High metal walls are being erected in Ra’anana at all three entry points to the T-intersection where Ahad Ha’am street hits Tsifman street, turning parts of the former thoroughfares into a gated compound.
Within the guarded area buzzes a powerful generator, which fuels stadium lights powerful enough to illuminate midnight as if it were high noon. Some of the leafy sidewalk trees now sport security cameras, craftily drilled into their bark. Police and Shin Bet security agency guards roam the perimeter and only approved individuals can pass through the gates, while passersby who pull out a cellphone to take a picture of the fortifications are quickly pulled aside.
In northeast Ra’anana, neighbors of Naftali Bennett say the prime minister’s refusal to move to the official Premier’s Residence in Jerusalem, known colloquially by the name of the cross street Balfour, has left them living in something more like a prison than one of the nation’s nicer suburbs.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Carol Kimche, who together with her husband David live close to the prime minister’s Tzifman Street home. As a retiree, she had hoped for a more idyllic backdrop for her golden years.
“This is a stage of our life when we would appreciate more reaping [of what we sowed].”
Residents of this corner of northeast Ra’anana are generally affluent and community-oriented. Homes are single-family and imposing, and shiny late-model cars sit in their driveways. People out on strolls often stop to chat when they bump into neighbors. The community is picturesque, and some might say, sheltered. It is exactly the kind of family-friendly utopia that Israelis work so hard to buy their way into.
‘Police, Shin Bet, secret service, Prime Minister’s Office — everyone is passing the buck’
While residents’ complaints may come off as entitled, a nice atmosphere and neighborliness are core to the social contract they made in moving into this community. But, since June 2021, when Bennett became prime minister, their carefully crafted peace and quiet has been upended.
Residents say the issues they face stem from two main sources: measures implemented for the prime minister’s security and the police’s management of protesters who have become a fixture in the area.
Complaints to an array of local and national authorities have fallen on deaf ears, they say, or get deflected, as the “police, Shin Bet, secret service, Prime Minister’s Office — everyone is passing the buck,” said a resident who lives near the prime minister. Like most residents, he asked to withhold his name for privacy.
This resident, Kimche and 41 other community members have banded together to petition the High Court of Justice to find a solution to these unaddressed issues, naming the prime minister, his office, the Shin Bet, the Israel Police, and their municipality, among others, as respondents. Though the matter has been ongoing since August, no real progress has been made at the court in addressing disturbances caused by protests or security infrastructure.
And there is no reprieve in sight. On Friday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett put to rest speculations that he might move into his official Jerusalem residence once its ongoing renovations are completed.
In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Bennett — who is expected to be prime minister until August 2023 — said that “when Balfour renovations are finished, I’ll move there two to three days a week… My family will stay in Ra’anana.”
A new security wall
Residents complain that security measures disrupt both local infrastructure and community cohesiveness.
Among the fortifications built to protect the prime minister are three separate roadblocks, each of which is a gray metal wall several meters high. These walls are each flanked by a command post and protected by circular metal pylons, which have been trenched into the road and are ready to be raised for blocking oncoming vehicles.
“They look like the gates of Mordor,” said a resident who lives 200 meters from the prime minister and passes the walls daily.
The three walls seal off street access to the Bennett family home, which is situated close to the corner where Ahad Ha’am ends in a T-intersection at Tsifman. Two walls choke off the normally busy Tsifman street to the west and east of the prime minister’s home, and an additional one closes off the perpendicular Ahad Ha’am to the south. Within the compound created by these walls live some seven or eight other families, according to neighbors.
Nearby residents — both within and without the boundaries of the compound — claim that they were not consulted or included enough in the planning process for changes to their neighborhood, but were instead bypassed in the name of “security.”
“If you wanted a gate outside of [your] house, you need your neighbors’ approval,” a resident within the compound said, referring to the requirement to involve neighbors and planning boards before making capital improvements. “You can’t just make an addition to your house.”
But in the case of the prime minister, “they haven’t consulted the neighbors,” he said. “Security is the excuse for everything.”
‘There are probably 20 to 30 houses really affected…Just the fact that [the prime minister] is there — those people are boxed in’
The excision of a corner of their community has caused social damage as well. Neighbors who used to be mere meters away from one another now have to walk in a 10- or 15-minute circle around Tsifman to pop over. “People [won’t] come to visit me because they have to go through roadblocks,” said Pamela Laufer, a resident who lives near the compound.
“[Security has] it blocked off. There are probably 20 to 30 houses really affected…Just the fact that [the prime minister] is there — those people are boxed in.”
While the Shin Bet, which is responsible for Bennett’s security, maintains a list of permitted persons who can cross the barrier, the process can be annoying.
Residents who live just outside the compound say that sometimes they can get through the walls to visit neighbors inside; other time they cannot. Those who live inside must send WhatsApp messages to guards requesting that they let their visitors in.
One guard at the compound said he understood the residents’ annoyance, but he justified his team’s actions in the name of security.
The fortifications as well as infringement upon movement in the neighborhood were significant, he acknowledged. “This is a very close community,” he said to The Times of Israel. “It’s amazing to see.”
When a community member tried to enter the containment zone a few moments later, the guard stopped him, telling the man – who was known to him – that he’d already been back and forth a few times that day. The man expressed frustration, saying that he’d resided in the neighborhood for 15 years and giving the impression that this conversation was a repeat. Eventually, he passed through the narrow metal passageway into the containment zone.
This exchange took place outside the unfinished gate on Tsifman Street. The guard said, “It’s like a factory here,” nodding toward the endless construction and stockpiles of building materials.
Emphasizing the seriousness of the fortification work being done, he noted a work accident. “Someone even cut his hand off, and we had to stop work for two weeks,” he said.
A spokesman for the Shin Bet said he had no knowledge of the incident.
The construction, ongoing since June 2021, is still incomplete. The gate closest to the Bennett family home is still not fully operable, per the guard. When The Times of Israel visited, it was manned and blocked with a low temporary wall, but the metal doors were wide open.
‘Six months in and they’re not done with the gates… If this were a real security issue, they should have handled it in a month’
Residents have questioned, why, if security is important enough to justify inconveniences, it is not important enough to get the protective barriers done.
“There have been people here 24/7 since day 1…but six months in and they’re not done with the gates,” said one of the residents, living within the containment zone. “If this were a real security issue, they should have handled it in a month. This can’t possibly be security.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment for this article.
The Shin Bet similarly declined to comment on the fortifications.
A former senior Shin Bet leader said the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin 26 years ago still casts a long shadow over the agency’s approach to protecting premiers, and that inciting speech widely heard in political debate nowadays may be motivating the significant infrastructure investment.
“Even today, we still ask ourselves how we didn’t see it coming,” he said, of the November 1995 assassination of Rabin in central Tel Aviv. “When the director of the Shin Bet has to decide on the level of security coordination, [he asks]: How big is the threat we are confronting… And the public discourse is very violent, more than ever before. And if you ask me, [while I have not seen intelligence,] the assumption should be in the case of Bennett there are many Israelis who believe the only way to keep Israel safe and secure is to kill the prime minister.”
Although various Hebrew-language news sources initially quoted the cost of reinforcing Bennett’s home at 12 to 15 million shekels ($3.8 million to $4.7 million), the true infrastructure and manpower costs are unknown.
A spokesman for the Shin Bet declined to share the price tag of Bennett’s security, saying that the agency “never comments on security costs.”
The total cost of securing Bennett’s private home versus Balfour, the official residence in Jerusalem, is also unknown. The Ra’anana arrangements are partly offset by a reduction in manpower in the official residence.
Peace and protest
Israelis commonly demonstrate outside of politicians’ and public figures’ homes, and protest in Israel is a fundamental right. But in Ra’anana, residents say that gatherings outside of their homes have gotten out of hand and that the police are not adequately addressing their concerns.
“[On Saturday] night there were a lot of protests. You can hear them until late,” said Laufer, who lives near the protest zone. “It’s not that many people, but they have megaphones and they try to disturb [us]…Their goal is to annoy the residents so we put pressure on Bennett.”
Protesters have flocked to the Bennett family home regularly since June 2021, largely divided into right-wing and left-wing camps. The former support the return to power of the premier’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and accuse Bennett, who is actually a relative hawk, of abandoning the right. The latter is currently dominated by activists who oppose vaccination and coronavirus-related restrictions. Numbers have varied from a few dozen to a few hundred, depending on the protest.
‘Every Saturday night a group of anti-vaxxers would come outside my gate after Shabbat with 20 megaphones and scream’
Among demonstration-related complaints shared by residents are noise and disturbance, mild property damage, vandalism, and aggressive confrontation by protesters. The police, they claim, have been remiss in their response.
“A month ago, every Saturday night a group of anti-vaxxers would come outside my gate after Shabbat with 20 megaphones and scream,” said a resident who lives near the prime minister. “It would take police 30 to 45 minutes to get there and send them away.”
“If I were a protester, of course I would do this,” he said. “I’d get the greatest nuisance value for my buck.”
The Israel Police did not respond to requests for comment.
Currently, the police have designated a protest zone outside of the security compound at the residential intersection of Rabbi Akiva and Abarbanel streets, a few hundred meters from and out of sight of the Bennett family home. But residents would like protest activity moved to the nearby Ra’anana Park intersection, a public space that has the dual benefits of bordering a major thoroughfare and not impinging on their quality of life.
Some protesters have already voluntarily moved their activities to Ra’anana Park, precisely for those reasons. According to Tal Kedmy, a right-wing activist who frequently joins protests against the prime minister, “we decided not to protest near Bennett’s house because in a way, it’ll never be near Bennett’s house. The Shin Bet won’t let you. It will be hundreds of meters from his house, so we decided that we would protest in the largest and most central intersection in Ra’anana… the park intersection.”
“Right now, we’re not standing near houses… [Residents] should be thanking us now, and some of them actually do.”
While Kedmy’s group relocated about three months ago, other groups of protesters still come to the prime minister’s neighborhood.
According to a Ra’anana city hall spokeswoman: “The police provided a framework for demonstrations, and it is has been legally tested [by the residents’ petition to the High Court]. The court has decided and instructed all parties in this matter, and the police carry out roadblocks, closures, and traffic direction in accordance with these guidelines.”
Following several extensions, the police finally delivered a protest management plan to the High Court on Thursday. Its biggest change would move demonstrations with over 100 participants — versus the former limit of 200 — to the Rabbi Akiva-Abarbanel intersection a few blocks from the prime minister’s home, albeit still well within a residential area. According to the residents’ lawyer Chur Uriel Nizri, “that’s a lot better than the mess we had at the beginning of this [petition], but we’re not satisfied.” The court has yet to decide if this police suggestion is acceptable to address the petition.
While some neighbors respect the Prime Minister’s decision not to move with his wife and children to Beit Aghion, the official residence in Jerusalem, in order to maintain stability for his family, others have difficulty looking past the inconvenience it has created.
“I totally understand his desire to keep his kids in his schools here,” said Laufer. “His wife has her own life. I believe we’re not in a world where his wife and kids have… to pick up their lives because he’s prime minister.”
Others were not so tolerant. Rachel Perry, whose front gate was ground zero for earlier waves of protest, said, “At the end of the day, what the Bennetts have decided to do is… to upend and disrupt the lives of an entire community.”
“[Ra’anana] is not where the prime minister should live. He has a residence in Jerusalem and that’s where he belongs,” said Carol Kimche.
Some residents give the impression that being neighborly could have gone a long way in easing their resentment
Her sentiments echo a neighbor’s banner, which reads “Bennett to Balfour” in Hebrew. The displayer’s front sidewalk is bifurcated by one of the three security walls.
However, some residents give the impression that being neighborly could have gone a long way in easing their resentment.
“I think it’s so rude. [The Bennett family] never addressed us, never explained, never apologized,” said Kimche.
Articulating a sentiment expressed by several community members, a resident within the compound said, “If you’re going to ruin someone’s life, be a mensch.”