Mass protests to resume as ban ends tonight

State tells High Court is has no intention to extend restrictions on demonstrations.

Police officers arrest a demonstrator during protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, August 22, 2020 (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
Police officers arrest a demonstrator during protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, August 22, 2020
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
The Knesset law that has banned mass protests for the last two weeks to combat the coronavirus wave will expire Tuesday at midnight, the state told the High Court of Justice on Monday.
The turnaround comes after the same state lawyers fought hard last Wednesday to justify the mass protest ban for a period of weeks during the nationwide lockdown. At that time, a court spokeswoman said the court would hear the case Tuesday, days after Sukkot was over and close to when the ban might be removed anyway.
In parallel to the removal of the protest ban, the government is also expected to remove the one-kilometer travel restriction.
The state’s notification to the High Court came in response to a petition by the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel and other groups to strike down the protest ban as unconstitutional.
According to the state’s lawyers, the 180-degree U-turn in their position was justified because the Health Ministry said the recent travel restrictions had succeeded in stemming the rise of coronavirus infections.
Furthermore, the Health Ministry said limiting the right to protest could only be done when the spread of coronavirus was out of control and at its worst.
On September 30, the High Court indicated it would not rush to help the protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by slow-walking their petition to strike down new coronavirus-era limits on demonstrations.
By dragging out the petition from September 30 until at least October 13, and possibly longer until a decision, the High Court will have put zero pressure on the government during a full two weeks when mass protests were banned.
In late September, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Coronavirus Emergency Powers Law, granting the government the authority to block mass protests for between one to three weeks, with an option to extend the ban for an additional two weeks with additional Knesset approval.
Protests were still allowed for up to 20 people within one kilometer of a person’s residence, but the amendment prevented mass protests near the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street as had occurred every weekend in recent months.
The petitioners had hoped the High Court would have intervened on October 2, saying the key to the protests being effective was their unbroken consistency. They accused Netanyahu of using COVID-19 as an excuse to crack down on dissent.
Despite the court’s delay on the issue, it appears that a combination of changing political calculations plus fear of pressure from the justices put pressure on the government not to extend the initial three-week period to five weeks with Knesset approval.
The Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel’s response to the state seemed to suggest that it will still ask the High Court to strike down the ban as a matter of principle.
In the NGO’s response, it said the government never should have taken on the authority to ban protests and that the court should strike down the law early on Tuesday before it expires to avoid the possibility of reinstating a later ban.
This concern is far from theoretical.
In late spring, the government ended Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens. It reinstated the program a few weeks later.
In that case, the High Court never struck down the state’s authority, declining to rule on a pending petition once the state voluntarily halted the surveillance program. That meant no ruling prevented the state from reinstating the program a few weeks later when virus rates increased again.
In response to the court ruling, the Black Flag protest movement said they would “return to Balfour [the Prime Minister’s Residence] on Saturday night and will continue protests in parallel” at 1,200 other spots throughout the country. They said they would hold protests across the country on Thursday.
The Black Flag movement accused Netanyahu of leading the country into “the destruction of the Third Temple,” a metaphor for national disintegration. They said his mishandling of the pandemic resulted in a second national lockdown and NIS 35 million in economic losses.
They called on the police not to interfere with future protests as occurred in recent weeks.