Gantz, Netanyahu spar over arrest of anti-corruption protesters near PM’s home

Defense minister: Right to protest is sacred; Netanyahu: ‘The claims we want to limit it are absurd’; their comments come after reporters told to leave cabinet meeting, then return

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz butted heads at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting over the controversial arrest of a former top general and two others while protesting outside of the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Netanyahu made his customary opening remarks to the assembled media ahead of the meeting, before reporters were asked to leave the room. However, Gantz objected to his own comments not being public, so journalists were brought back into the meeting of ministers.

“Freedom to demonstrate, is in my opinion, a sacred right. Everyone who sits at this table believes in it. We must of course on the one hand allow people to continue to demonstrate, and on the other give backing to the Israel Police and the rule of law,” Gantz said.

Netanyahu then countered that any claim he wished to limit protests was “absurd.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), with Defense Minister Benny Gantz in the background, holds the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 28, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)

“Freedom of demonstration is not at stake. In the toughest of moments, at the height of the lockdown, we allowed it. The claims we want to limit it are absurd. I do not interfere with police decisions,” Netanyahu said. “The condemnation of rioters should be equal on all parts of the political spectrum.”

Three men were arrested Friday during a demonstration against government corruption outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in the capital.

The three were ordered unconditionally released from police custody early Sunday.

Police had sought restraining orders against former air force brig. gen. (res.) Amir Haskel and fellow protesters Gil Danieli and Saadi Ben Sheetrit to ban them from Jerusalem for at least 15 days.

Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Haskel (C) and two other protesters at Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Hearing onJune 27, 2020, after they were arrested during a protest outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official Jerusalem residence. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But at a late-night hearing that stretched beyond midnight Saturday, Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge Orna Sandler-Eitan said banning them from Jerusalem would amount to a muzzle on free speech and ordered their release without conditions.

A police representative admitted to the judge that Haskel, 66, had not been actively blocking roads, but said he had organized the protest and thus was responsible for other demonstrators doing so, according to Haaretz. The representative said police had handled the protesters with kid gloves.

Interim Israel Police commissioner Motti Cohen on Sunday addressed the controversial arrests, saying that police will learn lessons from the incident.

“The role of the police is to allow freedom of expression and protest for every person, and maintain the public’s safety and security, regardless of the issue, the protesters or their positions,” Cohen said in a statement. “Police will learn lessons from this incident, as we have done in the past. At the same time, there is no substitute for commanders using their discretion.”

The demonstration was part of the ongoing “black flag” anti-corruption protests against Netanyahu, who is standing trial in a series of graft cases.

On Saturday night, thousands of people demonstrated at the same spot on Jerusalem’s Azza street, this time protesting both corruption and the arrests.

Israelis protest against PM Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on June 27, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Video and photos from the protest showed demonstrators sitting in the middle of street outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. Some of them were picked up and removed by police, but it was unclear from the images whether they had been ordered to clear the road.

Haskel, who had a 32-year career in the air force, including as a pilot in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and as head of IAF personnel, was arrested shortly after speaking at the protest on Friday, according to eyewitnesses.

Police remove a protester during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, on June 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opponents and supporters of Netanyahu have held a number of recent demonstrations outside his official residence, including dueling rallies in May on the day his corruption trial began.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He has denied wrongdoing and claims the charges are part of an effort by political opponents, the media, law enforcement and prosecutors to remove him from office.

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