Ahead of new rallies, Ben Gvir says he expects strict handling of unruly protesters

National security minister orders officers to prevent road blockages during Tel Aviv demonstrations, emphasizes that he is in charge of policy and not commanders in the field

Mounted police push Israelis blocking a road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Mounted police push Israelis blocking a road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Friday told police to crack down further on anti-government demonstrators ahead of a weekly mass protest against the coalition’s efforts to overhaul the judicial system.

Ben Gvir sent a letter to Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, telling the top officer to have Tel Aviv police deal strictly with protesters who attempt to block roads.

“Freedom of expression is not a blank check for anarchy, harm and disruption to the lives of the country’s citizens,” Ben Gvir said in the letter. “Do not agree ahead of time to the blockage of roads and major avenues without a permit.”

“The disruption to the fabric of life must not be allowed due to the protests, and as they attack police officers or try to block central roads, you must strictly maintain public order,” Ben Gvir said.

Ben Gvir also emphasized that, as minister of national security, he has the final word on police operations.

“It’s necessary to remember that the minister is the one who determines policy, and not the commander in the field,” he said.

The far-right minister also praised the police’s handling of demonstrators during Wednesday’s nationwide “day of disruption” protest events, and expressed support for officers who were injured, without mentioning demonstrators who got hurt.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 5, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Police will send additional forces to the central protest areas this week, with around 1,000 total officers for the main Tel Aviv march, and will also deploy more resources for documenting the demonstrators to gather evidence that can be used for arrests, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The police force came under criticism this week for its rough treatment of protesters in Tel Aviv, including for an officer who hurled a stun grenade into a crowd of people.

Shabtai phoned the officer, Meir Suisa, a senior officer in the Tel Aviv District, to express his support. The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department has opened a probe into the incident. The grenade was one of the dozens used by officers at the Tel Aviv demonstration, which drew tens of thousands.

Police said the protesters became violent when officers sought to prevent them from continuing to block roads, forcing the use of more extreme measures. Demonstrators rejected the charge, insisting that police were the only ones acting violently in what led to the hospitalization of 11 protesters, including one man who required surgery to reattach his ear after being hit by a stun grenade.

Dozens were arrested at the protest but later released.

The mass Wednesday protests came as the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved for its first reading in the Knesset plenum a government-backed bill to radically restrict the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down legislation, amid opposition outrage directed at committee chair MK Simcha Rothman for his management of the process.

Security personnel face off with protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Also Friday, protesters gathered at the homes of several lawmakers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman and MK Yuli Edelstein and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet security service. His predecessor as Shin Bet chief, Carmi Gillon, was among the demonstrators outside his home.

The protesters called for the more moderate members of the coalition to come out against the judicial overhaul. Edelstein and Likud MK Danny Danon on Wednesday issued a joint statement with two lawmakers from the opposition National Unity party urging compromise, in a rare moment of cooperation between the two sides.

“Gallant, Gallant, wake up. Our democracy is crashing,” the protesters chanted outside the defense minister’s home.

Dozens also gathered outside President Isaac Herzog’s private home in Tel Aviv to oppose his compromise proposal, saying it would lead to a “half-democracy.”

Demonstrators clash with police during a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The Saturday night rallies will take place at around 95 locations throughout the country in the ninth consecutive week of protests. The main event will set off from Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center at 6 p.m. to march toward Kaplan Street.

Other protests will take place in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Haifa, Beersheba, Efrat, Netanya, Kfar Saba, Herzliya, Beit Shemesh and Bat Yam.

Police said they will close off a number of Tel Aviv streets starting at 5 p.m.

The main speaker at the Tel Aviv protest will be former Likud minister Limor Livnat, and former Labor minister Yuli Tamir will be the headliner at the Jerusalem protest outside the president’s official residence.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli will speak at the Haifa rally along with former Supreme Court justice Ayala Procaccia and former Meretz MK Gaby Lasky. Opposition chief Yair Lapid and retired judge Hila Gerstel will speak at the Herzliya rally.

The weekly protests started shortly after Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced the proposals to curtail Israel’s judiciary.

Critics say the proposed overhaul will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances, and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters say it is a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.

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