Israeli Communists and others take peace protest ban to Supreme Court
An Israeli woman calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip is comforted by another protester after an argument with a right-wing Israeli in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. | Bernat Armangue / AP

JERUSALEM—Expect fewer peace demonstrations in Israel, thanks to a decision of the Supreme Court on Wednesday that sided with police who argued protests are a threat to public order.

Though many Israelis—Jewish and Arab—have been taking to the streets to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war against Palestinians over the past month, the size of their demonstrations have been constrained because Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai issued a directive prohibiting them, particularly in areas where Arab residents live.

The fight over his ban played out before the Supreme Court of Israel this week, with justices ultimately ruling in favor of the police.

On Tuesday, the High Court took up a case filed jointly by the Communist Party of Israel, the Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) coalition, and Adalah (the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) that petitioned to cancel Shabtai’s order.

The plaintiffs used police refusals to issue permits for demonstrations in the towns of Umm al-Fahm and Sakhnin as evidence for their petition. Lawyers Hassan Jabarin and Suhad Bashara Madala told the court that police prohibited protests in the Israeli Arab neighborhoods with claims that there weren’t enough officers on duty to manage them—in Sakhnin last Saturday and earlier this week in Umm al-Fahm.

The petition claimed that Shabtai’s decision violates fundamental rights like freedom of expression and freedom of protest. It also pointed to the ideological motivations behind the police directive, proving, they argued, that it is unconstitutional. The police commissioner made international headlines last month after he threatened to load Israeli protesters calling for a ceasefire onto buses and ship them into the areas of Gaza where the military is dropping bombs.

Israeli police chief Yaakov Shabtai has threatened to arrest Israeli anti-war protesters and ship them to Gaza. | Gil Cohen-Magen / Pool Photo via AP

The case was heard by Supreme Court Judge Yael Wilner. The fact that the court took up the case was an unusual event in itself, since during a war Israeli courts operate in an emergency format and only hear cases they consider urgent.

The position of the police and the commissioner was submitted about an hour and a half before the oral hearing. The attorney’s office representing Shabtai claimed that police had determined that peace demonstrations would harm the safety of the Israeli people.

Police lawyers argued: “In the professional opinions of the Israeli Police…the processions and the demonstrations requested by the petitioners…could with a level of near certainty result in a severe and serious harm to public order and public peace and security.”

They also claimed that protesters had previously made “direct calls…to carry out an act of terrorism” and supposedly uttered “words of support for an act of terrorism.” The police lawyers’ rationale stuck to the line laid out by Netanyahu that anyone who doesn’t support the military’s war against Gaza is siding with Hamas.

Jabarin, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in the session that the allegations made by the police before the court were “racist.” He pointed to previous approvals given for protest permits in Jewish towns compared to “a complete and comprehensive ban in Arab towns.”

The court was unpersuaded and stuck by Shabtai, saying in its ruling that “the police must allocate personnel for…rallies and processions for the sake of maintaining the safety of the participants and the maintenance of public order.” It agreed with the police argument that protests were a diversion of precious resources in wartime.

The ruling mentioned the importance of freedom of expression as a fundamental constitutional right but said that “due to the exceptional situation in which the State of Israel is and due to the manpower constraints of the police” such liberties are apparently dispensable.

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Zo HaDerekh
Zo HaDerekh

Zo HaDerekh (This Is The Way) is the Communist Party of Israel's Hebrew-language newspaper.