New Tel Aviv police chief hosts protest leaders

Ben Gvir: Probes into alleged police brutality are attempt to ‘threaten’ cops

‘You are our heroes,’ minister tells under-fire Yasam cops, says he has seen no excessive use of force by officers; state attorney rejects ‘effort to besmirch’ PIID investigators

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a meeting with police officers from the Yasam riot control unit, in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a meeting with police officers from the Yasam riot control unit, in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Wednesday accused the Justice Ministry department investigating alleged violence by police against anti-government protesters of trying to restrict riot control units and vowed to give his full backing to the officers.

Ben Gvir made his remarks during a visit to officers of Tel Aviv’s Yasam special patrol unit, with the unit’s commander being probed by the Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) over allegations of violence lodged by protesters.

The State Attorney’s Office in a statement rejected the suggestion that the PIID was anything but objective in its work and condemned what it called Ben Gvir’s “effort to besmirch” its activity.

The chief of the Tel Aviv police’s Yasam special patrol unit, Yair Hanuna, and four other officers were questioned by the PIID during the day over allegations they used excessive force at protests.

Ben Gvir, whose ministry is in charge of the police, told officers that the PIID’s behavior is “puzzling and very grave.”

“I saw how they try to deter you and threaten you, it won’t work,” Ben Gvir said, and questioned why the PIID spent several hours interviewing Hanuna. “What do they want? For the streets of Tel Aviv to be a free-for-all?”

Police officer Yair Hanuna arrives for questioning at the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“You are our heroes, and on my watch, you will have complete backing,” Ben Gvir said.

Ben Gvir has pressed police to take a firm hand against protesters of the government’s drastic overhaul of the judiciary. Demonstrators have routinely blocked main highways as part of their protest tactics, leading to increasingly intense clashes with police.

Ben Gvir noted that he doesn’t condone police violence and that “sometimes they go a little too far,” but stressed that in his opinion he had not seen any wrongdoing in footage of recent clashes that led to the PIID probes.

“In the videos I saw, reasonable force was used. You are working for all of us, so that there is a correct balance between freedom of expression and freedom of movement. I have seen quite a few videos where you see how some of the protesters — most of whom are normative people — curse, spit and throw barriers at you and try to attack you.”

At the end of the talk, one of the special patrol officers under investigation by the PIID was given a round of applause by his comrades.

A demonstrator outside police headquarters was arrested on suspicion of trying to interfere with Ben Gvir’s convoy.

The State Attorney’s Office responded to Ben Gvir’s remarks, saying in a statement that it “completely rejects the attempt to besmirch the PIID. The PIID will not be deterred from doing its job. We reiterate that the PIID acts professionally and out of practical considerations only, and any attempt to criticize its work will not succeed.

“The law enforcement system will continue to act in accordance with the law, without fear and without bias,” the statement said.

Hanuna was seen in widely circulated images seemingly punching protester Amitai Aboudi after the 18-year-old had already been handcuffed on July 24.

During his questioning, Hanuna reportedly denied hitting Aboudi and claimed he stank of alcohol at the time of the clash, according to unsourced comments reported by Channel 13. Hanuna said he intervened when Aboudi attacked another officer.

He said the officer had spotted Aboudi trying to push a garbage can under the police water cannon vehicle and so arrested him.

“I saw that my comrade was having difficulties with the arrest so I came to help him,” Hanuna said. “He [Aboudi] screamed at…[the officer]…and it looked as though he tried to head-butt him or spit at him. The teen wanted to shout at me and I held his face so that he wouldn’t spit on me. He had a strong smell of alcohol. I did not hit him at all.”

Channel 12 aired a video from the body camera of one of the officers involved in Aboudi’s arrest

Though the footage is largely unclear and confused, Aboudi can be heard telling police “But I am not resisting, why are you shutting me…” Officers can be heard saying: “Come here, shut your mouth, don’t twist your arm,” and “Hold your hands behind [your back].”

Aboudi has claimed that Hanuna taunted him by saying “I will rape your mother,” an accusation the police officer denies.

Hanuna’s attorney Ofer Bartal pointed out that no such remark could be heard in the body camera footage. According to Channel 12, Aboudi claims Hanuna said it to him inside the police patrol car, but Bartal denies his client was even in the vehicle.

Dozens of Hanuna’s fellow uniformed officers from the Yasam unit gathered outside the office where the questioning was to be held when their commander arrived, obstructing the flow of traffic on the Tel Aviv street, and cheered as he arrived.

Channel 13 reported that officers were given permission for the show of support by Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai.

Hanuna was later released from PIID questioning without restrictions, though he is prohibited from discussing details of the case.

Another of the police officers who was questioned on suspicion of hitting Aboudi also denied the accusation.

“I behaved with moderation, I did not act violently in any way. The guy spat at me in the face and you can see that he is lunging his head at me. I did not take it personally, I led him to the detainee collection point in a professional manner,” the officer said, according to Hebrew media reports.

On Tuesday, Ben Gvir visited the Border Police training camp in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Mikhmas. He was accompanied by police chief Shabtai.

Photos of the visit showed Ben Gvir wearing a Border Police hat and uniform top which reportedly had been specially prepared for him with his name printed on it in the style of serving officers.

The practice of offering a “visitor’s kit” to the police minister during a visit with Border Police was started by Shabtai years ago when he led that unit. According to Channel 12, Ben Gvir’s predecessor Omer Barlev was not given a similar tour though the police minister before him, Likud MK Amir Ohana, now Knesset Speaker, did don the semi-uniform.

Ben Gvir was widely mocked online by opponents of the government, who accused him of playing dress-up while having never himself served in the security forces.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, second left, and Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai, second right, at the Border Police training camp in Ma’ale Mikhma, August 1, 2023. (Israel Police)

Ben Gvir never served in the armed forces having been rejected from induction into the army due to his far-right activism. His lack of service in the military, which is compulsory for most Israelis, has been a source of scorn from critics who question his suitability as national security minister.

Also Tuesday, the newly appointed Tel Aviv Police District Commander Peretz Amar met with two of the city’s protest leaders, Haaretz reported. The meeting with Moshe Radman and Ami Dror was held in Amar’s office. Police sources said that Amar told them that in his opinion some of the means recently used against protesters were “unnecessary.”

Both Radman and Dror were briefly arrested during protests this week.

He reportedly told them he doesn’t intend to “escalate the situation” and that he intends to “balance” between the right to demonstrate “and freedom of movement.”

Amar further told the pair he won’t deploy riot dispersal means in Tel Aviv against demonstrators and asked the pair about protesters’ plans to block the Ayalon Highway, a focal point of clashes in the city.

Radman and Dror told Amar that they expect the police to lower the level of violence and to “not become a tool in the hands of Ben Gvir.”

Police confirmed that the meeting took place, the first of its kind between the Tel Aviv regional police commander and protesters.

Newly appointed Tel Aviv police commander Peretz Amar at a handover ceremony in Tel Aviv, July 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Ben Gvir, who has repeatedly pushed for a harsher crackdown on protesters, was behind the ouster of Tel Aviv’s previous police chief Ami Eshed, who resisted engaging in rough treatment of demonstrators and took his leave from the force last month.

There were chaotic protests last week across the country after the government passed a law curtailing judicial oversight over the decisions of elected officials based on their reasonableness — the first piece of legislation in its contentious overhaul package.

Videos from those demonstrations showed police kicking protesters who were lying on the ground, throwing burning pallets toward them, dragging activists by their hair, and using violence during arrests of those allegedly blocking roads and highways, including those who were not resisting arrest.

Police also deployed water cannons against protesters who were not blocking roads or carrying out any illegal activity.

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