Police Arrest Protesters Against 'Assault on Democracy' at Knesset

Hundreds of cars raising black flags head to Jerusalem to protest Israel’s anti-democratic measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak, including restriction of movement and authorizing cyber tracking of civilians

Police arrest a protester near the Knesset, March 19 2020.
אוהד צויגנברג

Israel Police arrested four protesters Thursday near the Knesset, after it attempted to stop a motorcade headed toward Jerusalem in a protest against the 'assault on democracy' in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

Police officers stopped the caravan on a main highway outside Jerusalem, and fined some drivers for what they said was an illegal protest. The police later allowed some of the protesters to continue onwards toward the city.

“There are orders from the Jerusalem district commander that you cannot enter the city,” one of the officers blocking the road said.

Asked why the protest was illegal the officer replied “because it is.”

The organizers of the protest responded saying "public health is important to us. There are thousands of protesters and civilians and protesting with all their hearts. It's important to note that there is no violation of the Health Ministry's instructions when people are sitting in their vehicles. Sponsored by the coronavirus crisis, we see how bright the black flag is."

Protesters said they were angry at anti-democratic measures being taken to fight the coronavirus outbreak, such as this week’s decision to use cyber measures to track the location of people diagnosed with the virus as well as suspected coronavirus patients, in addition to strict restrictions to achieve social distancing, such as barring thousands of people from leaving their homes.

A car with a sign saying "Netanyahu, release already" as part of the protest caravan, March 19, 2020.
Haim Shadmi

The Israel Police said in a statement that it “Rejects baseless attempts to drag the police into political discourse or to assign political motives to law enforcement system.

“We expect the public to abide by the law, to behave in a responsible manner and follow the directives issued by the Health Ministry directives. In a time of national emergency the police are at the forefront of carrying out operational activity, while risking our officers on the ground in order to enforce quarantine orders and restrictions on public gatherings," the statement read.

On Wednesday, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein dispersed parliament, deepening the paralyzation of Israel's legislative body, which critics have seen as an attack on the checks and balances within Israel's democratic institutions.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz said on Twitter that "Many citizens understand they cannot sit quietly and watch [Prime Minister] Netanyahu and [Knesset Speaker] Edelstein advancing steps to crush democracy and harm Israel's citizens. First and foremost I call on all of you to abide by the Health Ministry orders. It's better to protest through digital means avoid gatherings."

Gantz, however added that "Detaining protesters on their way to Jerusalem is unacceptable in democratic regime. Kahol Lavan has filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against Edelstein's disgraceful behavior, preventing the Knesset from convening to appoint a Knesset Speaker. We will not stay silent, while others are threatening democracy and will continue supporting every proper action to fight the coronavirus." 

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz tweeted in response saying: "Stopping a protest motorcade is an indecent act of democracy … through cynically exploiting the fear of the spread of the virus; things are being done that we must not accept. On Sunday, it was [closing] the courts, yesterday the Knesset, and today the violation of the right to protest."

The protest caravan on its way to the Knesset, March 19, 2020.

Organizers said in a statement that they "launched this demonstration and intend to continue it in the coming weeks with the aim of putting Israeli democracy back on track. Shutting courts, the Knesset speaker barricading himself in his job, the paralysis of Knesset committees and the measures of espionage against civilians without any oversight are red flags... The attempts to ruin Israeli democracy will not succeed, the state of Israel belongs to its citizens and not to a dictator in the making.”

The Movement for Quality Government petitioned the High Court on Thursday challenging Edelstein’s “deep blow to the principle of separation of authorities at the very heart of Israeli democracy. His actions have dealt a mortal blow to the fabric of parliamentary life and the constitutional foundations of government, and permitting extraneous political considerations into an arena where they don’t belong.”

The petition says that “in a strange and illogical fashion, Edelstein’s narrow political interests have outweighed the need for ensuring close parliamentary oversight over the executive levels, and has led to a total erasure of any sort of monitoring. These issues are all the more serious particularly as we face an unprecedented medical crisis and at a time when we are dealing with the acute and sensitive realms of public safety, civil rights and Israeli public health.”

Eliad Shraga, the movement’s chairman, said that “Edelstein is violating the Knesset, holding on to power and refusing to yield his position. We are witnessing one of Israeli democracy’s darkest times, a day where symptoms of dictatorship have developed into a mortal illness in need of intensive care.”

Gilad Grossman, head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said in a statement that the organization demands the protest be allowed to continue and all fines be nullified. "Our democratic rights are still relevant especially now."

One of the protesters said she's demonstrating "because I think it is time for us to save democracy and to stop letting Bibi Netanyahu do what he wants us to do. We are neither his prisoners nor his slaves and it is time for him to clear his place and give the State of Israel peace and quiet."

In the guise of confronting the spread of coronavirus, Netanyahu and Edelstein have paralyzed the Knesset and thwarted public oversight of how the crisis is being handled.

Netanyahu, whose government has not had a majority of Knesset support since December 2018, has in recent days thwarted the possibility of monitoring a list of extreme decisions he has taken, including the option of gathering location data on people diagnosed with corona and those with whom they were in contact, which is a serious infringement on privacy. He has also, without any oversight by the Knesset Finance Committee, ordered a reduction of business activity which could severely hurt the economy.