The Jerusalem District Court early Sunday ordered the unconditional release of three protesters, including protest leader and former general Amir Haskel, who remained in police custody after being arrested at a protest outside the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday.
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Justice Orna Sandler-Eitan also rejected the police's request to bar the three from Jerusalem for 15 days. Police said they would appeal the decision.
Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv after his release, Haskel said: "The reason I was arrested was a will to silence the protest against a criminally charged man. The right to protest is a fundamental right in a democratic country. No one can prevent me and my friends from protesting so long as we’ve done nothing wrong."
Haskel said he hopes his high-profile arrest would lead to some change. “If this arrest has set a fire, it was a price worth paying,” he said. “I hope many people understand Israel needs change… Netanyahu has made the left the enemy of the people. It’s the greatest damage Netanyahu has brought upon this nation. If he wants to prevent a blow-up, he should get up and leave.”
Four of the arrested protesters were released after signing a restraining order Friday night that bars them from Jerusalem, but three – Haskel, Gil Danieli and Sadi Ben Shitrit – refused and were denied release from police custody.
Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen said in a statement that the police would draw conclusions from the incident, "as it has before." However, he added, "there is no substitute for officers' judgment. It should be remembered that the police allow the holding of many rallies and protests in accordance with the law every day, and will continue to do so going forward."
The police argued during the hearing that Haskel had led a group of protesters with clear intent to block roads and cause a public disturbance "out of frustration that the protests are not gaining momentum." Police said they had no intention of breaking up the protest, but that Haskel and the other protesters had repeatedly refused peaceful orders to disperse. However, during the course of the hearing the police representative admitted that the three did not block roads.
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In other words, said the judge, Haskel was being accused not of blocking the road himself, but of organizing the protest in which the roads were blocked. Haskel said that it was impossible for him to control all of the hundreds of people present at the protest.
The police representative at the hearing said law enforcement had acted with restraint, perhaps excessively so, and had no choice but to make the arrests.
In explaining her decision, Judge Sandler-Eitan said that "even if I justify delaying [the release of] the defendants for letting the event get out of control, I do not believe there is any need to place any conditions on the release of the defendants. The right to demonstrate is a fundamental right in a democratic regime."
"Banning the defendants from Jerusalem, meaning preventing the protesters from exercising their right to demonstrate in a particular place of their choice, is a disproportionate measure that is inappropriate to the extent, if any, that the defendants were involved in violating the alleged order."
She added that the defendants pose no threat to the public.
About 1,500 protesters gathered in Jerusalem Saturday evening to demand that the seven detained activists be released without conditions.
Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz called for Haskel's release on Saturday, after protests began. Gantz wrote on Facebook: "I believe that the three detainees must be freed with no limiting conditions," saying that he was sure the courts would reach a similar conclusion. Gantz added that the right to protest is a "sacred right" in Israel and must not be violated.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said that Haskel "paid the full price, in his life and his actions, for the right and obligation to demonstrate and protest." Ashkenazi called pictures of Haskel in handcuffs, which circulated on Saturday, "a badge of shame for Israeli democracy," and called for Haskel's "immediate and unconditional release."
Police said that officers are are present at the protest, and have blocked off streets close to the Prime Minister's Residence to traffic. "The Israel Police will work to allow free speech and protest alongside keeping the public order. Together with that, it will act severely against any attempt to disturb the public order or harm the public."
The protest organizers said that "Haskel's arrest is part of a new method to reduce the democratic space in the State of Israel. In the past two weeks alone, the prime minister has called for the arrest of a senior journalist, [television host] Amnon Abramovich was brutally attacked and since yesterday, Haskel has been detained.
"From today, the time has come that the nation of Israel will speak in streets and squares – the State of Israel belongs first and foremost to its citizens, not to the royal family."
The organizers said that over the course of the week, they will establish a protest tent on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard – recalling the tent city that had been erected there during the social protests of 2012.
Additional protests are taking place at some 70 intersections throughout the country. Dozens of protesters are present at each junction, holding signs reading "Netanyahu is corrupt and corrupts," "Investigation now" (referring to the so-called submarine affair), "The defendent needs to go home," and other slogans.
About 150 demonstrators also gathered on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, calling for democracy. Protest organizer Oren Kuma opened the demonstration by saying that Haskel "didn't disrupt order or behave violently, he didn't do anything illegal; he opposed the regime. All of the protests in the country will be in full solidarity."
Protesters in the northern town of Binyamina claim that they were attacked by a pro-Netanyahu counter-protester during the demonstration. One protester, Maoz Yinon, said that about an hour and a half into the protest, a car full of Netanyahu supporters arrived and screamed at demonstrators; one sprayed them with pepper spray.
Yinon said that a young man was evacuated by Magen David Adom to the hospital, and two older protesters were injured by pepper spray and treated at the scene.
'The essence of democracy'
Yesh Atid MK Moshe Ya'alon spoke at the protest in Jerusalem and said that Israel Police arrested Haskel "because they can, and we're here to say that some things are not permissable." He added that Netanyahu's rule is being carried out through Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is in charge of the Israel Police. Ya'alon questioned Ohana's version of events in Haskel's arrest.
Ya'alon, formerly a member of Kahol Lavan, before refusing to join a Netanyahu-led government, said that he had warned Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi against trusting Netanyahu: "If Amir Haskel, your commander, was arrested as a criminal and suffers all these curses, where have we gotten to? Shame!"
Labor Minister Itzik Shmuli called the right to protest "an essential component of free speech, and we must protect it." He added, "Arresting demonstrating protesters legitimately is an extreme act that must be carried out only as a last resort. It seems that these were not the circumstances in the case of the arrest of Brig. Gen. Haskel, and he must be released. As elected officials we must know when to take legitimate criticism – it is the essence of democracy."
Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser responded to Haskel's arrest on Twitter, saying "I watched the circumstances of Amir Haskel's arrest. There was no violence from any side. On the face of it, it looks like the police need to give a good explanation for why he was arrested."
The Likud released a statement in response: "The media didn't say anything about the shocking arrest of right-wing activist Shefi Paz, or the many arrests of right-wing activists at right-wing protests. Suddenly, when a left-wing activist is arrested as he breaks the law and blocks a road at a left-wing protest organized by Ehud Barak, the friend and collaborator of convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, the media turns it into a frenzy in order to encourage protests against the Netanyahu-led Likud. It's not surprising that all this is happening as the Likud sees all-time high poll numbers."
Hundreds of people attended the protest against Netanyahu Friday night, which have been occuring intermittently for the past two weeks.
Some of the protesters entered a nearby street to the Prime Minister's Residence carrying a sculpture of a submarine and called for a committee to investigate Netanyahu's part in the so-called "submarine affair."
During the protest, Haskel gave a speech saying that "There is no way that Israel's prime minister can act under criminal indictment." After he was arrested, other protesters blocked the street.
Seven protesters were arrested near the Prime Minister's Residence, including Haskel, a retired Air Force brigadier general, who has been organizing demonstrations around the country demanding that Netanyahu resign in light of his criminal indictments.
Following Haskel's arrest, the organizers called for more protesters to join them. "I heard that Amir was arrested and I immediately said that we must go to Jerusalem," said Avi Ofer, who joined the protest after Haskel was taken in.
According to police, the protesters were arrested "on suspicion of disrupting public order and other offenses." Others were dispersed with the use of force. The protesters who were arrested remain in police custody.
"I could have lived a much more comfortable life, but I do it for my children and grandchildren," Haskel told Haaretz. "The example in front of me is Moti Ashkenazi," he said, referring to the leader of protests against the Golda Meir government after the Yom Kippur War.