Israel among strictest democracies to limit freedom of protest - report

Where are we on the spectrum?

Carmi Gillon, former head of the Shin Bet, arrested during Balfour protests, August 20, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Carmi Gillon, former head of the Shin Bet, arrested during Balfour protests, August 20, 2020.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel is among the strictest consolidated democracies in limiting the freedom to protest during the coronavirus era, though its policies have many parallels elsewhere, according to a new report.
The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) report surveyed 13 countries.
“Many countries have responded to the coronavirus pandemic by enacting emergency regulations and statutes banning public assemblies,” the report said. However, the restrictions in many countries have been less than in Israel or were rolled back, it added.
For example, France and Germany limited protests and all other interactive activity to combat the coronavirus. But eventually the courts intervened to defend the right to protest as a fundamental constitutional principle.
In some countries, including Sweden and Australia, demonstrations were included in a sweeping ban regarding human interactions and movement, but the rules did not prohibit small groups from gathering to demonstrate anywhere they wish.
In contrast, the Israeli regulations passed into law two weeks ago allow one to demonstrate only within a kilometer of one’s home, the report noted.
Italy, Spain and Portugal banned all protests at the peak of the pandemic, the IDI report said.
Israel’s current September-October limit on protests could be viewed in some ways as more extreme than Italy’s ban on protests in March, the report said. This is because Italy was one of the earliest countries hit hard, and in March, “data on the process of contagion and the relatively minor risk of infection in open spaces were not yet available.”
Regarding Spain and Portugal, the report said Israel could be viewed as stricter because the Spanish authorities have looked the other way when large protests have taken place and not used the police to enforce the rules as in Israel.
Belgium did not legislate any exemption for protesters from coronavirus-related movement restrictions, but it allowed a 100,000-person protest in support of Black Lives Matter, the report said.
While the Israel Police has enforced the rules in many cases, including with some controversial instances of physically beating protesters, the report did not mention that there have been many documented cases in which police have not enforced the rules.
In addition, the IDI said: “Countries that are already deep into the process of de-liberalization and which impose serious restrictions on civil liberties, such as Poland and Hungary, took advantage of the crisis to curtail the freedom of protest as well.”
However, as implied by the IDI’s characterization of those countries, Israel aspires to be a more consolidated or Western-style democracy than Poland and Hungary in a range of areas, with protests being just another example.
Some countries, including Great Britain, the Czech Republic and Denmark, have explicitly permitted political protests as an exception to any lockdown rules they have imposed at any given time.
But some of the implied criticism in the report could swing both ways.
For example, when it says France and Germany are less strict than Israel because the courts intervened, it does not note that Israel has allowed protests from March to September, that protests have only been restricted for two weeks and that the High Court of Justice is due to weigh in on the issue as early as next week.
Israel’s current ban limits protests to 20 persons per protest area, whereas France’s law, which was struck down as illegal in June, had limited protests to 10 persons per area.
The report also took Israel to task for banning its citizens from flying out of the country during the current lockdown.
At this stage of the coronavirus pandemic, most restrictions in democracies about flying are not as broad, it said.
One key issue the report did not analyze was to what extent Israel’s and other countries’ restrictions during different periods related to the volume of infections at the moment of restrictions.
For example, though Israel is currently in a second national lockdown far stricter than what other countries have experienced, Jerusalem also opened up the country during the summer months much faster than most European countries.
This could be an important part of understanding the significance of certain issues, such as Israel’s current rule limiting citizens’ movements to one kilometer from their residence.