Israel Passes Law Limiting Protests Under Lockdown

Along with the legislation barring protesters from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes to attend a demonstration, a 'special state of emergency' was declared

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Police arrest a demonstrator against the amendment to the Corona Law in Tel Aviv, September 29, 2020.
Police arrest a demonstrator against the amendment to the Corona Law in Tel Aviv, September 29, 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Knesset passed an amendment to the government's coronavirus law early Wednesday morning that would bar protesters from traveling more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes to attend a demonstration.

The legislation comes after a compromise was struck between Likud and Kahol Lavan regarding the stringency of the new measures, with Netanyahu watering down his initial proposal from Friday in exchange for limiting protests.

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Along with the law, a "special state of emergency" was declared, which the ministerial cabinet will need to ratify three times each week. The declaration and its extension will be brought to the constitution committee, which will be able to overturn the state of emergency retroactively. 

A special state of emergency does not allow the government to completely ban prayer, protests or religious ceremonies, but will be able to limit the number of participants in such gatherings. In addition, it will allow the government to limit protesters from demonstrating beyond the designated radius from their home, at the moment set to one kilometer (0.6 miles).

On Tuesday night, the Israeli military also decided not to place more soldiers at police checkpoints in order to help enforce the lockdown in Jerusalem.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that placing troops at police checkpoints near demonstrations is a "mistake that has already been addressed and will not be repeated."

Earlier on Tuesday, activists who were traveling to the Knesset to protest against an amendment that would bar demonstrations further than a kilometer from their home documented verbal altercations with soldiers who were stationed near the parliament, delaying some of the protesters. 

Gantz urged to leave the Israeli army and police out of the political debate and vehemently condemned any "attempt to attack soldiers and officers in the line of duty."

Eyewitnesses indicated that the police were the ones who actually came into contact with the protesters, but the very placement of the soldiers at the checkpoints provoked criticism.

"The government sets the policy," Gantz said. The army's spokesperson's unit also released a statement saying that soldiers "are not authorized to to perform any kind of enforcement on civilian population."

On Monday, demonstrators gathered outside Gantz's home, and those of fellow Kahol Lavan members Gabi Ashkenazi and Avi Nissenkorn, as well as outside the home of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

During the Knesset debates on Tuesday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside to oppose the legislation, three of whom were arrested by Israel Police. 

Protesters outside the Knesset termed the bill "an anti-democratic law serving Netanyahu." Many of them arrived in a protest convoy, which caused significant traffic in Jerusalem. Some clashed with police, who had earlier taken down a protest sign hung on the gates of the nearby Finance Ministry office.

One of the three people placed under arrest, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Assaf Agmon, a leader of the "En Matzav" ("No way") protest group, said he was subjected to violence. "We came to demonstrate against the possibility that a law would be enacted that would no longer allow demonstrations in the State of Israel," he told Haaretz. "This is the last step before we fall into a completely fascist state."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party had previously demanded significant additional restrictions to the coronavirus emergency legislation, which Knesset failed to ratify on Friday, which included the prohibition of all demonstrations across the country to curb the spike in coronavirus infections.

After failing to pass the bill through Knesset, Netanyahu announced and then retracted a plan to halt demonstrations through emergency regulations, a move that Kahol Lavan vetoed and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit disqualified on legal grounds. 

On Monday night, a Likud source said the party was considering retracting four proposals for more stringent restrictions, so that Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan would lend its support to new restrictions, which would include curbing protests.

The government has sought to limit the distance protesters can demonstrate to within one kilometer from their homes, a restriction which the previous version of the law, passed in July, specifically prohibited. Following the failure of the legislation to pass, protests were held Saturday night, as they have been for the past several months.

At noon on Tuesday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved the bill. 

The constitution committee rejected an objection by Yesh Atid lawmaker Yoav Segalovitz, calling to allow protest convoys. Four other objections, submitted by Likud lawmakers, together with Ayelet Shaked from right-wing party Yamina, were also rejected; they all related to giving the government the power to impose restrictions on protest without having to declare a state of emergency. The committee deemed that these objections should be considered together, and be brought to a separate vote, against the opinion of the Knesset's legal adviser.

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