ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Ben Gvir: Police chief needs help, will get 'advisers'

Ben Gvir slams police for not using force against protesters; top cop backs officers

Minister says police lost ‘control of city to anarchists’ after anti-government demonstration, summons J’lem commander for inquiry; Commissioner Shabtai ‘regrets’ public rebuke

Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai. (Composite/Flash90)
Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai. (Composite/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir publicly lashed out at Jerusalem police after they failed to use force to disperse anti-government protestors when pockets of violence broke out at a demonstration in the capital on Thursday night, accusing police of “losing control of the city to a group of anarchists.”

His remarks drew an immediate reaction from Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who backed the officers and lamented that disagreements over policing strategy were being aired publicly.

The incident was the latest amid growing tension between Ben-Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, who has sought greater power over police policy decisions at the expense of the professional force.

“An event in which tires were burned next to the prime minister’s apartment, the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway was blocked and the city’s light rail was blocked — these are all most serious incidents that police forces were present at. However, they received an explicit order not to enforce the law and not to confront the rioters,” Ben Gvir said in a statement released after Thursday night’s rally, saying that police lost “control of the city to a group of anarchists.”

Ben-Gvir routinely refers to left-wing or anti-government protesters as “anarchists.”

Ben Gvir singled out Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Turgeman, summoning him for a late-night “clarifying conversation… to understand why he gave orders not to enforce the law this evening” ahead of major anti-government demonstrations outside the Knesset planned for the coming week.

Shabtai defended Turgeman, praising him for “standing firm and exercising discretion in handling the protest.” Shabtai, without mentioning Ben Gvir by name, pushed back against the public criticism.

Police officers clash with demonstrators during a protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, in Jerusalem, February 9, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The commissioner “regrets that the investigation of the matter is being carried out in a public manner while the police forces are operating in the field, and not through an operational investigation which is carried out at the end of operations as usual.”

Ben Gvir appeared to escalate his attempts to undermine Shabtai on Friday morning, announcing that he was putting together a group of former top police officers who would “help the commissioner, who is having difficulty dealing with the protests and crime in the streets.”

Hebrew media reports said the team most likely consisted of three former superintendents, Uri Bar-Lev, Shlomo Katabi and Yoram Halevi, who have been advising Ben Gvir for several months.

Police officers reacted angrily to the move, with one unnamed senior officer telling the Ynet news site that “the one who needs advisers is Ben Gvir, who does not understand the work of the Israel Police.”

Some 400 demonstrators had gathered Thursday night outside the prime minister’s private apartment in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, where he is living while the official Prime Minister’s Residence is being renovated.

They argued that it was legitimate to demonstrate outside his home in Azza Street as it was being used as the official residence.

The protesters were confronted by some 100 pro-government supporters, with some acts of violence forcing police to separate the two groups. Two people were arrested.

In a statement, police said they were acting to allow “the freedom to demonstrate and freedom of speech in accordance with the law.”

Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, near the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, February 9, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition, led by Netanyahu, has been pushing a dramatic overhaul that would increase government control over the judiciary, allow it to override court decisions with the slimmest majority, and give it full power over judicial appointments.

Anti-government protesters also encountered several acts of violence and abuse during their protest march.

As the group marched through the city center, one youth, with his face covered, repeatedly yelled at a demonstrator who was filming: “I’ll make a Holocaust for you… I’m Hitler… Heil Hitler,” before presenting the camera with his middle finger.

In another incident, a car moved toward the demonstrators before being stopped by a senior police officer, who drew his handgun and used it to hit the car window, before apprehending the driver, the Ynet news site said.

After the rally in the capital, some protesters were briefly blocked from returning home via Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon train station by rail officials.

In videos posted to social media, train station security guards can be seen refusing entry to the protesters, who were wearing t-shirts emblazoned with slogans opposing the planned judicial overhaul such as “Dictatorship? No way.”

After a 10-minute delay, the individuals were permitted to enter the station and board their Tel Aviv-bound train.

One of those blocked by security was Amir Haskel, a former air force general and current leader of the anti-government group Ein Matzav (No Way).

Speaking to Ynet, Haskel recounted the incident. “We came to the train station to return to Tel Aviv after the protest, but when we arrived the security guards stopped us because of our t-shirts.”

Pro-government protesters rally against those who oppose the proposed changes to the legal system, near the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, February 9, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We waited until they received orders on whether to permit our entry or not, which they eventually did. There’s no doubt that there was major discomfort. We were lucky we arrived with plenty of time and didn’t miss the train,” he said.

In a statement, Israel Railways said security guards are instructed to deny entry to passengers wearing clothing that may incite violence. “The incident will be investigated and if the security guards contradicted the protocols, we will take further steps,” it said.

Earlier, former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, speaking to a gathering of demonstrators at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetary, extolled the planned protest, describing it as a “march to liberate Jerusalem from siege imposed on it by the government.”

“We are talking about a fight for our freedom, for the declaration of independence from which they are trying to erase important clauses. We will not allow it,” emphasized Halutz.

Weekly protests against the judicial makeover were expected to continue on Saturday night, with police planning to close off central areas in Tel Aviv. Smaller demonstrations are anticipated in Jerusalem.

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