Jerusalem court slams police for illegitimate arrests of protesters

This article was originally published in Haaretz

Illegitimate arrests of Israeli protesters is on the rise. This is a tactic often used by the police and army to keep activists away from demonstrations for a substantial period of time, effectively stripping them of their right to protest and weakening the entire movement. The court’s ruling is in fact a frightening indication of how authoritarian Israel has become.

This week, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ordered the police to pay NIS 25,000 in compensation to four Israeli activists from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, whom they arrested without due cause while they were protesting peacefully in front of city hall in February. Many called the decision a victory for democracy, but an examination of how the police and the Israel Defense Forces have been behaving in the face of civil disobedience reveals a frightening pattern in which these state institutions repeatedly break the law in order to suppress political activism – and for the most part get away with it.

Over the last year and a half, the police arrested over 160 Israeli protesters from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement during demonstrations in Jerusalem, usually on a claim of illegal assembly.

In January 2010, after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel director Hagai El-Ad was arrested in Sheikh Jarrah along with 16 other activists, the courts ruled that the police could no longer require a permit for such protests. By law the police are also authorized to disperse a protest at any time if they deem it to pose a threat to public security. However, the protests – which have been going on weekly since November 2009 in opposition to the displacement of Palestinian residents of the neighborhood by Jewish settlers – have repeatedly proven to be peaceful and harmless, as evident from footage filmed by the police, and shown in court.

When the four activists were arrested two months ago, the police offered to immediately release three, but asked Sara Benninga, one of the leading figures of the movement, to sign an agreement accepting certain conditions: in this specific case, a 180-day ban from participating in any demonstrations in Jerusalem, although by law the maximum number of days the police can demand is only 15. Knowing this was an exorbitant amount of time aimed at stifling her political activism, the other three refused the terms and all four faced a judge under threat of a six-month ban.

Arresting protesters is a tactic often used by the police to keep activists away from demonstrations for a substantial period of time, and by doing so, effectively stripping them of their right to protest and weakening the entire movement.

Jerusalem court slams police for illegitimate arrests of protesters
Israeli activist being threatened with arrest by Israeli soldier (Photo: Mairav Zonszein)

These tactics have been used against Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem as well, specifically in the neighborhood of Silwan, where tensions have been high between them and both Jewish settlers and members of the security forces. Since January, Silwan resident and community organizer Jawad Siyam has been serving repeated sentences of house arrest for alleged assault of a fellow Palestinian resident – this despite the fact that the Magistrate’s Court has already ruled that the state does not have sufficient evidence to convict him. Jawad is director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, which aims to raise public awareness about Jewish settlement in the heart of Silwan, seen by the center as a deliberate effort to erode the Palestinian character of East Jerusalem. A leading figure in the community who openly opposes the settlement project, Jawad, even more so than his Israeli counterpart protesting in Sheikh Jarrah, is apparently seen as a threat by the police, who continue to arrest him under dubious pretenses in an effort to silence him.

The same tactics are also applied in the West Bank, when Israeli activists are arrested – often without due cause and in direct breach of Supreme Court rulings – and are asked to sign a release form stating they will not return to the area for 15 days. While the army claims the activists pose a threat to public security, this assertion has yet to be substantiated in a court of law.

In some cases, as happened recently in the southern West Bank near the illegal outpost of Havat Ma’on, 16 Israeli anti-occupation activists were arrested and asked to sign a release form that would prohibit them from entering the area for 15 days. Most of them refused, not only because they did not want to accept the ban, but also because they knew that the law was on their side and that if the case was brought to court, they would win. Indeed, after spending a night in jail, the activists faced the judge – who announced that the IDF had used erroneous judgment in declaring the area a closed military zone – and then released them all.

In all these cases, the courts have deemed the police and army’s management of acts of civil protest to be in contempt of the law; in only one case has a handful of activists been compensated. Hopefully the threat of having to pay legal fees will compel the security forces to think twice before making illegitimate arrests. However, there is no sign that they are internalizing judicial rulings. In any event, it should not be the job of the courts to regularly correct the behavior of the very state apparatuses that are supposed to protect, not infringe upon, civil rights. Moreover, members of civil society should not be required to risk criminal records and enter expensive legal battles just to remind everyone what the law is and whom it is designed to protect.

Although the ruling handed down this week does show the ability of Israel’s judiciary to step in when the state commits illegal and undemocratic actions, it is not so much a victory for democracy as it is a frightening indication of just how authoritarian a state Israel has become: A state where the security apparatus is regularly breaking the law in order to suppress individuals who oppose the government’s particular political agenda.