No tent city on Rothschild Boulevard, court rules

Court rejects petition to pitch new encampment, giving city hall latest victory in struggle with social justice protesters.

Tent City 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Tent City 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
In a blow to civil and social rights activists on Wednesday, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a petition demanding rights to pitch a new protest tent city on Rothschild Boulevard.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and five social justice activists filed the petition three weeks ago, asking the court to force the Tel Aviv Municipality to change its policies regarding tent protests.
ACRI attorney Sharona Eliahu- Chai slammed the court’s rejection of the petition, saying it “legitimized draconian municipal policies that suppress the freedom to protest.”
Wednesday’s court ruling is the latest stage in what has turned into a protracted legal struggle between social protesters, local residents and municipal authorities over Tel Aviv’s public space.
The seemingly innocuous grassy verges of the tree-lined central Tel Aviv thoroughfare have become the symbolic frontline in an ideological war over who has the greatest right to access the city’s squares and boulevards – the social justice protesters, local residents or city hall.
Under municipal rules, activists who want to erect protest tents must first apply for and obtain a permit from city hall, a policy the petitioners say constitutes harassment and violates their civil rights.
One petitioner, Tamir Hajaj, said that when municipal inspectors removed the protest tent he erected in Rabin Square, he applied to city hall for a permit – but was asked to file separate applications for a business license, a fire department permit and a police permit. To obtain the latter, Hajaj says he was told to present official approvals from a safety engineer, an electrician and Magen David Adom in addition to providing a security guard for the tent.
ACRI said all the bureaucracy is a deliberate ploy to keep the activists off Rothschild Boulevard’s grass.
“The bureaucratic harassment of protesters – which also involves considerable expense – is a means to suppress protests, specifically the protests of those who have no other means to make their voices heard in public,” Eliahu-Chai said.
She added: “Because of weak concerns about ‘anarchy’ in the city streets, the court approved a violation of freedom of expression that is ongoing, harsh and in no small measure dangerous.”
Tel Aviv City Hall, however, says it supports the social justice protests. As proof, it points to the fact that it has provided the protesters with an alternative site – replete with chemical toilets and cleaning services – on which to set up camp.
City hall said public welfare concerns drove the decision to ban tents on Rothschild, after the summer 2011 camp attracted considerable criticism from local residents.
A group of 48 people who live and work on Rothschild Boulevard joined in the legal action against the encampment, arguing it infringed on their rights and posed a serious health hazard as protesters moved out and homeless drug addicts moved in.
Meanwhile, though some protesters have pitched their tents at the approved campsite at the Weslowsky Garden, a known gay cruising spot near the central train station, others say that city hall is trampling their rights by refusing to allow them to pitch tents on Rothschild Boulevard.
In court, the petitioners argued that public demonstrations are a fundamental constitutional right, and that the authorities must allow them to mount protests in major public spaces including Rothschild Boulevard, Rabin Square and Nordau Boulevard.
The municipality, however, contended that the petition was not focused on a single, specific decision but rather on city hall’s general policies regarding protest camps, according to which erecting a tent or tent city within the city requires a permit.
“The municipality is authorized to prevent and remove any obstruction and trespassing on its streets,” city hall’s lawyers told the court.
The court ruled that the city has the right to balance the freedom of expression with other rights and needs.
“There is no dispute over the importance of the constitutional status of freedom of expression and the right to protest,” said Judge Zila Zfat. “But as with any other basic right, so too is this right relatively limited and dependent on other basic rights and interests.”
Zfat said the municipality’s right to limit and set conditions for tent protests “preserved the basic rights of others” – meaning locals and other residents who wish to enjoy the city’s public spaces.
“The wave of social protests that occurred last year shows that the authorities’ tolerance for erecting tents in public spaces led to an extreme nuisance, with constant noise day and night, bad sanitation – made even more difficult and dangerous during the hot summer months – as well as traffic problems, violence, disorderly conduct and so forth,” Zfat added.
The court concluded that the municipality’s requirements regarding protest tents was acceptable.
“This policy does not exclude freedom of expression and the right to protest but... allows freedom of expression while ensuring that others’ rights and interests are not unreasonably harmed,” Zfat said.
Despite losing the latest court battle, petitioners say they plan to continue the war, vowing to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.
There, justices will assess whether the Tel Aviv District Court was right to rule that city hall’s protest tent policies do not violate protesters’ rights under the Basic Laws of freedom of expression.