High Court hears petition against law that smothered anti-Netanyahu protests

Justice Meni Mazuz questions timing of restrictions, and whether PM’s involvement in limiting rallies against him constitutes a conflict of interest

Anti-government protesters outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, on October 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
Anti-government protesters outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, on October 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

The High Court of Justice on Tuesday heard a petition against controversial legislation granting the government emergency powers to limit protests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law was approved in September amid a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases. It forbade Israelis from traveling more than a kilometer from home (0.6 miles) to protest and required protesters to demonstrate in socially distanced capsules, effectively stifling mass rallies outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, the epicenter of an ongoing popular effort against the premier over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the pandemic.

A petition was filed against the legislation and in October the High Court ordered the government to explain why the law shouldn’t be thrown out.

At Tuesday’s hearing, which was held before an expanded panel of nine judges, Justice Menachem (Meni) Mazuz questioned the timing of the restrictions on protests.

“We noticed that the restrictions are imposed when there is a certain demonstration against the prime minister and the declaration of the emergency situation has a direct effect on the protests against him,” Mazuz said.

He added: “Is his involvement in this improper according to conflict of interest rules?”

Supreme Court Justice Meni Mazuz at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Chief Justice Esther Hayut pressed a representative for the Knesset on the law’s provision barring Israelis from traveling over a kilometer to protest, asking if there was similar legislation anywhere else in the world.

“We didn’t find a country that restricts the permitted distance one can go from home,” the representative responded.

Hayut also pushed back when the government lawyers argued the right to life took precedence over the right to protest, after failing to present data showing the virus was spreading at the protests.

“According to the statistics, 1 percent of people infected [with coronavirus] die, so this is about public health and not the right to life,” she said, arguing that the death rate could not justify clamps on protest.

After the law was passed, Netanyahu said the restrictions were driven by safety concerns as the country battled a runaway pandemic, but critics and protesters 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 while it was in effect.

The government didn’t reimpose the ban as part of renewed lockdown measures currently in force.

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