A man detained by police at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night said an arresting officer from a serious crimes unit warned him that the protests would not bring down the premier and were serving only as a transmission zone for the coronavirus.
“You will not topple Bibi, these demonstrations have no meaning other than being a coronavirus incubator. A leader is only replaced at the ballot box,” the unnamed officer allegedly said to Ziv Bertfeld, using a nickname for the prime minister.
Transmission rates are presumed to be lower at outdoor protests, but there is still risk.
Bertfeld told Channel 12 news on Tuesday that he was arrested for disorderly conduct even though he had behaved no differently from any other protester.
Recent weeks have seen claims of police targeting protesters unfairly in the enforcement of regulations, as well as a number of claims of police brutality.
“The arrest was an attempt to intimidate people from joining the protest, it is a political arrest for all intents and purposes,” Bertfeld said. “It’s just intimidation and silence. We are treated as a criminal organization. One of the detectives who guarded us told us he did not care about the demonstrations and he was waiting to get back to dealing with real crimes.”
Hundreds of officers around the country police demonstrations on a weekly basis, but Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a lawyer representing the detainees and a leader of the protests against Netanyahu, questioned why the serious crimes unit was involved in law enforcement at the rallies.
“Four demonstrators were taken in unmarked vehicles by undercover agents for questioning at the Jerusalem police station. This is a unit that deals with serious crimes,” Ben Yitzhak said. “This is not the way a democratic government behaves and this wrongful practice should be stopped.”
In a statement, police did not directly address the claims made by the protester, but said a number of people were arrested for “leading an illegal march and inciting others to break the law.”
Police said nine people were arrested during protests in Jerusalem on Saturday and several people were detained on suspicion of attacks on demonstrators around the country — protests in recent months have seen dozens of attacks on anti-Netanyahu demonstrators and journalists.
Saturday night saw the first major protests since a rule limiting travel for protests to one kilometer from home was lifted. Organizers said according to their assessment some 260,000 people attended rallies throughout the country, though their figures could not be independently confirmed.
Protesters have held weekly rallies calling for the removal of Netanyahu, who is on trial in three criminal cases for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu has denied the allegations and attacked the police, justice system and other officials for what he and his allies term a “witch-hunt.”
The prime minister’s Balfour Street residence has been the focal point of the weekly protests, which have gained steam since the summer as activists urge the ouster of Netanyahu over his indictment on graft charges and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In September, activists were forced to shift to small rallies at bridges and intersections limited to 20 people each to comply with the rules, which many charged had been politically motivated to quash the demonstrations. Protest leaders claimed the rules had the opposite effect, leading to even larger numbers of people coming out to demonstrate against the government.
Critics of Netanyahu say his attacks on the law enforcement system and the protests against him, coupled with the destabilizing effects of the virus, are major causes for a deeply polarizing atmosphere that has settled over Israel, and fear the violence may yet turn deadly.