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Report: Violent Police Enforcement and Violation of the Right of Protest in 2020

Full report here

Photo credit: Yossi Zamir, Shatil-Stock

Over the past year, and particularly since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the Israeli public domain has been marked by dynamic and extensive protest activities. A wide range of demonstrations and protests are taking place around the country relating to the Coronavirus crisis, including protests against the restrictions imposed on citizens, against local closures, criticism of the handling of the pandemic, protests at the economic situation, and so forth. In addition, there are the political protests also being held, including demonstrations for or against the government and the prime minister; for or against the law enforcement system and the attorney general; regarding government policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, etc. At these events, the police often uses extreme and brutal methods against the demonstrators.

It is important to emphasize that this is not a new phenomenon. For many years, the police has adopted a hard-line policy toward protestors from minority groups – particularly Arabs, members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, people of Mizrahi appearance, and Haredim – who are automatically regarded by the police as a threat requiring a harsh response and the use of force.

This pattern has been seen, for example, during protests by members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community against police violence, demonstrations by Haredim opposed to military service, and demonstrations by the Arab population. The novel behavior over the past year is the expansion of the use of these tools to include demonstrators from the mainstream and protests in the main cities. As a result, practices that were ignored for many years by the general public have been the subject of extensive debate in public discourse and in the Knesset. In addition, the police has also introduced new methods and tools against demonstrators over the past year.

This document reviews the methods and tools used by the police over recent months to suppress demonstrations and protests, and examines the ways in which these violate freedom of expression and the right of protest. The phenomena that have been witnessed include false arrests, the use of water cannons and horses in a manner contrary to procedures, the use of undercover police agents, the conditioning of release from detention on removal from the centers of protests, the unjustified imposition of fines, and so forth. To these means we must also add refusal by police officers to identify themselves, to document their actions, and to accept responsibility. The net result is an alarming picture of the abuse of the powers given to the police in order to defend citizens and maintain public order used instead for the improper purpose of suppressing legitimate protest.

It must be stressed that the police does not operate in a vacuum. Over recent months, its conduct toward demonstrators has received support in the comments of the prime minister and other elected officials, who have referred to the demonstrators as “anarchists,” lawbreakers, and spreaders of the Coronavirus. This has been accompanied by the exceptional and extreme restriction of the freedom of demonstration through legislation, under the guise of the struggle against the epidemic. For a period of several weeks, for example, it was established in regulations that people could not move more than one kilometer from their home. Attending protests and demonstrations was not excluded from this restriction. As a result, during these weeks activities at the main centers of the protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were severely curtailed (although the protests instead dispersed into hundreds of smaller centers around the country).

Another important point is that the police conduct in demonstrations and protests not only harms the demonstrators and the specific protests in which they are involved, but also has a broader chilling effect on the right of protest. Many citizens who would like to participate in demonstrations refrain from doing so because of the physical and emotional cost of confrontation with the police forces, or due to the fear of fines, arrest, or the besmirching of their name by criminal charges. In addition, the suppression of protests also has an impact on public discourse and on public confidence in the police in particular, and in the official authorities in general.

The state bears an obligation, through the police, to protect citizens who wish to exercise their freedom of expression, and not to use means that will prevent or deter demonstrators from exercising this right. The police is empowered to disperse demonstrations in certain instances, but the use of force against non-violent protestors is unacceptable. Even when demonstrators are blocking the street or holding a protest without a permit (in instances when a permit is required by law), there is no justification for using force, provided that the demonstrations are not endangering other persons or causing damage to person or property, and provided they do not present an extreme threat to public order and routine life.

The enormous number of cases and individual complaints received by human rights organizations, published in the media, or disseminated in social networks combine to form a cohesive indication of a systemic phenomenon. In addition to taking deterrent actions against individual officers, the police must also recognize that this is indeed a systemic problem, and must address it accordingly. Among other actions, this requires guidance, training, and the presentation of a clear message by senior commanders regarding the obligation incumbent on the police to protect the right of protest.

Read the full report here.

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