The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Liberman has said that he fears "tens of thousands" of Palestinians may demonstrate this month to support a Palestinian bid for upgraded United Nations status, and predicts "bloodshed on a scale we haven't seen." According to leaked documents, the military is preparing for "mass disorder" and has spent $22 million on crowd-control equipment, and issued orders to fire at the legs of any Palestinians who cross the "red lines" that it has demarcated around settlements.
But if Israel wants to lower the risk of violence around the expected U.N. vote, its usual, get-tough response to Palestinian protests is the wrong approach. Instead, it should start by meeting its legal obligation to respect freedom of peaceful assembly and expression in the occupied territories.
Israeli military orders in the West Bank have effectively banned even peaceful protests. Any gathering of 10 or more people, even in a private home, about "a political matter or one liable to be interpreted as political," is prohibited without a military permit, on pain of up to 10 years in prison. The Israeli military commonly imposes "closed military zones" on Palestinian villages that seek to hold demonstrations, restricting access to the villages for up to six months at a time.
The military has also repeatedly subjected Palestinian advocates of peaceful protests to arbitrary arrests, abusive military prosecutions and unfair trials. In 2009, for instance, the Israeli military arrested Mohammed Khatib, a protest organizer from the village of Bil'in who had called for nonviolent protests against the confiscation of village lands by Israel's separation barrier. The military charged him with throwing stones at a demonstration in 2008. Khatib's passport showed, though, that he was on the Pacific island of New Caledonia at that time. He was released on condition that he present himself at a police station at the time of weekly protests, effectively barring him from participating. In 2010, the military detained him again and charged him with "incitement." Security services justified the detention on the grounds that "incitement materials" were confiscated at his home, but the materials proved to be records of his trial, his lawyer said.
Not all Palestinian protesters are nonviolent. Youths frequently throw stones at Israeli forces. And there is no question that Israel may treat violence as a criminal offense and that its security forces may use lawful force as necessary to protect themselves and others.
But scores of witness accounts and videos over the years have shown Israeli troops shooting, firing tear gas and throwing concussion grenades at Palestinian protesters who were clearly peaceful and posed no risk to life or property. In another Bil'in case, for example, the Israeli rights group B'Tselem collected videos and other evidence showing that in April 2009, a soldier killed Bassem Abu Rahme by firing a high-velocity tear-gas canister directly at him from 30 meters away, and that he had not thrown stones, damaged the separation barrier or otherwise endangered soldiers. A military investigation into his death is ongoing.
The head of the Israeli military's Central Command told U.S. officials in February 2010 that he "did not know what [the demonstrations] were about" but felt that Palestinian villagers "were only demonstrating because they were told to do so" by "suspicious people," according to a leaked diplomatic cable. The cable's subject was "IDF Plans Harsher Methods with West Bank Demonstrations." It is hard to see how such methods lower the risk of violence, especially when used against advocates of peaceful protests.
Israeli authorities should instead show the same respect for the freedom of peaceful assembly in the West Bank as they do in Israel itself. Israeli demonstrators need no permits for demonstrations of up to 50 people, and the police must grant permit requests for larger demonstrations unless there is "near certainty" of harm to the public. Police have not declared protest areas in Israel to be "closed zones" or violently suppressed peaceful demonstrators there. Activists who organized three of the "tent protests" that sprang up across Israel after July to protest spiraling housing costs told Human Rights Watch that they had failed to obtain the required permits, but police allowed the protests to go ahead.
Contradicting fears of bloodshed around the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations, a recent Israeli intelligence briefing said that while some West Bank Palestinians may protest, they do not want violence, Haaretz reported. But whatever Israeli forces' views of Palestinian protests, Israel should revoke the military laws and end the prosecutions that penalize Palestinians for holding even peaceful demonstrations, and change Israel's approach to using force against nonviolent protesters.