Israel Protesters Stumble Across Police Bureaucracy

ACRI asks that police end constant infringements of right to demonstrate and that police be refreshed on the legal aspects of breaking up demonstrations.

Caesarea resident Orna Ashkenazi, 55, knows the Hadera police station very well. Twice last year the police picked her up for questioning on Friday evening. Her picture was taken and she was fingerprinted. The reason? Ashkenazi was one of the organizers of a vigil for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, which every Friday afternoon stood near the commercial center in Caesarea.

The organizers of the vigil hoped that when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came home to Caesarea for the weekend, he would see the 20 to 30 protesters holding their signs and flags with Shalit's picture, determined to bring Shalit home. Sometimes Asheknazi stood there by herself.

Every Sunday, Ashkenazi sent a request for a protest permit to the Hadera police station, even though she later found out that she did not require a permit to stand on the side of the road leading to Netanyahu's house and hold a flag.

In one case Ashkenazi was picked up by a patrol car because another protester approached the road as Netanyahu's motorcade passed, going beyond barriers that had been set up.

"They picked me up only because I'm the one who signed the request for a permit. The encounter at the police station was very unpleasant. All we had wanted to do was protest and they treated us like major criminals," Ashkenazi said.

The Hadera police chief, Chief Superintendent Benny Harnes, responding to a query from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that because the numbers of protesters and the activities changed every week, "there was a clear need for an organizer who submits a request." He said that because Ashkenazi's name was on the form, she bore responsibility for any deviations.

Last week ACRI attorney Mira Shalev wrote to the police legal adviser, Chief Superintendent Shaul Gordon, asking that he end what she called constant infringements of the right to demonstrate and that police be refreshed on the legal aspects of breaking up demonstrations.

Shalev said the police were ignorant of the law, demanding permits for demonstrations where none was legally required, and breaking up demonstrations unjustifiably. Shalev said such actions "not only harmed the individuals involved, but silenced legitimate protest" and public discourse.

According to the law, the police can break up any gathering of more than three people when they suspect there is a danger the group will disturb the peace.

But internal police instructions state that two types of demonstrations require permits: marches with more than 50 participants or and open-air meetings with more than 50 participants where political speeches are given.

In several incidents over the past year the police have placed various obstacles before protesters.

In one case, a social-justice protest activist who spread the word last month about a demonstration received a phone call from a man who identified himself only as "Yoni from the Jerusalem police." The woman said he told her that she would have to obtain a permit for the next day's protest, "according to the law."

Alon Gur, a student at Sde Boker College in the Negev wanted to stand at the entrance to the tomb of David Ben-Gurion, on the day of the state memorial service, which Netanyahu attended. Gur held a sign reading "Netanyahu is destroying the country; Ben-Gurion is turning over in his grave." Gur said he wanted to stand near the guard booth at the entrance to the site so that everyone arriving could see it, including Netanyahu.

"At first the police tried to tell me this was unsuitable at a state event. I told them legally there was no problem and I didn't intend to give in. They asked me to move across the road and threatened that if I didn't they would file a complaint, and I would have a police record," Gur said.

ACRI's legal adviser Dan Yakir said: "Legislation protects freedom of expression and demonstration, as do many court rulings. But while the function of the police is to protect the right to demonstrate. This is happening all along the way, from the setting of illegal and unreasonable conditions, to the need to request a permit, to illegal action during the protest, dispersing it without a legal reason, arresting protesters who had not broken the law and even issuing indictments."

A statement issued by the police spokesman's office said that the limited number of cases in which the court ruled that the police had dispersed demonstrations illegally, are not typical. "Most of the criticism seems to have been about the conditions the police present involving public safety...we act in a way that leads the people in charge to take responsibility for this issue according to the law and will continue to do so. It is regrettable that these proper considerations are perceived as improper and intended wholely to make it unnecessarily difficult for the public to protest."

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