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Israel Enacts Extreme Emergency Decrees to Fight Pandemic
People gather outside Israel’s Knesset on Tuesday as lawmakers debated an amendment – eventually passed – that gave the government powers to ban protests during the coronavirus lockdowns. (Mustafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Israel Enacts Extreme Emergency Decrees to Fight Pandemic

Civil rights activists, parliamentarians quarrel over new restrictions, which include government power to ban protests

In the dead of night and with hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, legislators passed an unprecedented law overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, handing the government powers to severely restrict demonstrations during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move was condemned by opposition members and protesters as a grave injury to Israel’s democracy and an unnecessary violation of civil rights.

“Of course [this law] impedes basic civil rights,” Likud lawmaker Shlomo Karai told The Media Line.

“We’re at war. A lot of basic liberties have been hurt. The right to worship freely, the right to work, freedom of movement,” he explained.

“We need drastic measures right now,” he continued. “The right to life trumps all other rights. Anyone who says otherwise is disconnected from reality.”

The right to life trumps all other rights. Anyone who says otherwise is disconnected from reality

According to the amendment, passed with almost wall-to-wall support from Likud and Blue and White MKs, the cabinet will be authorized to declare a state of national emergency and restrict all gatherings as it sees fit, including a ban on protests more than half a mile from home.

These powers will expire after a week unless extended by the cabinet. Each week, a parliamentary committee will have the opportunity to examine and cancel the state of emergency.

The special order will be in place for a maximum of 50 days.

The right-wing Likud party, which initially wanted the ordinance to be in force indefinitely, was forced to compromise after its coalition partner, the centrist Blue and White, refused. Even so, two of the latter party’s 14 MKs voted against the amendment.

“They are acting like an opposition within the government. They’re playing politics with public health and with people’s lives,” Karai said.

The Likud MK believes the troubled partnership between Prime Minister and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who heads Blue and White, will not last long.

“This government isn’t functioning,” he stated. “My estimate? By December, we will head for general elections.”

On Wednesday, civil rights groups were already petitioning the nation’s top court to strike down the amendment, calling it unconstitutional.

“This decision essentially hinders the basic right to protest because protesting near your home isn’t really effective,” Prof. Eyal Gross of Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law told The Media Line.

This decision essentially hinders the basic right to protest because protesting near your home isn’t really effective

“The question is, could they have agreed on a law that was less restrictive – capsules, masks, etc? If they then saw that their restrictions weren’t working, it would okay [to enact the stronger measures],” he explained.

“A less intrusive course of protecting public health is always preferable,” said Gross, who is a constitutional law expert and former member of the board of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “I just don’t think [the amendment] is justified right now.”

Until Wednesday, demonstrations and outdoor prayer gatherings were excluded from the second total coronavirus-related lockdown that was imposed on Israel two weeks ago.

On Saturday, thousands arrived once again near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem to protest against Netanyahu’s pandemic policy, as well as the fact that he refuses to step down while on trial for alleged corruption. Several protesters who attempted to block the Knesset entrance during Tuesday night’s debate were arrested.

During that debate, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid took to the parliamentary podium.

“What is the next step? Will the opposition leader be banned from speaking in parliament?” he asked. “I mean, if they are outlawing protests, including inside closed vehicles or in the open air, what’s stopping them from telling me that standing here and speaking is illegal?”

What is the next step? Will the opposition leader be banned from speaking in parliament?

Many of Netanyahu’s detractors, whether in parliament or among protest leaders, claim that his efforts to limit demonstrations while on trial constitute a clear conflict of interests.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was quoted as saying that he was moving toward ruling that Netanyahu must step down.

In a rare interview, the Netanyahu appointee who gave the go-ahead to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust revealed that he saw recent declarations and actions by the prime minister as attempts to interfere in his own trial.

The issues in question, Mandelblit said, include the appointment of top law-enforcement officials and laws weakening the judicial system. He also cited Netanyahu’s refusal to sign a declaration that he would avoid conflicts of interest.

All of this, he said, could force him to declare the prime minister incapable of performing his duties.

Gross points out that the effort spearheaded by Netanyahu’s government to ban protests right now “raises questions” about the prime minister’s motives.

“This whole [matter] proves that it’s impossible for the prime minister to reach decisions that are disconnected from his personal affairs,” he said.

It’s impossible for the prime minister to reach decisions that are disconnected from his personal affairs

Karai, an outspoken supporter of Netanyahu, rejects that claim.

“These protests help us politically. They bring us more votes. But they hurt public trust in the government’s actions,” he noted.

“Once we can tell the Israeli people that there is one standard for everyone – no leaving home for any reason – we can demand that the public accept and follow instructions,” he explained. “That’s what this [amendment] is for.”

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