ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Bill would curb protests, give police more tools to end them; Ben Gvir: Won’t happen

Ministries confirm still discussing proposals, from era of previous Netanyahu gov’t; would reportedly bar protests near leaders’ homes, let cops disperse them on flimsy grounds

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Protesters clash with police after attending a demonstration against the Benjamin Netanyahu's government,  in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Protesters clash with police after attending a demonstration against the Benjamin Netanyahu's government, in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A bill that has been in the works since the previous government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over two years ago aims to dramatically curb citizens’ rights to hold protests, requiring police approval for any demonstration of over 100 people and boosting police tools to act against unrest, Israel’s public broadcaster Kan reported Thursday evening.

The Kan report said the proposed legislation would also allow police to disperse an entire protest over acts of violence or vandalism, even if such acts were committed by a single person, or if the police feared the demonstration might cause a public disturbance.

Amid confusion about when the bill was first proposed, both the National Security Ministry and the Justice Ministry initially confirmed to Kan that it was being worked on, but refused to elaborate.

Subsequently, however, the office of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — a far-right politician who has sought to boost the police’s crackdown on current anti-government protests as part of unprecedented control he was given over police policy — labeled the Kan report inaccurate and “false.” Ben Gvir then issued a statement saying no such law would pass so long as he runs the ministry.

The report emerged ahead of further planned mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and elsewhere this weekend against the new Netanyahu government and specifically its plans to drastically weaken the judicial system. Last weekend saw 80,000 join a mass protest in Tel Aviv, and smaller protests in Jerusalem and Haifa.

The bill would reportedly for the first time codify in the law — rather than just in judicial decisions — limits on protests near residences of public figures, blocking them from being held less than 100 meters from homes.

It would also allow any police officer to expel an individual from the area of a protest for three hours, with immediate effect, according to Kan.

Proposed fines include NIS 1,500 ($440) for those who “violate police instructions” and NIS 5,000 ($1,500) for those who ignore orders to disperse from a protest, ignore the three-hour expulsion order, or organize an illegal protest according to the law, the report added.

Over the years, court rulings have gradually expanded the right to protest and protected demonstrators’ rights.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (center) and police chief Kobi Shabtai outside police headquarters in Jerusalem, January 9, 2023. (Police)

Kan reported that work on the legislation has been mulled over for years by the Public Security Ministry — now rebranded as the National Security Ministry — the Israel Police and the Justice Ministry. It also said that the documents it reviewed on the proposed bill included clauses drafted about two years ago, amid weekly mass anti-government protests near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem in 2020.

The report added that details may be changed by the time the bill is finalized.

The National Security Ministry said in a statement after the Kan report aired that the matter was at the “stage of formulating a government bill” and that “a dialogue was held with the Justice Ministry to examine the various issues regarding the matter.” It added: “There is no need for a detailed ministerial response regarding the content of the intra-governmental dialogue.”

The Justice Ministry confirmed the matter was being advanced under its current leadership due to its importance and given the “focus” on “the right to protest, and the need to regulate various aspects of the issue, some of which are not related to police work.”

But Ben Gvir’s office subsequently called the proposal an “old bill that was promoted by previous minister Omer Barlev” — who entered office 1.5 years ago — “and whose existence hasn’t been brought to Minister Ben Gvir’s attention.”

Barlev said in a statement that he was presented with the proposal when he assumed the office of public security minister and that he quickly dismissed “this far-fetched idea.”

Ben Gvir’s office said he “completely rejects” the bill. On Twitter, the national security minister wrote in response to Kan’s tweet with a video of the report: “Another proposed bill not from my time in office. It will not pass on my watch.”

As momentum has been building for protests against the government’s plans for sweeping changes to the judiciary, Ben Gvir recently complained that police should begin cracking down on anti-government demonstrators who block roads and deploy water cannons on unruly demonstrators.

Earlier in the week, Ben Gvir ordered Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to investigate videos appearing to show ultra-Orthodox protesters being manhandled during a demonstration on Sunday against the sale of phones with internet access.

Police clash with ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting against a cellphone shop in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood on January 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir has pressed police on what he claims is a double standard regarding how left-wing protesters in Tel Aviv are treated versus ultra-Orthodox demonstrators in Jerusalem.

A senior police official denied any double standard, telling Channel 12 news that police in Jerusalem sometimes use more heavy-handed tactics due to the more combative nature of protests there as opposed to Tel Aviv, where organizers normally come to an agreement with police on blocking roads for a short period before dispersing.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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