A video in which a senior police officer appeared to assault at least two protesters during a demonstration in Jerusalem on Saturday night drew swift denunciation from politicians and promises of an investigation, amid some of the most intense fighting between cops and activists in nearly two months of weekly rallies.
Police said 30 people were arrested at the protest calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster, as scuffles broke out between activists and cops attempting to clear streets and confiscate noisemakers.
In one incident, Jerusalem chief superintendent Niso Guetta was seen in videos shoving and smacking one protester, and then pushing people to the side, as he chased down another protester, hitting him in the face and pushing him to the ground.
Guetta and other officers then drag the person on the pavement before hauling him off.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) August 22, 2020
In a statement, police said the officer reported that he was attacked, but “nonetheless, the incident will be checked and investigated.”
“He claims he was attacked by two protesters,” Jerusalem deputy police chief Ofer Shomer told reporters. “One punched him in the face, scratched him, and removed his mask. He was arrested and it will be looked into.”
זווית חדשה לתקרית עם סנ"צ גוואטה. pic.twitter.com/u3KREOEfPA
— نير حسون Nir Hasson ניר חסון (@nirhasson) August 22, 2020
In the video, a hand is seen reaching in from out of frame and appearing to dislodge Guetta’s facemask, as he shoves the first protester.
Several lawmakers responded to the video with calls for a probe into the alleged police violence, including Intelligence Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen of the Blue and White party.
“Power is responsibility, not lawlessness!” she tweeted.
“The protesters in the most just protests in the history of the country can’t suffer from police violence. This can’t be allowed to happen and we’ll demand a quick and decisive investigation of this evening’s events in Jerusalem,” tweeted opposition leader Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party.
Police said that officers were responding to being attacked by protesters. According to a police statement, three officers were injured during the protests. Police earlier said one officer was hit by a stone.
“This protest saw very harsh behavior toward police,” Shomer said, calling the reports of police violence “fake news.”
“The protesters used the names of cops, threatened and incited against us. One officer got punched in the head and another was hit by a rock. This is not something we’ve seen before now.”
Despite the claims, reporters from The Times of Israel did not witness any such incidents at the protests.
At least some of the violence appeared to be set off by a decision by police to begin enforcing noise regulations and clearing the protest earlier than in the past, following a High Court decision banning noisy protests late at night, due to complaints from neighborhood residents.
By 10:00 p.m., an officer speaking from a police vehicle had declared the gathering to be illegal. Rather than a few hundred, well over 10,000 demonstrators remained in Paris Circle, as police began entering the crowd to confiscate drums and horns.
In response, the crowd swelled towards the police roadblock on King George Street. With many noise-making devices snatched by police, demonstrators began banging the metal police barricade, creating a deafening sound. In response, officers climbed the barricade and began violently shoving demonstrators away from the blockade, sometimes hurling them back bodily into the crowd.
Just look at this pic.twitter.com/H4FROOkPzO
— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) August 22, 2020
At 11 p.m., the police declared the gathering to be illegal again, and threatened the use of force. Several minutes later, mounted police charged the thousands-strong crowd, followed by ranks of Yassam riot police. Protesters retreated to Paris Circle, where over 30 were detained. Even more seem to have been dragged out by force before being released.
At least one protester was injured and needed to be hospitalized, according to Haaretz.
Police patience may have also been taxed by a decision by protesters to hold a march through the capital, in violation of police guidelines, leading to minor scuffles between the two sides.
The marked uptick in fighting came after several weeks that had seen only sporadic scuffles between protesters and officers, who seemed to take a softer stance toward the demonstrators after an outcry following violent incidents when protests began to pick up steam in late June. Among other things, police halted the use of water cannons and waited until most people had left Paris Square of their own volition before removing people one by one.
Police have said that dealing with the protests is “complicated” given social distancing regulations, the urban setting at one of Jerusalem’s busiest intersections, political pressures and other factors.
“Despite the efforts and many resources invested by the Israel Police to guarantee a safe protest and freedom of expression for all, it’s clear that various groups chose the way of provocation, including physical and verbal violence against officers whose role is to maintain security and order, including the protesters themselves,” police said in a statement early Sunday.
But protesters and others have accused the police of using violent tactics and arresting people without cause.
“I lost my trust in the police because they fake things, unjustifiably arrest, act violently,” said Meir Moskovich, 62, who held a sign that read “We no longer believe the police,” at Saturday’s protest.
“If the police were smart and could contain the protest, it [the protest] would have dissipated a long time ago. One of the reason that people come here, the main reason, is the conduct of the police,” said the Kiryat Ono resident. He cited the arrest of protest leader and former general Amir Haskel earlier this summer and the clearing of a protest tent on Thursday, in preparation for a pro-Netanyahu rally as events that only brought more protesters to the streets.
Protesters have been holding regular rallies for several months outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, as well as in Tel Aviv and other areas, calling on the premier to resign due to his indictment on corruption charges.
The protests on Saturday nights tend to be the largest and have been the scene of clashes between protesters and law enforcement.
Some 10,000 people attended the Jerusalem protest Saturday night.