A day after clashes at anti-government protests in Tel Aviv and around the country sparked accusations of police violence, Tel Aviv’s mayor claimed police were acting on orders from the political leadership.
Police forces are being deployed by the government “not to enforce the coronavirus [lockdown rules], but to break the demonstrations,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai charged on Sunday.
“They’re turning the police into a political tool in a political debate,” he accused.
Dozens of people were arrested Saturday as they participated in rallies throughout Israel in the wake of the passage of highly contentious legislation last week that banned mass demonstrations as part of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Demonstrators, who are urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign over the corruption charges against him, alleged that police used excessive force, and footage showed protesters being shoved or punched.
Huldai himself was at a protest at Habima Square in central Tel Aviv on Saturday.
“This story of trying to prevent protests is a political question that’s putting the police in an impossible situation,” Huldai said in a Sunday interview on Channel 12.
“Suddenly they have to enforce the coronavirus [rules] at a protest and to stand with horses opposite protesters that were mostly keeping appropriate distances from each other. As long as the police were restrained, the protesters were restrained. But suddenly someone lost their balance,” he said.
“I’ve accompanied the police throughout this period. I know the hard work the officers are doing, the difficult orders they are carrying out,” he said.
“Everything was quiet until someone gave an order — I saw it happen — to send in the undercover and uniformed cops to pull out the protesters. I stood next to a young woman who was suddenly jumped with unexplainable violence. Afterward, they explain that they’re enforcing the coronavirus law. That’s wasn’t done to enforce the coronavirus law, that was to break the protests.”
He accused the government of “putting the police in a situation it can’t handle.”
Unnamed senior police officials blamed Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu ally, for pressuring police to be more aggressive toward protesters.
סיכום לשעה חצות: מאות נצורים באלנבי פינת ברנר בין עשרות שוטרים שנמצאים מכל צד וסמויים בתוך הקהל שמבצעים מעצרים מעת לעת אין לי שום דרך לדעת כרגע כמה נעצרו אבל מדובר בכמה עשרות. הבלגן חוגג pic.twitter.com/GzVTfL4nB3
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) October 3, 2020
“He tries to intervene in the police work on the ground every day, even though that’s not his job,” said one official, according to Channel 13, who did not name the official.
“In recent weeks, Minister Ohana has been trying to teach the police top brass to have zero tolerance toward the protesters.”
The comments came after Ohana tweeted his support for the police late Saturday.
“You stand as a rock beside the law-abiding public and those who seek life,” he wrote, an apparent reference to the concern that the rallies posed a health danger due to the pandemic.
“Carry out your mission to its fullest, to ensure the safety, security, and now the health of the Israeli public,” Ohana wrote. “Negative voices, driven by ulterior motives, are trying to weaken the enforcement of law and order. Be strong, you’re saving lives.”
Acting Israel Police Commissioner Motti Cohen on Sunday denied political pressure and defended the force’s actions at the demonstrations the day before, saying the police would continue to enforce the law.
עימותים קשים בין שוטרים למפגינים ברחוב יפת. שוטר יסמ שלח אליי אגרוף תוך כדי תנועה על אופנוע. יציאה מפרופורציה של המשטרה pic.twitter.com/tnIT7saqnF
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) October 3, 2020
“We will continue to enforce the law and regulations impartially and maintain public peace, security and health,” Cohen said at a police situation assessment.
He said he supported the force’s commanders and officers who are facing a “complicated challenge and constant work in the face of ongoing lack of appreciation” from the public.
“The role of the police in a democratic country is to put into practice and enforce the provisions of the law and the Knesset, even when they don’t have the full support of the entire public and even when those who violate them find them distasteful,” Cohen said.
“Unfortunately there are those who break the law and do not obey the instructions of the police. We will not turn a blind eye to blatant violations of the law, in protests and anywhere else,” he said.
Protesters lashed Cohen’s comments.
The Black Flag movement, which has been a key organizer of the protest movement against Netanyahu, urged police to resist the instructions it was allegedly receiving from the prime minister and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is the cabinet minister responsible for the police.
“It is sad to see Commissioner Cohen’s complete surrender to the political echelon,” the movement said in a statement. “The defendant’s [Netanyahu’s] hostile takeover and the ‘hate minister’ Ohana should run into an obstacle called the Israel Police.”
The Crime Minister movement, another protest group, said Cohen’s remarks “demonstrate detachment and a shirking of responsibility for police failures and serious violence against the protesters.”
The movement charged that “under Amir Ohana, and without a permanent chief, the police has become a political police in the service of a criminal defendant. The result is a loss of conscience, serious violence, and abuse. If the senior command doesn’t wake up and stop the madness we will descend a slippery slope to complete public distrust of the police.”
Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich said Sunday she would convene the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee next week for deliberations focusing on police conduct during the protests.
“In the last few days I have received many queries from citizens who went outside to protest within a kilometer from their homes while adhering to the rules demanding face masks and distancing, and nevertheless were dispersed by police,” Haimovich said, according to the Ynet news site.
She said she will call the meeting “against that backdrop and the backdrop of other incidents in the protest in Tel Aviv last Thursday,” apparently referring to a suspected car-ramming.