New Police Regulations Limit Right to Protest in Israel

Rules exploit what police see as loophole in High Court ruling; gatherings of more than 50 people will require a permit and be subject to strict restrictions

Police forces at the scene of a demonstration led by Ethiopian Israelis over the police shooting of 18-year-old Solomon Teka, Petah Tikva, August 14, 2019.
Meged Gozani

Although Israel's High Court of Justice two years ago permitted the holding of demonstrations of any size without the need for a permit, new regulations drawn up by the police seek to restore restrictions to civil protests.

Under these interim regulations – which were updated in June and are being reported here for the first time following a freedom of information request filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel – gatherings of more than 50 people will require a permit, as will a march of 50 people or more. Smaller events will not require a permit, but policemen could still impose restrictions on the organizers under the Police Ordinance.

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Police are trying to circumvent the High Court ruling by coming up with a new term, a “protest event,” which is not mentioned in any law. A “protest event” would be any demonstration of more than 50 people “aimed at expressing an idea, protest or message,” a very general description that would apply to any significant demonstration.

>> Read more: A brutal denial of the right to protest in Israel | Editorial

Hundreds protest the attorney general's handling of the Netanyahu corruption cases, Petah Tikva, August 18, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

Under the regulations, police would be authorized to set conditions for such an event in conjunction with the organizers, or to unilaterally impose the conditions if no organizers can be identified. Organizers would be obligated to meet these conditions, and violating them “could be considered a criminal offense.”

The conditions would be set by the district commander, not the local police stations. While implementing these regulations on an interim basis, the police are drawing up legislation that they hope the Knesset will pass into law, which would regulate demonstrations accordingly.

These regulations were drawn up over the past two years by the national police brass after the High Court in 2017 ruled that there was no need to get a police permit to hold a demonstration that did not deal “with political issues,” a term the court interpreted in a very limited fashion. As a result, demonstrations against government corruption, for example, or against police brutality would not need a permit, nor could the number of participants be restricted except in extraordinary circumstances.

These new regulations, however, are not based on laws regarding demonstrations, but on other clauses in the Police Ordinance that grant the police general authority to preserve public safety and maintain public order. The police are also relying on a statement which the High Court made in its ruling – that despite the court’s decision, the police are still authorized “to impose, in advance or retroactively, restrictions on demonstrations and marches that it believes are almost certain to endanger public safety.”

Docorights, a project of ACRI, Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and other human rights groups aimed at protecting freedom of expression and the right to protest, filed a complaint against the new regulations with the Israel Police legal adviser, Brig. Gen. Ayelet Avisar.

A protest against the deportation of Filipino foreign workers and their Israeli-born children, Tel Aviv, July 22, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

“We don’t dispute the need to formulate a new outline for regulating demonstrations and protest events,” the group wrote. “Nevertheless, we were surprised to discover that over such a long period, staff work was being done in the shadows without consulting with agencies that specialize in this or any other process of involving the public.”

Among the things that disturbed them was that the police, upon hearing about a planned protest, “would seek out and identify organizers and contact them even in the absence of a formal application on their part.”

The police said it was clear that coordinating with the organizers of any event would contribute to the police preparations and to the setting of conditions that would be balanced and measured. They noted that events such as the installation of a Torah scroll, youth group events, holiday marches and memorial assemblies do not require a permit. If the police wanted to restrict such events or if such events required that streets be closed, the district commander would set the terms.

Under the new regulations, in the case of an event of fewer than 50 people, for which no permit is needed, the commander of the police station in whose area the event is to take place must still make a recommendation on whether the event can take place with no restrictions, based on the nature of the event and the risk it poses to public order and safety. After the district commander signs off on the conditions, they will be given to the organizers at least 48 hours before the event, and they will have to be publicized.

A protest against child abuse in Israeli pre-schools, Tel Aviv, July 27, 2019.
Meged Gozani

The restrictions are detailed in a form entitled “The Roster of Conditions for a Protest Event.” ACRI representatives said that recently several organizers of demonstrations and marches in different parts of the country had received the form. Among the conditions is a requirement to get permits from safety agencies like Magen David Adom, the Fire and Rescue Service, a safety engineer and others.

Another condition is that the organizers commit to updating the police on any change in their plans, and that event participants are forbidden to cause any excessive noise at hours not approved by the police. Another condition that the police can impose is that organizers must come to the demonstration with “a working public address system with an override microphone that permits assuming control over the system during an emergency.”

The police said in response, “Contrary to what’s being claimed, the regulation doesn’t limit freedom of expression and protest, but defines how to implement the High Court ruling, which limited the instances in which it is required to contact the police to get a permit to demonstrate. The regulation distinguishes between the track of obtaining a permit and the track that doesn’t require a permit but in which police are still authorized to set conditions, as the High Court determined.

“The regulation encourages demonstrators to dialogue with the police so that they can supply the required security, while at the same time establishes how to set conditions in the event that there is no contact initiated with the police. The regulation also defines the conditions the police can set, with the aim of increasing uniformity among the police districts, for the public’s benefit.”