Organizers of Mass Gatherings in Israel Could Face Up to Three Years in Jail

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, October, 2020.
The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, October, 2020.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/Reuters
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Organizers of mass gatherings could face up to three years in prison for an action that is liable to spreading COVID-19, an order from Israel’s State Prosecutor’s Office said.

The new protocol came after the state prosecutor stopped enforcement of the ban on mass gatherings over concerns that the charges would be challenged as selective enforcement due to the lack of uniformity in the handling of such gatherings.

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Three months ago, prosecutors also instructed the police not to file independent indictments over mass gatherings, but the new procedure will now allow charging people for organizing illegal gatherings.

Police, who have been warned by prosecutors against selective enforcement, said that there are situations in which they will not be able to enforce the ban on large gatherings, like Friday prayers at the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem.

The new order took effect on December 31 and was sent to police officers and prosecutors.

Haim Vismonsky, the supervisor for coronavirus-related cases in the State Prosecutor’s Office and director of its cyber division, approved that indictments can be filed against anyone violating the ban on mass gatherings, meaning more than 300 people outside or 150 inside, during the lockdown. If a tighter lockdown is declared in certain areas, Vismonsky can also approve charges in connection with gatherings involving fewer people. 

The new order was signed by the deputy sate prosecutor for criminal affairs, Shlomo Lemberger, who wrote that in such cases, “administrative fines won’t be enough,” and that “a criminal investigation” should be launched. Participants in such gatherings may be fined as well.

The State Prosecutor’s Office believes that the new procedure will not allow for claims of selective enforcement as was previously claimed.

Police investigations launched prior to the new procedure will be shelved, even if the violations meet the new criteria for filing an indictment.

Police in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, during Israel's second lockdown, October 4, 2020.Credit: אוהד צויגנברג

Arguments were made in a meeting held at the State Prosecutor’s Office that it would be difficult to convince judges to convict someone for organizing a gathering where no one present was infected with COVID-19, as the charge of risking the spread of disease requires evidence that such a risk was posed.  

Lemberger reasoned that in the case large gatherings, it would be sufficient to provide an opinion by the Health Ministry stating that the gathering constitutes an event that can spread the virus.

In meetings with the top police officials, the office warned warned that officers should try to avoid the appearance of discriminatory enforcement so as to prevent charges of selective action.

The police raised a question about large gatherings in areas such as Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where demonstrations are frequently held.

Another challenge for law enforcement is filing charges against someone with with COVID-19 who lies or conceals information during contact tracing efforts, thus misleading the Health Ministry and preventing the isolation of other people. However, the police have no legal means of discovering whether someone is lying about their whereabouts.

Even if the police are aware of such a case, like the one involving Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, they have to request a court order to obtain information from the Health Ministry.

Last month, Haaretz reported that not a single indictment had been filed by the police or the State Prosecutor’s Office against organizers of large gatherings in violation of regulations since the onset of the pandemic.

The state prosecutor had instructed the police not to file indictments amid uncertainty over how to deal with claims of selective enforcement.

In March and April, Lemberger issued guidelines for police and prosecutors regarding criminal prosecution involving violation of coronavirus-related regulations. In the case of large gatherings, Lemberger said, indictments should be filed, rather than taking administrative action such as fines. But so far, very few indictments have been filed, none of them for organizing illegal gatherings.

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