Attorney-general denies selective enforcement of law or favoring the Left

Gali Baharav-Miara’s policy paper stressed the public’s right to protest and said that many factors must be considered before indicting anyone for their actions during demonstrations.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Israel’s attorney-general gave the government Sunday her official policy on demonstrations, which stressed that contrary to coalition claims, there is no selective enforcement of laws at anti-government protests. Rather, she said, many factors have to be weighed before handing down indictments.

Several coalition members harangued Gali Baharav-Miara last week at a cabinet meeting for the alleged soft handling of those breaking the law during anti-judicial reform protests. They demanded to know how such criminal behavior is regarded by her prosecutor’s office after it was revealed that while nearly 600 people had been arrested during protests, only six were actually indicted, all for alleged violence towards police officers.

Since blocking major highways for hours at a time, demonstrating noisily right in front of MKs’ homes and attempting to disrupt the flow of operations at Ben Gurion Airport, a national security venue, are all illegal, they said, there seemed to be lax law enforcement when it comes to leftist desmonstrations.

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Baharav-Miara’s document stressed that the latter claim was untrue, stating, “There are written and uniform instructions and procedures concerning demonstrations and protests, regarding their handling and enforcement.”

She defended the “enormous importance of freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate in a democratic system,” while acknowledging that there was a delicate balance to be struck between safeguarding those rights and allowing others their right to freedom of movement and not to be harassed or threatened.

This was a judgment call for the police commanders on the scene, who were allowed to have officers remove protestors from a location if they refused an order to move, using “a reasonable amount of force” if necessary. However, she clarified, the police are not to use force when there is no “violation of public order,” no violence or criminal offense is committed, and no threat to “public safety.”

No arrest ‘quotas’

There certainly could be no arrest or indictment “quotas” in dealing with protestors, the attorney-general wrote, as this would “severely impair the value of equality before the law.”

No coalition member had called for quotas.

The attorney-general expressed great hesitation regarding indicting those who disobeyed the law during a demonstration. She wrote that it depended on many factors, including but not limited to whether the person was violent or actively tried to foil the police, his or her age, prior offenses, the nature of the protest, its location, if there was damage to public property and any traffic disruption.

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Streets and junctions, she noted, are also meant “for demonstrations such as parades, funerals and similar events,” and the public must accept “a reasonable amount of discomfort” in order to allow others their rights to demonstrate. The police do have the right to limit the protest in numbers allowed, the route or time, in order to reduce the public’s discomfort, she added.

Regarding demonstrations at public figures’ residences, Baharav-Miara wrote that this should only be allowed if people were prohibited from demonstrating in front of the location where they usually perform their public duties. The document then immediately clarified that if the protest was held “near the house, even if in some proximity to it, the balance between freedom of expression and the relevant public rights and interests that generally apply to demonstrations will apply” in this case as well.

No specific distance from a home was  mentioned, meaning that this, again, would be a judgment call by the authorities present at the time.

Before the cabinet meeting in which the attorney-general was called on the carpet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said that “selective enforcement is a fatal wound to democracy and a fatal injury to the rule of law…. In a democratic country, it is not possible to have one enforcement policy toward a certain group of people, and a second enforcement policy toward another group of people.”

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Politicians who were against the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif and northern Samaria in 2005 have noted that citizens who blocked roads then, or even just stood on the side, were often treated violently by the police, and the courts handed down many prison sentences to peaceful protestors. Two leaders of a civil disobedience group that blocked highways, Moshe Feiglin and Shmuel Sackett, were even charged with sedition for their non-violent actions.