Some 66% of Israelis believe that the police behave more violently at demonstrations staged by minority groups than at other protests. This emerges from the January 2022 survey of the Human Rights Index, a collaborative project of Zulat for Equality and Human Rights and Reichman University’s Institute for Freedom and Responsibility. A month after the elections, against the backdrop of talk about regime change, a national security minister who seeks the powers of a police commissioner, and a delegitimization of protest initiatives, the survey focused on freedom of expression and protest.
The survey was conducted by iPanel Israel, a company providing online data collection services, between 7 and 11 December 2022. A total of 807 respondents, 655 Jews and 152 Arabs, aged 18 and above completed the survey (which carries a maximum margin of error of 3.5% at a confidence level of 95%). Segmented by gender, age group, area of residence, and degree of religiosity, Jewish respondents constitute a representative sample of the adult Jewish population, while Arab respondents constitute an approximate representative sample of the adult Arab population due to insufficient sampling of males, residents of Israel’s southern region, and respondents aged 40 and above.
Its main finding is that a clear majority of Israelis believe the police use more force at demonstrations by minority groups. To the question, “Do you think the police deal differently with demonstrations of different social groups and use more violence at those staged by certain groups,” 66% replied “yes,” 18% said “no,” and 16% said “don’t know.” If the latter are subtracted, then 78% of respondents answered affirmatively and 22% answered negatively.
Not only does police brutality at demonstrations violate the right to freedom of protest and freedom of expression, but its unequal application vis-a-vis different population groups violates the principle of equality. In fact, it constitutes political meddling and enables the muzzling of groups that are disadvantaged to begin with.
The response to the aforementioned question revealed no discrepancy between Jewish and Arab respondents: 66% of Jews and 65% of Arabs said the police handle demonstrations of different groups differently. Furthermore, disagreement was also minimal when segmented according to their own ideological identification, as a clear majority across all respondents was found to believe that the police are more violent at demonstrations staged by certain groups: 71% of Right supporters, 69% of Left supporters, and 61% of Center supporters.
Large differences were found among Jewish respondents when segmented by degree of religiosity. While among secular Jews 57% said the police use more violence at demonstrations by certain groups, 64% of traditionalist, 83% of national religious, and 94% of Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) respondents said the same.
Those who answered yes to the previous question were then asked: “Which of the following groups do you think is treated more aggressively and violently by the police at demonstrations?” Respondents were given the option to check one or more groups (Haredim, Israelis of Ethiopian descent, Arabs, anti-Netanyahu protesters, disabled persons), other groups, or “don’t know.”
Of the 66% who believe the police treat demonstrations of different groups differently and use more violence at protests of certain groups, 58% said Israelis of Ethiopian descent are the most discriminated, 55% chose Haredim, and 47% said Arabs. Lower numbers said the same regarding anti-Netanyahu protesters (16%) and disabled persons (7%).
Although they ranked third in the general population’s perception, segmentation of their response shows that Israeli Arabs see themselves as the topmost victim, with no less than 93% of them saying they are the group that suffers most from police violence at demonstrations. This finding tallies with data from previous surveys, which consistently indicate that Arabs’ self-perception as victims of discrimination is higher than the Jews’ perception of anti-Arab discrimination.
The next question addressed the actual impact of police violence on freedom of expression: “During the last five years, have you refrained from participating in demonstrations for fear of violence by the police or fellow citizens?”
Among those who said they had participated or had planned to join demonstrations in the last five years (33% of all respondents), 66% had refrained from doing so at least once for fear of encountering violence. Among Jewish respondents, 38% had no such fear about joining prootests, 22% decided against it on one occasion, and 40% abstained more than once. In contrast, among Arab respondents, 23% joined demonstrations without fear of encountering violence, 25% refrained on one occasion, and no less than 53% refrained from doing so several times.
The findings clearly show that Israelis are convinced that there is police violence at demonstrations, that enforcement is unequal, and they often refrain from exercising their freedom of protest for fear of encountering violence.
This represents a major crisis in the perception of the right to exercise freedom of protest, which attests to the weakening of democracy. This stems, among other things, from the absence of relevant legislation regulating relations between demonstrators and police, anchoring the principle of equality, and defining the powers of the police. The reform proposed by Zulat for Equality and Human Rights, which is intended to strengthen the freedom of protest, contains several bills designed to replace outdated British Mandate-era legislation. These include limiting the police’s authority to use crowd control gear such as water cannons and to withhold licenses for demonstrations, as well as establishing a civilian police unit that will be specifically designated to handle non-violent demonstrations and will be trained accordingly.
Protest activity is a central element in a democratic society, as it is an important part of the public discourse and of the checks and balances of a democratic regime. Demonstrations, rallies, marches, and protest vigils are intended to fulfill the freedom of expression and opinion, to spread views, and to influence the public discourse. Protecting freedom of protest means protecting freedom of expression and strengthening democracy.