But police agree to step up measures against Nazi imagery

Ahead of mass rallies, police said to rebuff Ben Gvir’s demand to escalate response

Hardline minister meets top police brass after urging force to arrest anti-government protesters who block roads, clamp down on Palestinian flags; both demands reportedly rejected

Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at a special committee in the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 14, 2022.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at a special committee in the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ahead of renewed major protests this upcoming weekend against the new hardline Netanyahu government and its contentious policies, the Israel Police were reportedly rebuffing National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s demands to toughen police stance toward protesters blocking roads or flying the Palestinian flag during the rallies.

Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party who has received unprecedented control over police on matters of policy, held a meeting Tuesday with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and other senior members of the police force at the National Security Ministry, after calling Monday for a more stringent crackdown. The minister was reportedly planning to authorize mass arrests of protesters by police.

Demonstrations this past weekend have continued to drive the public discourse this week, with opposition figures urging people take to the streets in greater numbers — sparking coalition accusations of “treason” and “sedition”.

The protesters, who are demonstrating against the coalition’s controversial judicial shakeup plan, intend to hold an even bigger rally on Saturday.

In a joint statement, the Israel Police and the National Security Ministry said that Ben Gvir had sought to ensure no violence is directed toward officers during the demonstrations, with police representatives reassuring him that preparations will be made to allow the protests to proceed as long as they are lawful, but that no harm to officers or disruption of public order will be tolerated.

Police will, however, take a heavy hand against “wild incitement, particularly when it uses Nazi imagery,” the statement said.

Police were thus accepting Ben Gvir’s reported demand to escalate their response to protest banners using symbols that liken the government’s far-reaching judicial reform plans to the sweeping changes the Nazis implemented after they rose to power in Germany in 1933.

Placards blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for political violence and limening him, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and their government to Nazis, brandished at a Tel Aviv political protest, January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

However, according to Channel 12 news, police officials rebuffed the minister’s demand to take a tougher stance against protesters temporarily blocking roads, saying they plan to act with restraint and won’t change current policies so long as demonstrators remain cooperative.

The report said police had rejected another demand by Ben Gvir to confiscate all Palestinian flags, in line with a new directive he had issued seeking to ban them from being flown anywhere in the country. Police were said to have told him there was no legal basis to confiscate them as long as no incitement is taking place.

A small number of Palestinian flags were seen at last weekend’s protest, which drew some 10,000 people, according to organizers.

Ben Gvir said Monday that he wanted police to arrest protesters who block roads and use water cannons against unruly demonstrators, as he noted has been done in Jerusalem against rowdy ultra-Orthodox protesters.

The minister has accused the force of being disproportionately soft on demonstrators who have held rallies against the government and its plans for sweeping changes to Israel’s system of governance.

Police use a water cannon device to break up a protest by members of the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, August 14, 2022. Protesters blocked a road in the capital to protest the planned autopsy of a 4-year old boy. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Officials have said police in Jerusalem sometimes use more heavy-handed tactics due to the more combative nature of frequent ultra-Orthodox protests there as opposed to Tel Aviv, where organizers normally come to an agreement with police on blocking roads for a short period before dispersing.

The network said the minister had asked for comparative data on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Ben Gvir’s call for the arrest of those who block roads had marked a sharp turn from December 2021 when he told a Knesset committee meeting that “blocking roads is nothing terrible. In democracies sometimes you block roads.”

Since becoming minister, Ben Gvir, a far-right activist who has been convicted in the past of inciting racism and backing terror, has sought to have a heavier hand in day-to-day police policy, a task normally handled by the police commissioner. Critics fear he will use the force as a cudgel against political enemies.

Israelis protest against the current government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Saturday night, thousands of Israelis attended a large anti-government rally against plans by Justice Minister Yariv Levin to controversially refigure Israel’s judicial system, weakening the Supreme Court, among other changes.

Organizers have said they are planning an even bigger show of force this coming weekend. Leaders of the opposition are said to be in talks to take part in the event at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square.

The Black Flag protest group, which held weekly demonstrations against Netanyahu in 2019-2020, has called on the public to “come out in unprecedented numbers this coming Saturday” or “pay the price for decades to come.”

A protest is also planned in Jerusalem, outside the President’s Residence.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 9, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ahead of the rally, some critics have decried Ben Gvir’s demand to increase the use of water cannons, a tool that drew widespread criticism when it was used against peaceful anti-government protesters in 2020.

During the previous Netanyahu government, police regularly used water cannons on anti-government demonstrators in Jerusalem. Police have continued to use the high-powered soakings against ultra-Orthodox protesters as well as Palestinian disturbances, and have also used the cannons against right-wing protesters who blocked roads into the capital.

“I urge the prime minister to not approve the use of water cannons and not to exacerbate the harm to the democratic system,” said Bar Association chief Avi Himi, who has announced his resignation in protest of the new government.

“Using a heavy hand against protesters demonstrating in favor of preserving democracy itself is an anomaly,” Himi said. “It’s unacceptable for a minister to go as far as demanding that harm be done to demonstrators exercising their democratic rights, solely because they object to the elected official’s opinions.”

On Tuesday, a protester who was hit in the face by a police water cannon in 2020 was awarded NIS 87,000 ($25,000) in damages from the force, as part of a settlement.

Yonatan Kimmel will withdraw his lawsuit against cops under the agreement, Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, reported.

Kimmel was shot with a water blast from close range in a July 2020 incident caught on video and widely publicized at the time.

He was apparently shot from a distance of less than 10 meters, while police safety guidelines stipulate the minimal distance of use at 25 meters. Kimmel said the blast had caused him to lose consciousness.

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