After criticism, police wait until 1 a.m. before dispersing Jerusalem protesters

Thousands of demonstrators remained in square after 11 p.m. on Saturday; two hours later, police used force, and deployed water cannons, to disperse final hundreds

Protesters crouch down as police use water cannons against them in Jerusalem on July 25, 2020. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Protesters crouch down as police use water cannons against them in Jerusalem on July 25, 2020. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Following controversy over the deployment of water cannons to disperse demonstrators calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation at a demonstration Thursday night, police waited longer and used somewhat different tactics to disperse Saturday’s anti-Netanyahu crowds.

At least 5,000 demonstrators gathered to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, the largest protests seen since the rallies began two weeks ago. (Channel 13 put the Jerusalem turnout at 10,000, and said it was the largest demonstration of its kind to date.)

Earlier in the day, protesters also gathered on around 250 overpasses across the country, as well as in front of Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea.

Police repeatedly stipulated that the demonstrators in Jerusalem, who filled Paris Square near the Prime Minister’s Residence, could continue to protest until 11 p.m. when they would be ordered to disperse. But thousands of demonstrators remained in the square past the deadline on Saturday, cheering as the clock struck 11.

The police force, which has been criticized for what some say is excessive use of force during previous rallies, waited until later in the night than usual to forcefully compel protesters to clear the area. Police sources told Channel 12 news that they had no intention of using stronger tactics against demonstrators, despite the reported pressure of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana.

More than an hour and a half after the deadline had passed, the vast majority of protesters had left the square, leaving several hundred who seemed determined to remain until police dispersed them. Unlike Thursday, Jerusalem police still did not publicly declare the demonstration illegal and order protesters to leave the scene.

The operation to clear the square on Saturday night began at around 1 a.m. Rather than inaugurate the dispersal by blasting protesters with a water cannon, as on previous nights, Jerusalem police instead opted to first surround the crowd as they stood in Ben Maimon Street in front of a police barricade.

Dozens of riot police, known in Hebrew as Yassam, repeatedly entered the crowd, pushing demonstrators aside, to drag out individual protesters, sometimes aggressively and seemingly at random. Some of those dragged out appear to have been immediately released without being detained.

Police later said 12 people were detained or arrested for “various offenses included disturbing public order or attacking other protesters.” The number seemingly included members of a pro-Netanyahu group reportedly detained for beating up activists leaving the Jerusalem rally. (This compared with 55 arrests at Thursday night’s demonstration.)

Ranks of Yassam officers broke the demonstration in two, as officers closer to the Prime Minister’s Residence began pushing the crowd away. A Magen David Adom medic pleaded with officers to be allowed through to reach demonstrators farther down the street, but were refused access.

Four mounted police arrived behind the Yassam officers and charged demonstrators, riding up onto the sidewalks and forcing the crowd back into Paris Square.

When some demonstrators still refused to leave, two water cannons were deployed on the scene, sending protesters fleeing down Agron Street. At least a hundred riot police followed them; at times it seemed as though there were as many Yassam officers as protesters walking in two waves away from the square.

As police pushed protesters down Agron Street in a mass, the crowd began chanting slogans again as the remnants of the demonstration coalesced again into a march. As riot police watched in formation from higher up the street, the two water cannons rolled down Agron Street and fired on protesters again, sending blasts into alleys where some demonstrators were attempting to take shelter from the high-pressure water behind dumpsters.

“Despite legitimate protest by most protesters, who dispersed voluntarily, a handful of protesters remained who refused to disperse after the police repeatedly announced the end of the protest and asked the protesters to leave voluntarily. The police were eventually forced to disperse them and restore public order,” the Jerusalem Police said in a statement.

Oren, a 28-year-old Jerusalem resident who has attended several demonstrations at Paris Square, said that he had seen an overall escalation in the police’s use of force from protest to protest.

“It becomes an attempt to suppress the protesters, to threaten them and to scare them, so they won’t even want to protest in the first place,” Oren said.

The moment a demonstrator is hit in the face with a stream of liquid from a water cannon at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 2020 (Screen grab/Channel 12)

While police have used water cannons at several protests since the mass demonstrations began two weeks ago, a video published by Channel 12 brought renewed controversy over the tactic. The video showed a water cannon firing directly at a protester’s head during a demonstration last week, and striking him in the face with a blast of high-pressure water, his head snapping back violently as he was thrown to the ground.

Targeting the heads of protesters with water cannons violates police procedure, which state that “at no point are water cannons to spray in the direction of protesters’ heads for fear of traumatic injury to sensitive areas.”

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