The police asked the High Court of Justice on Thursday to reject a petition by 60 Jerusalem residents that called for protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next to his official residence to have limited attendance or move elsewhere, saying the move would be a blow to freedom of expression.
The petition was filed by residents of the Rehavia and Talbieh neighborhoods that surround Netanyahu’s official residence, the focal point of anti-government protests in recent weeks.
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The police wrote that while they did not take the neighbors’ concerns lightly, they were “obligated to ensure the freedom to protest and the protesters’ welfare” and limiting the number of participants could deal a serious blow to freedom of expression.
The petition against the protests said that “the protest has gotten out of hand, lost all proportion and genuinely harms the petitioners, endangers their lives and denies them basic rights.” Over 400 other residents signed their own petition supporting the protests in response.
The police argued that the usual considerations regarding protests change when they are held next to the prime minister’s official residence, as opposed to the home of other public officials because of the location’s “special character”and “its being one of the symbols of power and the government.” Therefore, the police said, it was impossible to accept petitioners’ demand that the protests be moved elsewhere.
Regarding the request to limit participants, the police wrote that in addition to violating the individual right to expression, it would also strike a blow against “the very heart of freedom of expression.”As for some of the petitioners’ argument that the risk of coronavirus infection because of the protests should be considered, the police said that “in a complex time of dealing with an emergency, there is a place for giving increased importance to the need to protest freedom of expression as part of the defense of human rights in a democracy.”
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On Wednesday, the police announced that it would place limitations on pro-Netanyahu demonstrations by the home of Liat Ben Ari, the chief prosecutor in the prime minister’s corruption cases. The decision was based partly on a High Court of Justice ruling establishing that protests may not be held in front of public officials’ private residences, but rather only at their official residences or offices.
In the past few weeks, dozens of right-wing activists have begun protesting every day in front of Ben Ari’s home in the moshav of Herut, because of what they call her “persecution of Netanyahu.” Residents have complained that the protests are disturbing their rest.
On Wednesday, the commander of the Central District of the police, Maj. Gen. Ami Eshed, issued a document with various restrictions on the protests, including banning the protesters from demonstration in front of the house. In addition, the document said, protests can only be held up to twice a week for three hours at a time and until 10 P.M., in a parking lot a few hundreds of meters from the house. Demonstrators can use loudspeakers for two of the three hours.
Eshed also said that in addition to the protest in the parking lot, Netanyahu’s supporters could hold a “quiet protest” in the square close to Ben Ari’s home, with five people at most. These protests would be limited to three hours and must end by 11 P.M.
Some of the limitations are similar to those previously imposed on protests near Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s house: In August of 2019, Eshed ordered that the Saturday night demonstrations end by 11 P.M. and said he would only approve one more protest during the middle of the week. According to him, the new restrictions on the protests in Herut were set to “balance between the right to freedom of expression and the public’s welfare and safety.”
Orly Lev, a leader of the protest in Herut who also organized demonstrations near the home of Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, and who was recently questioned on suspicions of her involvement in threats against Mendelblit, protested the police’s decision: “The location they gave us has no importance. There are no houses with people there, only a grocery store. No one hears you or sees you.”
She added: “These are demonstrations without violence. The police are preventing us from the right of protest and are limiting us to two days, at a time when at Balfour [Street, by the prime minister’s residence] the demonstrations continue without interference until the wee hours of the night. We are not thousands, are not looting and are not baiting police officers,” said Lev.
The threats against Ben Ari and those around her have increased with the beginning of Netanyahu’s trial: Last week, the police filed an indictment against Shahar Ben Yehuda, a resident of Carmiel, for threatening to harm Ben Ari’s son.
The indictment accuses Ben Yehuda of posting the following on Facebook: “You are the son of Ben Ari the whore? If so, wait for the day I come to catch you and educate you up close, you whore.”
Ben Yehuda was ordered not to enter the Central District, make contact with the Ben Ari family or use social media.
In May, before the first hearing in the prime minister's case, the Justice Ministry decided to provide Ben Ari with security guards, at the recommendation of the police, after such protection had been removed a few months earlier.
The police said that “even in this complicated period, the police allow every citizen the right of protest with equality and without bias, without any connection to the topic of the demonstration and the identity of the protesters, and according to the law and the court’s rulings. According to the High Court of Justice ruling on the matter, protests must not be allowed next to the personal residence of public figures (as opposed to protests next to their workplaces or official residences). The police act according to their authority to impose conditions that will permit the protest at a distance from the house in accordance with the law.”
The State Prosecutor’s Office said in regard to the matter that “The matter is being dealt with by the local committee and is left to its discretion.”