It is legal to stage a protest in a public square near Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit home in Petah Tikva without obtaining a police permit, the High Court of Justice ruled Sunday. The High Court also ruled that no restrictions were to be placed on the number of participants, lifting its temporary limit of 500 protesters.
The Movement for Quality Government, one of the petitioners, called the ruling “a huge victory for civil society, freedom of expression and the Israeli public in general.”
The justices also called on the Knesset to change the law on permits for protests. “The demand for a permit to hold protests is nothing but a [British] Mandatory remnant [and] it seems the time has come to examine its removal from Israeli law,” the court opined. Justice Esther Hayut, who is soon to be High Court president, said the requirement for a permit for demonstrations was not customary in Western countries.
Regarding the Petah Tikva protests, Hayut rejected criticism of the very fact of people protesting the attorney general, because “criticism of the authorities and public figures is the life’s breath of democracy and neither the authorities nor public figures are immune from criticism in a democratic country.”
Hayut also wrote that “the demonstrations being held on Saturday nights at Goren Square are the embodiment of the right to free expression that is at the core of the basic liberties in a democratic country.”
The ruling came in response to a petition filed by organizers of the weekly protest at Goren Square near Mendelblit’s house in Petah Tikva, together with the Movement for Quality Government, against the police ban on the protests. In a hearing in August, the High Court restricted the size of the demonstrations to 500 people for two weeks until a final decision on the issue was made.
In its ruling Sunday, the court lifted that restriction, saying that it had been shown no evidence that the square could not hold 2,500 demonstrators or that this number would seriously threaten public safety and order, and that it was nothing beyond the police’s capacity to handle.
Hayut said that the court had not seen evidence from either side that a serious threat to public order or safety could result from the demonstrations, and in any case such threats could be handled in a more moderate manner than prohibiting the demonstrations.
Justice Uzi Fogelman criticized the attempt by the police to restrict the demonstrations, saying they have the authority to set conditions for demonstrations to ensure public safety and order but not to decide where a demonstration should or should not take place.
Hayut recognized that the noisy demonstrations were a burden on local residents but said this was no reason not to hold them. Hayut said the disruption to Mendelblit’s neighbors in the Kfar Ganim neighborhood of Petah Tikva occurred only once a week for a few hours, and that such burdens are borne by residents of many cities in Israel who live near squares where demonstrations take place frequently. Hayut said the square had become a symbol of protest and to move the demonstrations to a park in Petah Tikva would infringe on the right to protest.
Court: Issue not 'political'
The High Court also rejected the police claim that the demonstrations were “a political issue” and therefore require a permit according to a Mandatory law still on the books. Hayut said the protests should not be considered political, because their declared goal was the rule of law and ethical standards in Israel.
Among the petitioners was Meni Naftali, the former chief custodian of the prime minister’s official Jerusalem residence. Hayut criticized Naftali and other organizers of the demonstrations for calling on protesters to come to Goren Square on August 19, contrary to the decision of the police and the court. “Such conduct, while the petition was before the court, could have led to its immediate rejection,” if not for the Movement for Quality Government, which Hayut noted “chose to act differently” and called on the protesters to respect the decision.
Yuval Yoaz and Doron Bareket, who represented some of the petitioners, said: “The High Court of Justice once again shows law enforcement authorities – the prosecution and the police – that they have not acted legally toward anti-corruption protesters in Petah Tikva. From the beginning we argued that the protests could not be considered ‘political’ and the court confirmed that the demonstrations do not need a permit. We expect law enforcement authorities to respect the right to protest and demonstrate, as it should be in a democracy, and to stop restricting the protesters, even if the content is not to their taste.”
Naftali’s attorney, Daniel Haklai, said the protest leaders had been in touch with police to ensure consideration for the residents of the apartments near Goren Square and to “protect the safety of the demonstrators and the neighborhood residents.”
The police said it would respect the court’s rulings and “study the ruling closely in order to implement it.” The police said they had “allowed the demonstrations in Goren Square because of the great importance it ascribes to freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate,” and wanted to “stress that the court had ruled that the police could set conditions in the future as well with regard to demonstrators in Goren Square to ensure public order and safety, as required. The police join the court’s call to change and clarify the law regarding permits for demonstrations.”
Menachem Moshkovitz, a lawyer representing the neighborhood committee in the vicinity of Goren Square, said: “We regret that the High Court chose to ignore the distress of the residents and did not relate to the fact that the demonstrators have many places they can go to protest. We respect the ruling although the residents think it should have been different,” adding that he hoped the protesters “would not continue to embitter the lives of the residents.” Moshkovitz said his clients joined the call to change the law on permits for demonstrations.
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