National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has reportedly instructed the Israel Police to stop using water cannons to quell demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox community, after accusing the force of discriminating between protesters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Police told the minister that they would refrain from using the truck-mounted cannons, which clear demonstrators by spraying a concentrated burst of water strong enough to knock people off their feet, except as a last resort in life-threatening situations, according to the Channel 13 report.
The new directive comes as Ben Gvir, whose position grants him authority over the police, has been pressing the department on what he claims is a double standard regarding how left-wing protesters in Tel Aviv are treated versus ultra-Orthodox demonstrators in Jerusalem.
“If you use water cannons in Jerusalem [on Haredi protesters], I expect you to do the same in Tel Aviv,” he said last week ahead of an anti-government protest organized in Tel Aviv.
A senior police official has denied Ben Gvir’s claims of a double standard, telling Channel 12 news that police in Jerusalem sometimes use more heavy-handed tactics due to the more combative nature of protests there as opposed to Tel Aviv, where organizers normally come to an agreement with police on blocking roads for a short period before dispersing.
Ben Gvir has pointed to the use of riot-dispersal methods to clear blocked streets during right-wing and Haredi demonstrations in Jerusalem. On Sunday, videos from an ultra-Orthodox demonstration against a store selling cellphones in the capital appeared to show protesters being manhandled by police officers, prompting the minister to instruct Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to investigate the use of excessive force against Haredi protesters.
Police have deployed water cannons against anti-government protesters in the past but largely abandoned the use of the crowd-dispersal method in such protests following public scrutiny.
During protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the capital in August 2020, 19-year-old protester Yonatan Kimel was hit in the face with a direct blast from a high-pressure water cannon and filed a complaint against police, demanding compensation.
The previous month, police came under intense criticism following a demonstration against Netanyahu in which protesters said they were rounded up and prevented from leaving as cannons chased and fired at them.
The incidents led to threats by protest organizers to petition the High Court of Justice unless law enforcement officials refrained from using water cannons.
Water cannon regulations stipulate that the jets should not be fired directly at protesters and must not be fired toward the head, where they can cause significant injury.
In 2017, a woman attempting to walk by Haredi protesters was hit by water fired by a cannon, sending her flying down the street, in an incident caught on video that made headlines around the globe.
Amnesty International has in the past highlighted the use of water cannons by law enforcement as posing a danger to demonstrators around the globe, most recently in Hong Kong. In 2015, an activist in South Korea died from injuries sustained when a water cannon was fired at him from close range.
Tobias Siegal contributed to this report.