At a High Court session focused on a petition challenging legislation that can limit protests during a coronavirus state of emergency, Justice Menachem Mazuz suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s involvement in the issue constitutes a conflict of interest considering the protests at issue are against him.
“We noticed that the limitations [on protest] are imposed when there’s a very particular protest against the prime minister and a declaration of a state of emergency has a direct impact on demonstrations against him,” Mazuz said at the High Court session Tuesday. “There’s an elephant in the room. … Isn’t his involvement in this inappropriate based on conflict of interest rules?”
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In October, the High Court of Justice ordered the state to explain why the legislative amendment should not be disqualified. The amendment, passed by the Knesset in September, permits the government to limit the location of demonstrations and to impose distance restrictions on travel to the protests, and to even tighten these limits by imposing regulations. No such limitations exist during Israel's current coronavirus lockdown.
In October, regulations were approved for a two-week period that limited the right to protest to no more than one kilometer (0.6 miles) from the demonstrators’ place of residence. Those regulations expired, but current law also permits limitations on future protests when a special state of emergency is declared to combat the pandemic and which includes a total lockdown.
“Is there justification to impose distance restrictions on the right to protest? Is there a similar restriction anywhere else in the world? What examples are there?” Supreme Court President Esther Hayut asked at the session, heading an expanded panel of nine justices
In response, Avital Sompolinsky, a lawyer who represents the Knesset, acknowledged that the matter is not sufficiently common around the world to respond. “We haven’t found a country that imposes a limit on distances people are permitted to be from their homes," she said.
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The justices also expressed the view that limitations on protests during a lockdown could only be justified if it is proven that the protests promote the spread of the virus. At a prior hearing on the case, Udi Eitan, a lawyer representing the state, said it could not be determined with certainty that the coronavirus has been spread at demonstrations.
“There is no way of saying explicitly whether there is the spread of infection at demonstrations,” he said, “since it can’t be determined through epidemiological investigation unless a person who is constantly at home leaves only to attend a demonstration.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Justice Isaac Amit questioned Eitan about the information at his disposal. “You don’t have information about the spread of infection at demonstrations, but there’s information that 40 percent of the protesters at Balfour [the Prime Minister’s Residence] come from Tel Aviv.” Amit asked why, in that case, Tel Aviv doesn’t have among the highest rates of infection in the country.
Lawyers for the government took the position that prevention of a potentially fatal disease, the right to life, has to take precedence over the right to protest.
Hayut questioned whether what was at stake could be called “the right to life.”
“[Since] according to the data, one percent of those who are infected die, this involves a public health issue and not the right to life,” she said.