Cops allow anti-war demo after High Court says the right to protest is ‘fundamental’

Anti-war groups accuse the police of ‘systematically’ suppressing their right to protest due to political agenda, ahead of planned rally in Haifa on Saturday

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Standing Together activists protest against the Israel-Hamas war, calling for a ceasefire, in Tel Aviv, on December 28, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Standing Together activists protest against the Israel-Hamas war, calling for a ceasefire, in Tel Aviv, on December 28, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Following pressure from the High Court of Justice, police agreed Thursday to allow an anti-war protest to be held at a central location in Haifa for the first time since the ongoing fighting in Gaza began.

The demonstration planned for Saturday afternoon will now go ahead at Haifa’s Paris Square, with a maximum of 700 protestors.

The Coastal District Police rejected three requests to stage anti-war rallies this month, leading protest organizers to petition the High Court on the grounds that the police were systematically violating their right to freedom of expression.

The police claimed that they were concerned about the possible outbreak of violence as a result of counterprotests against such a demonstration, but the High Court said it was the police’s duty to ensure freedom of expression and what it described as the “fundamental right” to protest in the face of such threats

Since the beginning of January, several organizations including the far-left Hadash party and three anti-war groups have requested a permit from the police on three occasions for an anti-war protest, but the police refused all of them, including one submitted last Thursday.

The original permit request was for 1,500 people to conduct a march in Haifa from Emile Habibi Square to Paris Square on a Saturday night.

Acting Supreme Court President Justice Uzi Vogelman at a court hearing on postponing the nationwide municipal elections scheduled for the end of January until February 27, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, December 31, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The message of the demonstrations is to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, “an exchange deal” for Israeli hostages kidnapped during the terror group’s October 7 onslaught that triggered the fighting in Gaza, and the advancement of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The police rejected the third permit request, stating that counterprotests would be staged against the demonstration that could endanger public safety, and that the force could also not divert the requisite manpower and resources for such a mission due to the current war and the strain it would put on officers.

The organizers filed a petition against the police’s decision, arguing that their fundamental right to freedom of expression and protest was being “systematically” violated by the police.

“The refusal of the police in our case is part of the systematic suppression of demonstrations, and even small protest vigils, which involve criticism of the continuation of the fighting, the results [of the conflict], and the demand for a political [peace] process,” wrote attorneys for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which represented the protest organizations.

They also noted police have permitted demonstrations in Tel Aviv calling for the reoccupation of Gaza and construction of Israeli settlements there, while persistently refusing to authorize protests requested by Arab political parties and civil society organizations since the war began, and accused the cops of political bias when making such decisions.

The ACRI attorneys alleged in a statement to the press that the police were “becoming the political arm of [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir for the suppression and persecution of demonstrators who do not accept his racist worldview.”

And in the petition itself, they pointed to a comment made by Ben Gvir, who has authority over the police, when he posted on X back in November that “in accordance with my instructions, the Israel Police has so far prevented demonstrations which identify with the Nazis from Hamas,” in reference to anti-war protests.

The High Court issued an interim injunction last Wednesday against Ben Gvir that bars him from giving operational orders to police forces regarding the right to protest, following petitions against him based on that post.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (right) and Police Chief Kobi Shabtai at the funeral of Border Police officer Sgt. Shay Germay at Karmiel military cemetery on January 7, 2024 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Following the submission of the petition to the High Court to allow an anti-war protest in Haifa, the police proposed on Thursday before the High Court hearing that the rally be held at a commercial complex on the outskirts of the city, with a maximum of 450 protestors, and not on a Saturday night as requested by the organizers, a proposal which was rejected.

During the hearing, the High Court justices insisted that it was not the police’s job to rearrange protest arrangements but to find a way to allow demonstrations as requested.

Justice Daphne Barak-Erez took particular issue with the police’s proposal, noting that it was for far fewer demonstrators than the organizers requested, not on a Saturday, and critically far away from a central location in the city, which was a key aspect of the protest.

And both Barak-Erez and Acting Supreme Court President Uz Vogelman expressed concern with the police’s contention that the demonstration would lead to violence due to counterprotests against it.

“You said the major problem is other people who are creating security problems for the protest. Why don’t you employ your resources against those people trying to prevent protests?” Barak-Erez demanded.

Asked Vogelman, “There will always be responses from the other side to this kind of protest. The question is whether police do not need to enable freedom of protest despite this?”

The justices asked the police to reconsider their rejection of the protest, specifically regarding its location and the number of permitted demonstrators.

After an hour’s recess, the police returned with a proposal for a static demonstration in Paris Square, instead of the march, and for a limit of 700 protesters on Saturday afternoon instead of Saturday evening, which the organizers immediately agreed to.

This handout photo shows Moshe Ya’alon, third from left, attending a protest rally in Haifa on January 13, 2024. (People’s Protest Haifa)

In their written decision, the justices said it was critical that the right of freedom of expression and protest be upheld, especially during a time of war.

“We cannot sign off, without stating something that should be self-evident: the ability to hold a demonstration is not a special privilege, but rather a fundamental right. This is even more relevant in times of war, even if practical aspects may limit the scope of the permit granted. Similarly, threats of violence from third parties cannot be used as a consideration that limits the possibility of protesting,” wrote the judges.

Amjad Shbita, the secretary-general of Hadash who attended the hearing, said he was satisfied with the outcome, even if the protest that has now been authorized is less than the organizers had requested.

“It’s not everything we wanted, but it will be the first big demonstration in Haifa since the beginning of the war, and that is an achievement. We are progressing slowly but persistently,” said Shbita.

“It is more than 100 days since the beginning of the war and until now there hasn’t been [even] one big Jewish – Arab demonstration in the north and it’s very important for us to give voice to this position,” he added.

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