High Court demands explanation from government over law banning protests

Judges question state’s authority to ban mass rallies; anti-Netanyahu organization hails move as ‘important step for democracy and rule of law in Israel’

A High Court of Justice hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 4, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)
A High Court of Justice hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 4, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

The High Court of Justice on Wednesday ordered the government to explain why a controversial coronavirus emergency law enabling the government to limit protests shouldn’t be canceled.

The court’s move came even as the controversial restrictions on demonstrations expired on Tuesday night and were not renewed by the government.

The court challenged the premise of the law, reprimanding the legislature for passing it last month despite the lack of data on the number of infections that occurred during the widespread outdoor anti-government protests in recent months.

It called into question the government’s authority to include a blanket ban on mass protests in the first place.

Israel imposed a nationwide lockdown ahead of the High Holidays last month to rein in a surging coronavirus outbreak, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases. The government has since declared a state of emergency, limiting all public gatherings, including protests and prayer, to within a kilometer (.6 miles) of a person’s home.

The panel of judges — Chief Justice Esther Hayut and Justices Hanan Melcer and Neil Hendel — said the state’s response and the ensuing discussions would be held before a nine-member panel of judges.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, on July 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi)

The Movement for Quality Government, one of the groups that filed the High Court petition, hailed the court order.

“This is a giant and important step for democracy and the rule of law in Israel,” the watchdog said. “While politicians tried to suppress the protests, the court came and put them in their place and didn’t let them harm the freedom to protest.”

The group also called on police to cancel the fines issued to protesters for breaking lockdown rules.

The state’s decision came in response to petitions by several anti-government groups against the limitations.

The government on Monday had informed the High Court it would not extend the special emergency measures that barred mass demonstrations when they expired Tuesday overnight.

Groups leading the ongoing protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding his resignation amid his corruption trial and sharply criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic, welcomed the news that the government would not extend the emergency powers.

The “Black Flag” movement said its activists will return to protesting outside the Prime Minister Residence in Jerusalem, which had been the center of the demonstrations before the restrictions were imposed.

The Crime Minister group also said its activists will rally at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem om Saturday night.

“The state’s response is a harbinger of the end of the political lockdown and the end of the dictatorial regulations,” it said.

A much larger rally is planned for the following Saturday, October 24, Channel 12 news reported.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on October 3, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu has said the restrictions were driven by safety concerns as the country battled a runaway pandemic, but critics and protesters have accused him of tightening the lockdown to muzzle dissent.

However, the protest ban appeared to have only further motivated demonstrators, with tens of thousands rallying in socially-distanced protests throughout the country last week, with last Saturday’s protests claimed by organizers to draw a record nationwide total of some 200,000 participants.

Defending the lockdown, which included the ban on protests, Netanyahu said on Sunday that it had “saved us from a geometric rise in morbidity, mortality, and seriously sick people,” but warned that it was too early to believe the fight against COVID-19 is over.

According to Health Ministry figures Wednesday, there have been 297,501 people infected since the start of the pandemic, of which 46,491 remain active cases.

Ministry figures showed 1,428 people are hospitalized with the virus, 780 of them in serious condition and 244 on ventilators.

The death toll Wednesday morning was 2,067, four more than the night before.

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