ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Critics cry ‘1984’ as police launch probe into X post flogging minister over joke

Investigation of suspected ‘threats’ against Miri Regev — after cops denied okay for incitement probe — draws charges of politically motivated bid to chill speech

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

The AI-generated image posted to X by media adviser Itzik Elrov of a woman resembling Transportation Minister Miri Regev covered in popcorn supposedly dipped in blood in a post criticizing the government's handling of the war against Hamas. (Screenshot from X used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
The AI-generated image posted to X by media adviser Itzik Elrov of a woman resembling Transportation Minister Miri Regev covered in popcorn supposedly dipped in blood in a post criticizing the government's handling of the war against Hamas. (Screenshot from X used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Heavy criticism has been leveled at the Israel Police and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir after a criminal investigation was launched against a media adviser and political strategist over an online post criticizing the government’s handling of the war against Hamas.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv implicitly accused Ben Gvir of issuing a “political directive” to have Itzik Elrov investigated, accusing him of attempting to quash dissent, while the Movement for Quality Government in Israel watchdog group said the incident evoked the dystopian vision of George Orwell’s “1984.”

Elrov’s offending post, published on X two weeks ago, included an AI-generated picture of a woman meant to look like Transportation Minister Miri Regev covered in red popcorn, alongside the comment “Popcorn dipped in the blood of the fallen.”

The picture referenced an incident in which Regev allegedly made a show of pulling out popcorn during a heated argument at a security cabinet meeting meant to discuss Israeli plans for post-war Gaza. Regev was roundly criticized for appearing to make light of a devastating conflict, with some pointing to it as a telling display of government incompetence in managing the war.

Elrov subsequently deleted the post.

On Tuesday, Elrov was questioned under caution at the Petah Tikva police station on suspicion of making threats against a cabinet minister, he said.

The Times of Israel has learned that the move came after the State Attorney’s Office rejected a request from the Petah Tikva police to open an investigation into Elrov for incitement.

Unlike incitement investigations, police do not need permission to open a probe over suspected threats.

Illustrative: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads a faction meeting of his far-right Otzma Yehudit party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 22, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Though Elrov’s post contained no threat, police pointed to comments against Regev made by another X user in response to Elrov’s post before he deleted it.

They also rejected allegations of political interference.

“The Israel Police opened an investigation after receiving a complaint of a suspicion of threats regarding the posting of a picture over a serving cabinet minister with blood stains, alongside responses including ‘We will come to a reckoning with you, we will chase you until your last day’,” the police said in response to questions regarding the investigation.

Following criticism of the alleged popcorn comment, Regev had dismissed reports on her comments as “evil slander” and vowed to “act by legal means and exhaust all her rights against the media channels, journalists and poison and hate mongers who are defaming her.”

Attorney Eliad Shraga, head of the Movement for Quality Government, rejected the claim that there was no ministerial interference in police work and said the investigation was an attempt to chill speech.

“Freedom of speech is a supreme value in a democratic country. The fact that the Ben Gvir police arrests and interrogates people about their thoughts and comments indicates that George Orwell was right, 1984 is already here,” said Shraga.

“This is what the beginning of the end of democracy looks like,” he declared, demanding police reveal “who pressured them to conduct this political investigation.”

Kariv said there could be no reasonable explanation for why Elrov’s post, “as cutting as it might be,” should warrant an investigation.

“This is an embarrassing and disturbing investigation [designed to] silence. Someone in the police has said to themselves that it is better to bully a citizen in a false investigation than to draw a red line in front of the minister, his assistants, or his followers,” said Kariv.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev, at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 20, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Elrov, a former adviser for Shas leader Aryeh Deri and former Labor party head Avi Gabbay, declined to criticize the police but leveled strong criticism against the government over the probe.

“This should disturb every democracy-seeking citizen, from the left and the right,” he wrote on X, calling for the cabinet to resign.  “An insane government… behaves like a bunch of drunk court jesters with bags of popcorn and bottles of vodka, while in the Hamas tunnels there are over 130 Israeli hostages.”

Numerous accusations have been made against the police for opening questionable investigations amid an alleged crackdown on free speech since war broke out following the October 7 atrocities.

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