The behavior of the police doesn’t leave room for doubt; the force has been enlisted to suppress the protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a clear exhibition of contempt for the right to demonstrate. In an effort to choke off this freedom – a fundamental right in any democratic state – the police are expected to charge a number of protest leaders shortly. The police are targeting attorney Gonen Ben Itzhak, a leader of the Black Flags and the Crime Minister protest organizations who was questioned on suspicion that he lay down under a police water cannon, Yishai Hadas from the Crime Minister movement and other activists.
The police are not focusing only on individuals they have identified as leaders of the protest; over the past few months they have recommended the prosecution of dozens of protesters, mainly in connection to incidents that occurred months ago. The police are pressuring the prosecution to approve the indictments and have accused it of being uncooperative. “It’s illogical that after months of demonstrations and dozens of investigations not a single indictment has been filed,” a senior Jerusalem Police official said recently (Josh Breiner, Haaretz, Sunday).
The police are pushing to criminalize the protest, trampling on fundamental democratic rights in the process. This is a dereliction of their duty, an abuse of power and a betrayal of public trust. The police are acting as if the duty to maintain order prevails over the right to demonstrate against the government in any circumstance. The dismal result is that the police themselves, with their distorted attitude, are infringing on public safety.
- Police expected to indict some anti-Netanyahu protest leaders
- Four months in, dozens of attacks on Israeli protesters but only one indictment
- Israel Police organized crime unit is targeting anti-Netanyahu protest leaders
No one is denying that the right to demonstrate is not absolute and that there are instances of violence and risk to public order that justify its restriction. But those must be extreme cases. The courts have ruled that there must be a balance between the interest of maintaining public order and that of protecting the freedom to demonstrate, and that great weight must be accorded to the right to demonstrate. Only violence or serious harm to public order justifies undermining this freedom. Cursing and the use of profanity by demonstrators, even if they are unpleasant to hear, or violations of conditions that have been set for the protest, cannot be allowed to turn demonstrators into criminals or to justify their arrest, physical restraint, demand to bar them from the city or prosecution. These do not preserve order; rather, they suppress dissent.
Now the threat of criminal charges is being added to the many resources the police have invested in their effort to stop the protests. Instead of protecting freedom of expression and the demonstrators themselves, the police are doing all they can to scuttle the protests. If not for the prosecution, which is chilling the ambitions of the police, dozens of people would have already been charged. The prosecution must not surrender to the police.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.