A victory for democracy

The right to peaceful assembly must be protected, not just for left-wing activists but for all who choose to exercise this right.

sheikh jarrah protest 58 (photo credit: Adi Inbar)
sheikh jarrah protest 58
(photo credit: Adi Inbar)
A major victory for the democratic freedom of peaceful assembly was achieved this week. For months, the Jerusalem Police has been using arrests to break up weekly Friday demonstrations organized by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement in protest against the eviction of Arab residents from homes in east Jerusalem.
On numerous occasions the courts have refused to grant the police their request for an arrest. According to sources sympathetic to the demonstrators, the courts have consistently argued that the activists have a right to demonstrate. In more than one case, judges have gone out of their way to severely censure the police for denying demonstrators their basic right to assembly.
Until Sunday, however, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court has not issued a definitive ruling that protected the demonstrators from the police. But now the court has come to the defense of the left-wing activists.
In February, during a demonstration of about 30 left-wing activists in front of Jerusalem City Hall protesting the municipality’s approval of building plans for Jewish housing in the heart of Sheikh Jarrah, once an almost exclusively Arab neighborhood, police arrested four protesters. One of them was Sara Benninga, a Sheikh Jarrah regular who was recently honored by J Street during its annual conference in Washington DC for her political activism.
A police request to make the four activists’ release conditional upon their being banned from future demonstrations for the next six months was rejected by the court and the four were released.
Claiming the demonstrators lacked a permit and that the demonstration was a threat to public security, police appealed the judge’s decision. The appeals court rejected the police appeal based on a video that showed the demonstration had been peaceful and that there had been no reason to arrest the four in the first place.
The court also acquiesced to defense attorney Leah Tzemel’s request for monetary compensation for damages and expenses sustained by the activists as a result of the arrests. Each of the four was awarded NIS 6,250.
“The right to demonstrate or express an opinion is deeply rooted in the foundations of a democracy,” Judge Chaim Li- Ran wrote in his decision. “It is the very air we breath. Many thousands have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, their lives to ensure that others enjoy this basic right."
“Therefore, a society which strives to exist as a democracy must be vigilant in monitoring the branches of government responsible for the protection of human rights. Such a society must not allow its representatives to infringe rights, except under special circumstances and with utmost care, as though one were walking on eggs. Despite all the court’s warnings, it seems that there is concern the police are too quick to arrest activists, especially those that belong to certain segments of society.”
What makes the decision all the more extraordinary is the fact that the same court system which is now protecting the right of left-wing activists to demonstrate against the evacuation of Arab families from houses also facilitated this same evacuation by upholding the property rights of a group of right-wing “settlers” who took possession of the houses. Both the Supreme Court and a lower court upheld the right of Jews to take control of the houses.
Thus the court was basically saying that it was perfectly lawful, and a basic democratic right, to demonstrate peacefully against its own decisions.
WHILE WE do not identify with the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement’s aim of undermining Jews’ rights to regain control of property in east Jerusalem forcibly confiscated by Jordan after the establishment of the State of Israel, we do believe the right to peaceful assembly must be protected, not just for left-wing activists but for all who choose to exercise this right.
Arbitrary arrests are wrong, whether those arrested are residents of the Gilad Farm in Samaria, members of Kahane-linked groups who choose to march through Jaffa, Arab Israelis protesting the forced evacuation of homes in Lod, Ramle and the Negev, or even Palestinians who demonstrate peaceably against the security barrier in Bil’in or elsewhere.
The challenge of maintaining a vibrant democracy is all the more difficult, given Israel’s unique security situation: A lone Jewish state with a significant Arab minority surrounded by numerous belligerent Arab neighbors and pitted against an often lethally violent Palestinian national movement that lays claim to significant parts of territory under Israeli control.
Nevertheless, the Jewish state’s commitment to democracy must remain unshaken, not only for the sake of its minorities, but also for the sake of higher Jewish morality.
By ruling in favor of the four activists from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Li-Ran took an important step in strengthening Israel’s democratic values.