The police’s clashes in recent days with anti-Netanyahu protesters and ultra-Orthodox Jews over their adherence to lockdown restrictions, or lack thereof, have put the force under heavy scrutiny.
In Tel Aviv on Saturday night, police, accused of using disproportionate force, claimed that demonstrators “violated public order and attacked police officers” as security forces sought to enforce new restrictions against protests.
In the Haredi cities of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, 18 people were arrested on Sunday night throughout hours of clashes between police and ultra-Orthodox worshipers.
David Tzur, a former senior cop, said police “are being sucked into a black hole, with no leadership and unclear restrictions to enforce.” He further said that “public trust has gone down the drain.”
Tzur served in several key positions in the Israel Police — including chief of the Border Police and Tel Aviv District Commissioner. He later saw a two-year stint as a parliamentarian for Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnua party before leaving the Knesset in 2014.
“There are rules and restrictions being established that are so draconian and absurd that at the end of the day, it is impossible for the police to enforce them,” Tzur said. “Not to mention the speed: Usually there’s time for officers and civilians to internalize new guidelines, but not now. Now they change so often that in many cases no one knows what’s going on, both civilians and police.”
Anti-government demonstrators have been calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation for months. Until this past week, they gathered every Saturday night in Jerusalem’s Paris Square adjacent to Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street.
Due to new restrictions placed on demonstrations last week as part of Israel’s second coronavirus lockdown, however, protesters must now remain within a kilometer of their homes. Anti-Netanyahu protest groups have called the new law a violation of their right to demonstrate.
In light of the new law, Saturday night saw hundreds of small rallies held throughout the country as people demonstrated within their communities, in what has been reported by some estimates to have been the largest protest event yet.
But Saturday night also saw police officers clash with demonstrators in the streets of Tel Aviv and with worshipers in Haredi areas in Jerusalem. The night ended with dozens of arrests both in Israel’s most secular and most deeply religious neighborhoods. Of the 38 people detained in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, 37 were released on Sunday morning without charges.
Demonstrators alleged that officers used excessive force to disperse them. Other demonstrators claimed they were in full compliance with the new regulations, but were nonetheless dispersed by police.
Tzur said the new dispersed format of the protests, without any clear leadership for authorities to engage with, made clashes more likely — both with police and with counter-protesters.
One video from the scene showed a cop on a motorcycle punch a protester in the face, apparently for standing in his way. The same officer reportedly went on to strike a Haaretz reporter nearby.
שימו לב לבחור שעומד באמצע, מביט סביב כאשר שוטר יורד מהאופנוע ופשוט מכניס לו אגרוף.
זה רחוב אילת, מי שצילמה היא אביה ויטנר מהמרפסת.
אל תגידו לי ששוטרים מפעילים כוח רק במקרה של צורך או איום. אל תגידו שזה לגיטימי. מתי זאת הפכה להיות המציאות ? pic.twitter.com/3hdDGry5g9
— Sharon Aronof (Sharonof) (@Sharonof5) October 4, 2020
Police reported in a statement issued early Sunday morning that they had issued “hundreds of fines” during the course of the demonstrations for violations of the lockdown.
In a statement issued on Sunday, Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen rejected charges that police had erred in their conduct while dispersing demonstrators on Saturday night.
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 function of the police in a democratic country is to enforce the law and the provisions of the Knesset, even when they don’t have the full support of the public and even when they are not to the liking of those who break them,” Cohen said.
“We will continue to enforce the law and regulations impartially and maintain public peace, security and health,” Cohen concluded.
The situation officers faced on Saturday night in Tel Aviv was very different from months of anti-Netanyahu protests in Jerusalem. Rather than gathering in one large mass close to the Prime Minister’s residence, multiple smaller rallies erupted across the city.
“From an operational perspective, the police prefer one or two protests with a clear leadership. They can talk to these leaders and discuss protest conditions and so on,” Tzur said.
While the Balfour demonstrations have celebrated their leaderless, freeform nature, a number of senior activists have served as points of contact for the police.
With the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations scattered in hundreds of locations across Israel, however, coordinating is far more difficult. Officers commanded to enforce social distancing operate in a complex environment, making escalation even more likely, according to Tzur.
As the protests splinter, police are obligated to divide their forces accordingly — increasing the chances of civilians attacking one another with little law enforcement in sight.
Saturday night saw numerous reports of attacks against demonstrators, including a woman who was briefly hospitalized at Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv. In Pardes Hannah, a protester’s hand was broken by an attacker, while in Holon and Ramat Gan, glass bottles were hurled at demonstrators.
“When the police spreads its forces thin, that is when we see attacks by counter-protesters,” Tzur said, ticking off several other alleged attacks against demonstrators in Hadera, Jerusalem, and Netanya on Saturday night.
Some have attributed police’s heavy hand with protesters in Tel Aviv Saturday to comments made by Public Security Minister Amir Ohana two days prior: On Thursday, a few hundred demonstrators gathered in a march against Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. The police allowed the demonstration to take place even though it had not been coordinated with them in advance, police said then.
Ohana criticized the decision to allow the demonstration to continue in a comment on his Twitter page. “Such a statement ruins much of [police’s] efforts,” Ohana wrote. “If something is illegal — the police are not allowed to ‘permit and secure’ it. Police must act according to the law and enforce it. That’s how the police will be judged.”
Senior police officials have anonymously criticized Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and accused him of bending the police department to political ends.
“He tries every day to intervene in the police work in the field, even though that isn’t his job,” an unnamed official was quoted as saying by Channel 13 on Sunday night.
The same official accused Ohana of exploiting the absence of a national police commissioner to compromise the independence of the police. Nearly two years have passed without a permanent replacement for former commissioner Roni Alsheich, by far the longest period that Israel has gone without a permanent police chief.
Ohana has said that he is willing to appoint a national police chief; according to the minister, it is the Likud’s coalition partner, Blue and White, which is holding up the appointment. Blue and White is believed to be concerned at how the selection process would take place, fearing Ohana would choose someone subservient to him.
Tzur declined to criticize Acting Commissioner Cohen, whom he called “a professional working in an impossible situation.” But he agreed that many of the police’s current problems stemmed from a lack of a leader for nearly two years.
“How is it possible that there is an organization with 30,000 people, one of the most important institutions in the country, and it doesn’t have a chief? It cannot go on like this,” Tzur said. “There hasn’t been a leader for two years. So there’s no consistency in how these laws are enforced in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv or in B’nei Brak. No one at the top has the final say.”