Facing accusations of heavy-handed policing against protesters, acting Israel Police Chief Motti Cohen on Sunday defended the force’s actions at anti-Netanyahu demonstrations the day before and said police would continue to enforce the law.
His remarks drew condemnation from protest movement leaders, who accused the police of surrendering to the political leadership.
Dozens of people were arrested as they participated in rallies throughout Israel Saturday in the wake of the passage of highly contentious legislation last week that banned mass demonstrations as part of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Demonstrators, who are urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign over the corruption charges against him, alleged that police used excessive force, and footage showed protesters being shoved or punched.
“We will continue to enforce the law and regulations impartially and maintain public peace, security and health,” Cohen said at a police situation assessment.
He said he supports the force’s commanders and officers who are facing a “complicated challenge and many tasks in the face of ongoing lack of appreciation.”
“The role of the police in a democratic country is to put into practice and enforce the provisions of law and the Knesset, even when they don’t have full support among the entire public and even when those who violate them find them distasteful,” Cohen said.
“Unfortunately there are those who break the law and do not obey the instructions of the police. We will not turn a blind eye to blatant violations of the law, in protests and anywhere else,” he said.
Describing the county as being in an “emergency situation” due to the coronavirus outbreak, Cohen called on the populace to abide by instructions and listen to officers who are enforcing the law.
The Black Flag movement, which has been a key organizer of the protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urged police to oppose the premier and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is in responsible for police.
“It is sad to see the complete surrender by chief Cohen to the political echelon,” the movement said in a statement. “The defendant’s [Netanyahu] hostile takeover and the hate minister Ohana should come up against a wall in the form of the Israel Police.”
The Crime Minister movement, another protest group, said Cohen’s remarks “demonstrate detachment and a shirking of responsibility for police failures and serious violence against the protesters.”
The movement charged that “under Amir Ohana, and without a permanent chief, the police has become a political police in the service of a criminal defendant. The result is a loss of conscience, serious violence, and abuse. If the senior command doesn’t wake up and stop the madness we will descend a slippery slope to complete public distrust of the police.”
Shortly after midnight Saturday, Ohana tweeted his support for police.
“You stand as a solid rock alongside the law-abiding public and those who seek life,” he wrote, an apparent reference to the concern that the rallies posed a danger as the coronavirus could spread among the crowds.
“Fully fulfill your mission to maintain the safety, security, and now the health of the Israeli public,” Ohana wrote. “Negative voices, informed by ulterior motives, are trying to weaken enforcement of law and order. Take strength, you’re saving lives.”
On Sunday, Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich said she will convene the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee next week for deliberations focusing on police conduct during the protests.
“In the last few days I have received many queries from citizens who went outside to protest within a kilometer from their homes while adhering to the rules demanding face masks and distancing, and nevertheless were dispersed by police,” Haimovich said, according to the Ynet news site.
She said she will call the meeting “against that backdrop and the backdrop of other incidents in the protest in Tel Aviv last Thursday,” apparently referring to a suspected car-ramming.
Socially distanced rallies were held in hundreds of locations throughout the afternoon and evening Saturday, though at times orderly conduct gave way to more chaotic scenes of scuffles between protesters and police.
Police said 38 people were arrested in Tel Aviv alone for “violating public order and attacking police officers.” All but one were released the following day.
There were reports of protesters being assaulted by opposing activists, with several requiring hospitalization and one case suffering a broken arm.
Guy Lev, who suffered the fracture at a rally in Pardes Hannah, told Channel 12 the assault was an “attempted lynching.”
“The feeling at the moment is that we have no security. There need to be police officers who help us and defend our right to protest,” Lev said.
He recalled that as he arrived at the demonstration in his car he saw a man exit a house and spit at a young woman who was apparently heading to the rally. Lev said he stopped his car and got out to shout at the man, who then disappeared inside the home before returning with a large crowd of people.
Within seconds “men and women attacked,” he said. “I felt like my life was in danger. I simple ran away on foot. They caught up with me in ten seconds, hitting me with punches from behind.”
He was forced to the ground, he said, and the alleged assailants then began kicking him all over his body. Eventually they returned him to his car and told him to leave.
“It could be that the older ones among them stopped this attempted lynching,” he said.
Police have arrested a 25-year-old suspect in connection with the incident and the investigation continues.
On Sunday the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court extended the remand of Pini Luzon, 35, who is suspected of ramming his car into protesters in Tel Aviv during a Thursday night rally. Luzon claims he became afraid when he was surrounded by demonstrators and accelerated away.
משטרת תל אביב מבצעת בשעה זו סריקות לאיתור הנהג שדרס את המפגינות. הוא ייעצר ברגע שיימצא. למי שלא בטוח שמדובר בניסיון דריסה, ראיתי בעיניי כיצד הוא מתעצבן שנאלץ להמתין שהצעידה תעבור, לוחץ על דוושת הגז ודוהר לכיוון המפגינים שבדרכו, לא מאט גם כשפוגע, ולאחר מכן טס ברמזור אדום ונמלט pic.twitter.com/XvLHFpbfzU
— עמרי מניב omri maniv (@omrimaniv) October 1, 2020
The Black Flag movement has estimated that over 100,000 people protested throughout the country on Saturday.
The figure would make the demonstrations collectively the largest yet held since protests gathered steam over the summer, fueled by anger at Netanyahu, who has refused to step down despite being on trial for graft, and at his government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
Protesters seemed to be widely using protective masks but a police statement said they were intentionally breaching social distancing rules and regulations on the sizes of gatherings.
Police said in a statement that “many protesters disturbed the peace, blocked roads, ignored the instructions of officers and resorted to physical and verbal violence. A large majority overtly broke the emergency regulations when they assembled with no distancing, not wearing masks and endangering public health.”
New measures passed last week bar Israelis from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes to protest and limit demonstrations to socially distanced groups of 20, although they apparently also allow for multiple groups of 20 in “capsules” in areas with sufficient space for social-distancing between the capsules.
The approval of the restrictions was seen as a blow to the weekly demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. However, Saturday’s mass turnout throughout the country indicated it may have only served to further galvanize opposition to Netanyahu.
Cohen has been acting chief since December 2018 as the country’s political turmoil, which saw three indecisive elections within a year and half, has prevented a permanent chief from being selected.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced Friday his Blue and White party would move immediately to make a permanent appointment to the post of state attorney, which has not been filled since December of last year, as well as that of the chief of police.