The state told the High Court of Justice late Wednesday night that the Knesset law banning mass protests for a period of weeks during the current novel coronavirus national lockdown is justified.Gil Hoffman and Tobias Siegal contributed to this story.
The Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel – one of the petitioners hoping to convince the High Court to end the mass protest ban – rejected the state’s position when it responded in the middle of the night between Wednesday and Thursday.
On Thursday, a court spokeswoman stated that the court would hear the case on Tuesday. The hearing would be days after Sukkot and close to when the ban may be removed, perhaps rendering the petition of little use.
By slow-walking their petition to strike down new coronavirus limits on demonstrations, the High Court had made it clear that it would not rush in to help the protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already on September 30.
Effectively, the High Court will have put zero pressure on the government during a full two weeks when mass protests were banned, by dragging out the petition from September 30 until at least October 13 and possibly longer until a decision is made.
Economy Minister Amir Peretz said he believes the restrictions on protests will be lifted next week.
“We will cancel the restrictions on holding protests very soon,” Peretz told Army Radio on Thursday. “I believe that starting next Tuesday or Wednesday, all protest restrictions will be lifted and the economy will start reopening. There shouldn’t be a connection between opening up the economy and protests restrictions, but a connection has already been made.”
The background for the court petitions to the High Court stems from the authority to block mass protests for between one to three weeks that was granted to the government in late September by the Knesset when an amendment to the coronavirus emergency powers law was passed. It also includes an option to extend the ban for an additional two weeks with another Knesset approval to extend it.
Mass protests near the Prime Minister’s Residence – as had occurred every weekend in recent months – were prevented by the amendment. Protests are still allowed for up to 20 people within 1 km. of a person’s residence.
The key to the protests being effective was their unbroken consistency according to the petitioners. They had hoped the High Court would intervene already on October 2, and accused Netanyahu of using the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to crack down on dissent.
Despite the court’s delay on the issue, it is possible the justices may put pressure on the government if it tries to extend the initial three week period to five weeks with an additional Knesset approval.
Regarding the state’s arguments for the ban being justified, the attorney-general’s office said the government had tried other measures that would have imposed less of a burden on freedom of movement than the lockdown.
The state said that once those measures failed and the entire country became systematically overwhelmed by the coronavirus wave, there was no other recourse but temporary draconian movement restrictions.
No statistics on protests spreading the coronavirus were presented, but the state said that this was meaningless because epidemiological studies are unable to trace infections stemming from protests. The state further argued that people tend not to know each other at protests nor by whom they stood near at all times and cannot discern if they were infected at a protest.
The state said that since all areas of life are severely limited during the current lockdown, the protesters are being treated worse than anyone else.
In addition, the state said the Knesset passed this special legislation and that gave it greater legitimacy and consensus than if the protest ban was made at the level of a cabinet decision.
The petitioners said that lacking statistical proof, the state had failed to comply with its own Knesset law requiring that such severe movement restrictions be based on an official legal opinion based on concrete statistics. The NGO responded that the state had admitted that it has no statistics to prove the idea that coronavirus can be spread during outdoor protests. Moreover, the movement said the state has a burden to actually prove its case in this kind of an administrative proceeding that curtails core freedoms.
Peretz said in response: “I don’t think the restrictions limiting protests can continue much longer. It’s unnecessary, it has no place. I hope to start giving Israel’s citizens some hope.”
Peretz’s comments come two days after the government voted in favor of extending the controversial limitations on political demonstrations.
A cabinet vote is required to renew the limitations every week. A source in Blue and White said that if the coronavirus numbers go down in the upcoming week, the party’s ministers may oppose renewing the limitations next week.