National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Monday police should begin cracking down on anti-government demonstrators who block roads, and reportedly plans on issuing new directives authorizing police to widely expand arrests of protesters.
Ben Gvir, an ultranationalist whose cabinet position places the police under his purview, also said police should use water cannons on demonstrators.
“If you use water cannons in Jerusalem [on Haredi protesters], I expect you to do the same in Tel Aviv,” he said.
The minister accused the force of being disproportionately soft on demonstrators who have held rallies against the government and its plans for sweeping changes to Israel’s system of governance.
“I’m in favor of protests, but anyone who blocks roads and who gets wild needs to be arrested,” Ben Gvir said at a faction meeting of his Otzma Yehudit party in the Knesset.
A senior police official denied any 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.
On Saturday night, thousands of Israel attended a large anti-government rally against plans by Justice Minister Yariv Levin to controversially refigure Israel’s judicial system, weakening the Supreme Court so that it can no longer rein in the Knesset, among other changes.
Ben Gvir claimed police used kid gloves on protesters in Tel Aviv, drawing a comparison with the use of riot-dispersal methods to clear blocked streets during right-wing demonstrations in Jerusalem.
While declaring “freedom of expression is allowed” Ben Gvir insisted the “rules of a protest in Tel Aviv must be the same as the rules of a protest in Jerusalem — the rules for the left, the same as the rules for the right.”
The comments from the minister calling for the arrest of those who block roads marked a sharp turn from December 2021 when he told a Knesset committee meeting that “blocking roads is nothing terrible. In democracies sometimes you block roads.”
Ben Gvir will roll out new orders to police Tuesday authorizing them to arrest anyone who blocks roads, as well as those who display signs deemed “inciting,” including any comparisons made to Nazis, the Kan public broadcaster reported Monday.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed National Unity party leader Benny Gantz for calling for ramped up protests against the judicial overhaul plans while not condemning signs at the Saturday night rally which compared the government and the justice minister to Nazis.
“When someone does not condemn the comparison of the justice minister to a Nazi and of the government of Israel to the Third Reich, he is the one planting the seeds of disaster,” the premier said.
Ben Gvir is slated to huddle with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai Tuesday to discuss the new orders. According to Kan, during a meeting at police headquarters in Jerusalem last week, Ben Gvir told senior officers that police had to end “discrimination between demonstrators on the left and those on the right.”
During the previous Netanyahu administration, police regularly used water cannons against anti-government demonstrators in Jerusalem, drawing condemnation. Police have continued to use the high-powered soakings against ultra-Orthodox protesters as well as Palestinian disturbances, and have also used the cannons against right-wing protesters who blocked roads into the capital.
In 2020 then-deputy state attorney Nurit Litman instructed that those who block roads should not be arrested unless they are closing down a major thoroughfare for a prolonged period, according to the report. She noted the difference between deliberate, prolonged blocking of roads as opposed to spontaneous spillage onto roads during a demonstration.
Since becoming minister, Ben Gvir, a far-right activist who has been convicted in the past of inciting racism and backing terror, has sought to have a heavier hand in day-to-day police policy, a task normally handled by the police commissioner. Critics fear he will use the force as a cudgel against political enemies.
On Sunday, he ordered police to remove Palestinian flags flying in public places, though there is no law against doing so, after Israeli terror convict Karim Younis waved one during celebrations in his home town of ‘Ara. Younis was freed last week after serving 40 years in prison for the 1980 slaying of soldier Avraham Bromberg.
A cousin of Younis who also took part in the attack is set to be freed Wednesday, with Ben Gvir and Shabtai set to meet Tuesday to discuss how to avoid celebrations of the type seen last week.
Shabtai spoke to Bromberg’s brother-in-law Monday and told him “Police will do everything possible to avoid celebrations in the family compound.”
The existence of Palestinian flags and extreme left-wing rhetoric at anti-government rallies has long been a source of consternation for conservatives who nonetheless oppose Netanyahu and his coalition.
On Monday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said his faction would not participate in an upcoming Tel Aviv rally against the sweeping judicial reform package, citing concerns that “there will be leftist and Palestinian flags there.”