Police on Saturday defended the arrests of several protesters during a demonstration on Friday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Public Security Minister Amir Ohana denying the arrests were politically motivated.
Among those arrested during Friday’s protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem was Amir Haskel, a former brigadier general in the Israeli Air Force and one of the organizers of the demonstration. A cousin of Ohana’s was also reportedly arrested.
The demonstration was part of the ongoing anti-corruption protests against Netanyahu, who is standing trial in a series of graft cases.
To protest the arrests, demonstrators were expected to rally outside Netanyahu’s residence on Saturday evening.
Also on Saturday, police called Friday’s demonstration an “illegal protest.”
“Hundreds of protesters blocked a main road and prevented cars from passing for a continued period while disturbing the public order,” a police statement said.
“Therefore, a number of the rioters were detained, among them a man who was identified as the leader and organizer of the illegal protest,” the statement added in reference to Haskel.
Without naming him, police said Haskel refused to be released under certain conditions, including staying away from the Prime Minister’s Residence, and therefore remained in custody. He was questioned on suspicion of disorderly conduct and taking part in an illegal protest.
Haskel, 66, had a 32-year career in the Air Force, including as a pilot in the 1973 war, a squadron commander, and head of IAF personnel.
According to the Haaretz daily, two of the other six protesters arrested also refused to abide by the conditions and remained under arrest.
“The Israel Police will continue to allow every person the freedom of expression and protest, but won’t allow anyone to so blatantly violate the law and obstruct public order in violation of the law,” the police statement said.
Ohana, a close Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s, backed police over the arrests.
“Lieutenant general, brigadier general or a private, there will be no tolerance for blocking roads,” he wrote on Facebook, referring to Haskel. “Blocking roads is an application of violence toward innocent and peaceful civilians who use the road on their way to their daily routines.”
Ohana said “this is true for everyone,” including his cousin, and dismissed what he said were direct appeals to him for Haskel’s release.
“In a democratic state, a public security minister doesn’t instruct police who to arrest or who to release. The same is true here,” he said.
His comments came amid condemnations of the arrests by opposition figures.
“The public security minister tweeted ‘zero tolerance for blocking roads.’ What about zero tolerance for bribery? Zero tolerance for fraud?” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid tweeted, referring to the criminal charges against Netanyahu.
He added: “I call for the immediate release of Brig. Gen. Haskel. Israel isn’t a dictatorship and every citizen is allowed to express their opinion, including, yes, about the prime minister.”
While backing the protests against Netanyahu, the head of the left-wing Meretz party criticized the focus on Haskel’s arrest.
“What does it matter if Amir Haskel is a brigadier general, pilot, commander, etc.,” MK Nitzan Horowitz wrote on Twitter. “Our test now is solidarity with all the protesters and linking-up the struggles.”
Haskel’s wife, Aliza, said in a video shared on social media she hoped he would be freed soon and that more people would join the protests calling for Netanyahu to step over his indictment on corruption charges.
Opponents and supporters of Netanyahu have held a number of recent demonstrations outside his official residence, including for dueling rallies in May, on the day his corruption trial began.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He has denied wrongdoing and has claimed the charges are part of an effort by political opponents, the media, law enforcement and prosecutors to remove him from office.