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After outcry, Gantz says IDF troops won’t police anti-government protests

Soldiers have been reinforcing cops at checkpoints during lockdown, leading to some public anger over involving military in policing demonstrations

Anti-government protestors confront police outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Anti-government protestors confront police outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday said he would stop soldiers who are assisting police amid the national lockdown from being deployed at protest areas, after footage of anti-government demonstrators clashing verbally with soldiers sparked outrage on social media.

The incident near the Knesset saw protestors shout abuse at soldiers manning a checkpoint, questioning why the military had been called in to deal with peaceful demonstrators.

“Positioning IDF soldiers close to protest centers is a mistake that has already been taken care of and will not be repeated,” Gantz said.

The soldiers had not been called in as a military force, but rather as individual troops shoring up thinly-stretched police forces.

Meanwhile, top ministers called on the public to refrain from embroiling police and IDF troops enforcing the lockdown into the political debate about the unpopular move to limit demonstrations due to the pandemic.

The remarks came amid reports that some members of the public were taking out their frustrations on police officers and soldiers at checkpoints across the country, set up as part of the lockdown that began earlier this month. Government officials have already warned that the lockdown is unlikely to be called off by the initial target date of October 10, and that it will only be eased when infection rates drop significantly.

Protesters rallied outside the parliament building as inside, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved a new coronavirus regulation bill that would curtail protests, including limiting the distance that members of the public are permitted to travel to participate in demonstrations. The bill was expected to pass a Knesset vote later in the day.

“The government lays down policy, leave the police and the IDF outside of the political debate,” Gantz tweeted.

Praising the “unparalleled” work being carried out by police officers and soldiers, Gantz wrote, “I strongly condemn the attempts to attack them as they carry out their duties.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to IDF Home Front Command soldiers, during a visit in the southern city of Ashdod, September 14, 2020. (FLASH90)

During the day, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and acting Israel Police chief Motti Cohen toured Tel Aviv to review how the lockdown is being applied.

“Our only way to save the country — nothing less than that, to save the State of Israel from a systemic collapse — is to leave everything else to the side… and mobilize for the struggle,” Ohana told a press conference at a police station. Outside, anti-government protesters could be heard chanting.

Cohen called on the public to listen to police. “Recently, we have witnessed a heated debate against the police and soldiers at the checkpoints,” Cohen said. “I condemn this discourse and call on the public to obey the instructions of the police and to exercise restraint and responsibility.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, in Airport City on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

Edelstein likewise called for putting political differences aside and also predicted that the Knesset will approve the new rules to limit protest gatherings.

“Scientists do not know everything about the coronavirus, but one thing all researchers agree on: The coronavirus has no political views and no political preferences. I hope that the Knesset will complete the legislation and in the next two weeks we will not see gatherings of any kind.”

The proposed legislation would allow citizens to protest only within a kilometer of their homes.

Demonstrations against the prime minister over his alleged corruption and the government’s handling of the virus outbreak have become a regular occurrence in recent months, with rallies held several times a week, and major events every Saturday night.

But the protests have become a contentious issue as virus cases have grown, with the premier and others disparaging the mass gatherings amid fears of infection.

Health Ministry figures released Tuesday showed that the number of seriously ill coronavirus patients passed 800 — the point that has in the past been cited as a red line beyond which the healthcare system won’t be able to adequately treat everyone. The death toll stood at 1,507.

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