A new Israeli policy calling to reduce the number of protesters tried in court was adopted after law enforcement authorities were criticized for selective enforcement depending on the demonstrators' religious, ethnic or racial background.
The new directive signed by Deputy State Prosecutor Nurit Litman calls for scaling back the number of protesters charged with offenses like participating in an illegal gathering, while reserving such measures for cases in which protests turn violent. They also call to diminish the amount of indictments filed for blocking roads when rallies spillover to the streets and prosecute only those suspected of actively violating police orders. The state prosecution also pushes to minimize the number of charges for refusing to be escorted by a police officer.
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A 2017 ruling revoking the indictment against an Ultra-Orthodox protester, saying that prosecutors systematically discriminate the Haredi community, contributed to the shift in policy.
Moreover, in 2018 police firmly handled ultra-Orthodox protests, hauling away demonstrators who were later indicted. In 2019, mounted police used stun grenades to forcefully disperse protests staged by Israelis of Ethiopian origin. However, in recent protests of disabled Israelis who demanded to raise welfare allowances, the police did not respond to the blocking of major roads and intersections.
Despite claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party that the policy change is intended to encourage a recent wave of anti-government protests, police sources say the new directive coincides with law enforcement’s current policy to avoid charging protesters except in cases explicitly involving a violent disturbance.
A source in the State Prosecutor's Office said police had participated in formulating these instructions, with its legal advisers and officers taking part in the process.
Former Tel Aviv District Police Chief David Tzur rejected claims that the new policy is politically motivated or that it favored left-wing demonstrators, as alleged by members of Likud. “That’s nonsense,” he said.
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“There’s no need to step up the indictments unless a protest turns violent or when a serious disturbance of public order occurs. On the other hand, if the instructions are to avoid charging anyone, then the police don’t have a clearly defined role. You have to have a practical policy that doesn’t lead to police pushing for indictments that infringe on the freedom of expression,” Tzur said.
Likud members were instructed to blast the prosecution following the release of the new policy. In a statement to cabinet ministers and lawmakers the party spokesperson wrote: “At a time when the people need unity, the party of the prosecutors and the attorney general are encouraging anarchy solely for the sake of their obsessive persecution of Prime Minister Netanyahu, even if it means turning the country into a heap of garbage.”
Attorneys for anti-government activists welcomed the prosecution’s guidelines. Lawyer Daniel Haklay, who represents several people who were arrested at protests against Netanyahu in recent weeks, welcomed the decision but said the guidelines lack instructions regarding probing police violence.
Dan Yakir, legal adviser to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), said that the guidelines "limit to a great extent the authority to issue an indictment.” He added that “what is missing is a parallel guideline to regulate the issue of arrests. We see protests during which police randomly arrest demonstrators as a means of dispersal. That’s not the purpose of an arrest.”
Attorney Yitzhak Bam, who often represents right-wing protesters, said: “The new policy is not a solution but a symptom. Violations of law as defined by the lawmakers are too broad and vague and don’t leave a lot of room for prosecutors and the courts to maneuver.” He added that the right to free speech is determined by prosecutors instead of lawmakers, and that these guidelines fail to solve the problem.
Bam also said that the guidelines do not resolve the main issue of police conduct at protests, while detaining protesters. “As long as it isn’t mandatory for a police officer to wear a body camera during protests, protesters will be discriminated against while violent police officers will be treated more favorably.”