ground reflecting the distance that the police are requiring. Tel Aviv District Police have toughened the rules for holding demonstrations amid the coronavirus crisis, though these steps are not grounded in law, state emergency regulations or Health Ministry orders.
The police’s requirement is not specifically provided for in any Knesset legislation, emergency regulation or Health Ministry order. The police are also limiting demonstrations to 10 people each.
Before Thursday’s protest, the organizers said the new restrictions would limit the demonstration to 200 people if people maintained the required distance.
“The police directive is not clear to anyone,” said one of the organizers, Gonen Ben-Itzhak, a lawyer. “It’s not clear what the legal basis of this decision is and how in practice these directives don’t harm the freedom to demonstrate.”
Speaking at the demonstration, Yuval Diskin, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, referred to the corruption indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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“In the politics of the defendant, the good of the people is what’s good for Bibi. We cannot permit this to happen,” he said.
Referring to Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, which splintered after Gantz entered into negotiations to join a governing coalition with Netanyahu, Diskin said: “To the leaders of Kahol Lavan who have betrayed the voters, don’t be led astray by the defendant. True leaders need to show courage, determination and persistence. You can still save democracy.”
Over the past week, the required distance among demonstrators was the subject of deliberations between the justice and health ministries in coordination with the police, but the discussions did not result in the issuance of a new directive.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the police in Jerusalem have imposed their own restrictions on demonstrations and used similar restrictions as in Tel Aviv. The issue arose over plans for a protest by self-employed people demanding greater financial assistance from the government amid the lockdown.
At the beginning of the week, police issued 5,000-shekel ($1,400) fines on protesters at Kahol Lavan Knesset member Gabi Ashkenazi’s home in Kfar Sava. Demonstrators said they had observed the distance rules, but that they were penalized anyway, based on a claim that they had “failed to disperse their gathering.”
Some of the citations issued do not specify that these people were at a demonstration. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has lodged a complaint on the matter with the deputy attorney general, saying the action on the part of the police has “the effect of chilling if not freezing out the right to protest.”
The Israel Police said in response that “contrary to what has been claimed, even during this national emergency, the police are allowing everyone the right to freedom of expression within the bounds of the law and in keeping with health regulations as far as possible. In order to prevent misleading the readers, we stress that the restrictions placed on demonstrations were not set by the police but by the Health Ministry and the political echelons and are anchored in a public health order that ‘a demonstration may be held on condition that it be held in groups of up to 10 people, who remain two meters apart.'”