Israeli police watch protestors in Petah Tikva, August 19, 2017..
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
It is not at all clear that freedom of speech and assembly extends to the right to demonstrate or hold vigils of varying decibel levels outside the private residences of public officials or politicians.
At the same time, it appears that the police went too far this weekend when they arrested two activists for posting on Facebook a call to attend a weekly demonstration outside the home of Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit. Arresting a person for a Facebook post is normally reserved for Islamists, white supremacists or other loose cannons who declare their readiness to carry out a murderous attack against innocent civilians.
In this case, arrest comes across as a heavy-handed attempt to shut down legitimate protest when used against two political activists whose only crime is a call to demonstrate in a place where permission for public assembly has been rescinded.
What were the police thinking when they took into custody Meni Naftali, the former superintendent of the prime minister’s official residence who has become Netanyahu family’s nemesis, and Eldad Yaniv, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, whose campaign to enter the Knesset on the Labor list failed? Perhaps they wanted to give the two additional media exposure. They did succeed in shifting attention away from the legitimacy of demonstrating in front of the private residences of public figures to the issue of police aggression against political activists.
We agree with the police that the demonstrations outside Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva have grown to an unmanageable size for their current venue over the past 40 weeks since they were first launched.
We also think the rationale behind the demonstrations has been problematic from the outset. They seem to be driven by purely political or, in Naftali’s case, personal motives. Protesters seem to have decided that the allegations of corruption against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are true, though they have no clear basis for making such a determination. Now they are trying to bully Mandelblit into pressing charges by harassing him, his family and his neighbors.
Protesting next to the private residence of a public servant, particularly when an effective alternative exists – such as demonstrating at the public servant’s place of work – raises suspicion that the motivation is not freedom of expression and assembly, but harassment and intimidation.
This was the conclusion of the High Court of Justice in April.
As noted by Jerusalem Post legal analyst Yonah Jeremy Bob, in US jurisprudence, these demonstrations are discouraged on the basis of the “captive audience” principle, which states that it is unfair to make people captives in their own homes to messages that disturb their privacy and from which they cannot escape.
Mandelblit hardly appears to be taking the investigations against Netanyahu lightly. Investigators have reached agreements with two state’s witnesses – Miki Ganor and Ari Harow – reflecting the aggressive pursuit of justice against the prime minister.
As the amount of demonstrators has grown from a few dozen to around 3,000 in recent weeks, and as counter-protests organized by Likud MK David Bitan have been held, it was eminently reasonable for Police legal adviser Ayelet Elissar to ban the picketing in its present location. But police resort to the most aggressive tactics under the pretext of maintaining law and order – they said Yaniv and Naftali were endangering public security – with worrying ease. It happens that those arrests received extensive media coverage.
However, less well known are police arrests against rightwing demonstrators protesting the use by the IDF of administrative detention against so-called hilltop youths. Vigils and small demonstrations have been held in front of the homes of Gadi Shamni and Roni Numa, the former and present heads, respectively, of the IDF Central Command.
In 2005, police arrested right-wing demonstrators who picketed the homes of IDF officers and IDF chief rabbi Israel Weiss in protest against the uprooting of Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip. Police have also used excessive force and arbitrary arrests against haredim protesting against military conscription in front of the homes of IDF officers.
Demonstrating outside the homes of public officials and politicians is not a natural extension of freedom of expression and assembly. But the answer is not extreme police behavior.
Instead of infringing on the rights of Israeli citizens, police should facilitate political expression by providing alternative venues for demonstrators.
The privacy and quiet of residential neighborhoods should be maintained while at the same time upholding basic freedoms that are the foundation of every healthy democracy.