Opinion |

The Right to Protest and the Arrogance of the Israel Police

Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard
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Protesters hold Israeli and Palestinian flags at an anti-annexation rally, Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020
Protesters hold Israeli and Palestinian flags at an anti-annexation rally, Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Michael Sfard
Michael Sfard

The police tried to thwart Saturday’s left-wing demonstration against annexation. The arm-wrestling between police and the organizers ended this time with a victory for the organizers, and the rally took place at Rabin Square as planned. But the organizers had to expend a lot of energy coping with the resistance from police, who see foiling demonstrations as legitimate – something that is worrisome, outrageous and above all dangerous.

First there was a ban on marching; after that a limit was placed on the number of participants, and the police adamantly refused to close the streets surrounding the square, which would have allowed for more demonstrators. All because of the coronavirus, of course.

LISTEN: High priests, holy smoke and cannabis in the TempleCredit: Haaretz

The situation turned farcical when they told the organizers to moderate their publicity about the demonstration on social media, because too many people might show up, heaven forbid. The peak came when police announced they were withdrawing their permit for the rally because it was attracting too much attention online. There was also a point at which police tried to move the demonstration to another site – perhaps Yarkon Park, perhaps Charles Clore Park – a demand the organizers flatly rejected.

A police force that conducts itself this way toward demonstrators from a political minority is a police force that doesn’t know its role or its place. There’s no question that the coronavirus is still spreading and that this requires taking precautions like social distancing and wearing masks. But it is precisely because a pandemic is raging at a time when the government is planning to make its most significant diplomatic move since 1967, the police should have understood that their job was to help the organizers hold the protest, as large as it had to be, while making sure they met the Health Ministry’s guidelines. One of the police’s important roles is to permit and make it possible for political protest to take place and protect it. This mission is even more critical when a pandemic is threatening to silence public debate on an issue of utmost importance.

Therefore, one cannot avoid the impression that this arrogant behavior is connected to the political identity of the protesters and the fact that they were demonstrating against government policy. This was a demonstration by a minority, many of whom are Arabs. Can anyone imagine the police harassing supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and threatening their rally in this fashion? No way.

This is not a conspiracy theory, and I don’t think the police brass sought to undermine the demonstration for direct political-ideological reasons. But in these times, when Netanyahu is prime minister and Amir Ohana is public security minister, it’s very easy for police commanders to undermine left-wing demonstrators. Not only will this not do them any damage, but on the contrary, such behavior might even help them advance, and they know this. The spirit of the times has led to the unbelievable situation of police cancelling a demonstration permit because the demonstration was widely advertised. Next time they will insist that all the ads include the words, “But don’t come en masse.”

The police must understand that a demonstration is a political event. It is not for them to decide where it will be held, and they cannot interfere in the way organizers choose to call on the public to attend. And if the police think that more people will come than the square can hold, then they should close the roads surrounding the square. That’s how it’s done in an open society, in which Saturday night is the time for rallies and Rabin Square is the country’s most important rallying site. Israel’s senior police commanders must urgently attend a basic workshop on the freedom to demonstrate.

Michael Sfard is a human rights lawyer who spoke at the protest.

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