In a blow to civil and social rights activists on Wednesday, the Tel Aviv
District Court rejected a petition demanding rights to pitch a new protest tent
city on Rothschild Boulevard.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel
(ACRI) and five social justice activists filed the petition three weeks ago,
asking the court to force the Tel Aviv Municipality to change its policies
regarding tent protests.
ACRI attorney Sharona Eliahu- Chai slammed the
court’s rejection of the petition, saying it “legitimized draconian municipal
policies that suppress the freedom to protest.”
Wednesday’s court ruling
is the latest stage in what has turned into a protracted legal struggle between
social protesters, local residents and municipal authorities over Tel Aviv’s
The seemingly innocuous grassy verges of the tree-lined
central Tel Aviv thoroughfare have become the symbolic frontline in an
ideological war over who has the greatest right to access the city’s squares and
boulevards – the social justice protesters, local residents or city
Under municipal rules, activists who want to erect protest tents
must first apply for and obtain a permit from city hall, a policy the
petitioners say constitutes harassment and violates their civil
One petitioner, Tamir Hajaj, said that when municipal inspectors
removed the protest tent he erected in Rabin Square, he applied to city hall for
a permit – but was asked to file separate applications for a business license, a
fire department permit and a police permit. To obtain the latter, Hajaj says he
was told to present official approvals from a safety engineer, an electrician
and Magen David Adom in addition to providing a security guard for the
ACRI said all the bureaucracy is a deliberate ploy to keep the
activists off Rothschild Boulevard’s grass.
“The bureaucratic harassment
of protesters – which also involves considerable expense – is a means to
suppress protests, specifically the protests of those who have no other means to
make their voices heard in public,” Eliahu-Chai said.
She added: “Because
of weak concerns about ‘anarchy’ in the city streets, the court approved a
violation of freedom of expression that is ongoing, harsh and in no small
Tel Aviv City Hall, however, says it supports the
social justice protests. As proof, it points to the fact that it has provided
the protesters with an alternative site – replete with chemical toilets and
cleaning services – on which to set up camp.
City hall said public
welfare concerns drove the decision to ban tents on Rothschild, after the summer
2011 camp attracted considerable criticism from local residents.
of 48 people who live and work on Rothschild Boulevard joined in the legal
action against the encampment, arguing it infringed on their rights and posed a
serious health hazard as protesters moved out and homeless drug addicts moved
Meanwhile, though some protesters have pitched their tents at the
approved campsite at the Weslowsky Garden, a known gay cruising spot near the
central train station, others say that city hall is trampling their rights by
refusing to allow them to pitch tents on Rothschild Boulevard.
the petitioners argued that public demonstrations are a fundamental
constitutional right, and that the authorities must allow them to mount protests
in major public spaces including Rothschild Boulevard, Rabin Square and Nordau
The municipality, however, contended that the petition was not
focused on a single, specific decision but rather on city hall’s general
policies regarding protest camps, according to which erecting a tent or tent
city within the city requires a permit.
“The municipality is authorized
to prevent and remove any obstruction and trespassing on its streets,” city
hall’s lawyers told the court.
The court ruled that the city has the
right to balance the freedom of expression with other rights and
“There is no dispute over the importance of the constitutional
status of freedom of expression and the right to protest,” said Judge Zila Zfat.
“But as with any other basic right, so too is this right relatively limited and
dependent on other basic rights and interests.”
Zfat said the
municipality’s right to limit and set conditions for tent protests “preserved
the basic rights of others” – meaning locals and other residents who wish to
enjoy the city’s public spaces.
“The wave of social protests that
occurred last year shows that the authorities’ tolerance for erecting tents in
public spaces led to an extreme nuisance, with constant noise day and night, bad
sanitation – made even more difficult and dangerous during the hot summer months
– as well as traffic problems, violence, disorderly conduct and so forth,” Zfat
The court concluded that the municipality’s requirements regarding
protest tents was acceptable.
“This policy does not exclude freedom of
expression and the right to protest but... allows freedom of expression while
ensuring that others’ rights and interests are not unreasonably harmed,” Zfat
Despite losing the latest court battle, petitioners say they plan
to continue the war, vowing to appeal the decision in the Supreme
There, justices will assess whether the Tel Aviv District Court
was right to rule that city hall’s protest tent policies do not violate
protesters’ rights under the Basic Laws of freedom of expression.