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AG: New limits on protests not valid until fresh regulations passed

Mandelblit says government must pass secondary legislation before citizens are bound by restrictions ordered due to virus outbreak; High Court declines to freeze legislation

Protesters wave flags and chant slogans during a demonstration against a proposed measure to curtail public demonstrations during the current nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, in front of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, September 29, 2020. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
Protesters wave flags and chant slogans during a demonstration against a proposed measure to curtail public demonstrations during the current nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, in front of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, September 29, 2020. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit informed the government Wednesday that new legislation passed by the Knesset earlier in the day to curtail public protest during the ongoing coronavirus lockdown is not valid until appropriate changes are made to relevant regulations.

The Justice Ministry is working on text for the necessary secondary legislation and it was to be brought for government approval later in the day, Haaretz reported.

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 per group, effectively stifling the large weekly demonstrations outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Within hours of it being passed, the law was challenged in the High Court of Justice by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a watchdog group, in the hope that the court would freeze the legislation pending judicial oversight, and eventually strike it down.

The court ruled that the government had until October 7 to respond to the petition, but declined to issue a stay on the law.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during a ceremony at the Justice Ministry on May 18, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

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 bill limiting protests passed on second and third readings by a vote of 46-38 just after 4:30 a.m., following days of delays.

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 restrictions 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, or pods, 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.

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

Backers of the law argue that the protests are a major health hazard and cracking down on them is necessary given Israel’s skyrocketing infection rate.

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

A three-week lockdown, the second since the coronavirus pandemic began, was started on September 18 and then further tightened last Friday as virus infection cases continued to climb rapidly. Government officials, including Netanyahu, have already warned that the lockdown will likely be extended beyond it initial end date.

As of Wednesday, Israel has had a total of 239,806 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, with 65,149 active cases. There have been 1,547 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

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