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Activists turn to High Court after Knesset restricts protests during lockdown

New law that drastically limits demonstrations against Netanyahu faces withering criticism, legal action; prominent anti-government demonstrator says he was harassed at his home

People protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 26, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 26, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A petition was filed at the High Court of Justice Wednesday and several critics reacted with outrage after the Knesset passed legislation curtailing public protests during lockdown.

The new legislation gives the government the power to ban traveling over one kilometer (0.6 miles) from home to attend a protest, and to limit outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 20 people, effectively stifling large weekly demonstrations outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence

The High Court petition was filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a watchdog group, in the hope that the High Court will freeze the legislation, pending judicial oversight, and eventually strike it down, according to Channel 12 news.

In the petition, the organization argued that the new law hamstrings “one of the fundamental rights in a democracy” and insists that “health concerns do not form the basis of the amendment to the law,” according to the network.

The court ruled that the government had until October 7 to respond to the petition.

Founder of the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel, Eliad Shraga (right) waits for Supreme court justices to enter the room for a court session on petitions against the coalition agreement, May 4, 2020 (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

In the final version of the law, under a government-declared “special coronavirus emergency,” the cabinet can restrict protests, prayers, and religious ceremonies for a week, with the possibility of extending it another two weeks, should the emergency continue.

Officials have said that under the rules, protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence would be kept to 2,000 total, with the Paris Square protest zone able to accommodate 100 capsules of 20 people. Only those who live within a kilometer would be able to attend.

The number is far below the 10,000 to 20,000 people who have shown up weekly outside the Prime Minister’s Residence to demonstrate against Netanyahu, who is on trial in three graft cases.

But the measure has faced vociferous opposition from critics who say it undermines Israel’s democratic character and serve Netanyahu’s political interests, using the virus as a cover.

Israeli activist and former air force general Amir Haskel holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on June 28, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Amir Haskel, a former IDF general and a grassroots leader of the movement demanding that Netanyahu step down, claimed that the prime minister’s supporters harassed him at his home Tuesday night.

“Netanyahu and his supporters will not break me,” he said on Twitter.

Opposition lawmakers have also sharply opposed the plan.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem in his office in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

“I came to see if I can still speak in the plenum, because that’s the next step,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said in the Knesset Tuesday night.

“They’ll say that because of the coronavirus I can’t stand here and speak in the name of the opposition.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar called the law an “attack on the citizens of Israel.”

“When the law passes, nobody can call us the only democracy in the Middle East. We’ve become a dictatorship.”

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