Social distancing enforcement during protests illegal, High Court rules

Fines given to protesters during the coronavirus pandemic for violating social distancing rules will be nullified.

Israelis protest against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, near the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2021, a few days befire the Israeli general elections.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Israelis protest against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, near the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2021, a few days befire the Israeli general elections.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Social distancing restrictions enforced at protests by the Israel Police during the coronavirus pandemic are illegal, and fines given to protesters in that context are nullified, effective immediately, the High Court of Justice ruled Sunday. 
The verdict follows several appeals made by Israeli civic organizations, including the Movement for Quality Government, the Ein Matzav Movement and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel against the coronavirus emergency bill that allowed restricting protests as part of efforts to limit the spread of the virus.
"The High Court has defended once again the freedom of protest and expression of Israel's citizens, who are the very soul of the Israeli democracy," said director of the Movement for Quality Government attorney Eliad Shraga.
"These rights must be protected, especially during times of crises where democracy is being attacked by entities who are in a conflict of interest," he added.
Last September, the Knesset approved an amendment to the law that allowed the government to impose a one-kilometer distance restriction on citizens looking to go to protests, practically limiting the ability of citizens to organize and attend them.
The following month the High Court asked the state to justify the amendment.
The limitation was approved while protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were at their peak, leading some, including jurist Menachem Mazuz, to wonder whether the prime minister was not involved in a conflict of interest in imposing limitations on protests carried out against him.  
"We've noticed that limitations on protests are imposed whenever a very specific protest is directed against the prime minister, and declaring a state of emergency has a direct impact on the protests against him," Mazuz said at the time.
Meretz Party leader Tamar Zandberg addressed the High Court's decision later on Sunday, calling it a "great victory for the freedom of expression and protest."
"No democracy can use the law in order to silence the voice of its people," she said. "When a prime minister is busy worrying day and night about oppressing the protests against him, during such a harsh crisis, that's not showing concern for the public's health, but silencing its voice."
Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel also congratulated the decision, noting its importance to all parts of Israeli society and raising concerns over the gradual erosion of the state legislator.
"We are deeply concerned that such a law could have been approved in the first place. We are also concerns over the wrong and undemocratic norms that it instills, especially regarding the limitation of the legislator's authority. A system that allows the Knesset to approve or disqualify decisions made by the government only in retrospect ... endangers the very fundamentals of the rule of law," a joint statement by the Adalah center and the Association for Civil Rights read.