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War on protest

Editorial | Haaretz

25 December 2009

The war the police and the Israel Defense Forces are openly waging against protests by left-wing and human rights activists has heated up in recent weeks. As a result, concern is growing over Israel’s image as a free and democratic country, one that accords equal and tolerant treatment to all its citizens and residents.

Nonviolent protests in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah against the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes by extreme right-wingers have met with a violent and disproportionate police response. The IDF has responded with insufferable harshness to protests against the separation fence in the Palestinian villages of Bil’in and Na’alin.

In Sheikh Jarrah, police are fielding unnecessarily large forces armed with tear gas and pepper spray. Over the past two weeks, no less than 50 demonstrators have been arrested at these protests.

In Bil’in and Na’alin, IDF soldiers are firing live rounds at unarmed protesters who do not endanger the soldiers’ lives, in violation of the military advocate general’s orders. Major arrest sweeps are also taking place in these two villages, of protest organizers and members of the popular committees. Some of those arrested have been brought before a military court, charged with incitement and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

In terms of violence, this represents an escalation. In terms of tolerance, it represents a deterioration – of attitudes toward legitimate protest. Two Israeli lecturers, Prof. Galit Hasan-Rokem and Prof. Daphna Golan, recently described the harsh police response in Sheikh Jarrah in Haaretz. Protests were also dealt with harshly during Operation Cast Lead a year ago: About 800 Israeli citizens, most of them Arab, were arrested, and criminal proceedings were begun against 685 of them. This was an evil omen regarding the state’s attitude toward protesters.

And all this is happening at a time when the same law enforcement agencies are showing much more leniency and consideration to right-wingers protesting against the construction freeze in the settlements. There, no massive arrests have been made, and there has been less police violence.

Citizens, whether from the right or the left, have both the right and the duty to protest, within the bounds of the law, against things that upset them. Tolerance toward such protests is the breath of life for any democratic regime.

Photographs of soldiers shooting live fire at demonstrators, in contrast, are familiar from the darkest regimes. If drummers are arrested in Sheikh Jarrah, and Palestinians are arrested in Bil’in for collecting and displaying ammunition shot by the IDF – this is a regime that is not acting with the required tolerance toward legitimate protest.

The pictures from Sheikh Jarrah and the scenes from Bil’in and Na’alin, which repeat themselves weekly, will remain hidden in the darkness of public disinterest and lack of media coverage. But what the police are doing in Sheikh Jarrah and what the IDF is doing in Bil’in and Na’alin should disturb every Israeli, whether right-wing or left-wing – because this is about the very nature of the regime of the country in which we live.