Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Friday called for more police officers to be stationed at anti-government demonstrations due to a series of assaults on protesters, warning the violence could end in “murder.”
Gantz made the request during talks with Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and acting police commander Motti Cohen, ahead of the weekly protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, set to be held Saturday evening.
“We see violence against demonstrators,” Gantz said, according to a statement from his office. “There’s a real concern for human life. The violence directed toward the demonstrators could lead to murder in the current tensions.”
Gantz, who heads the Blue and White party, said police should focus on preventing violence along with enforcing the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, according to his office.
He also denounced any violence against police and a lack of adherence to the virus restrictions, while praising the officers on the force.
There was no comment from Ohana, a Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s who was recorded earlier this year pressing police to quash the rallies.
Gantz’s comments came after a report in the Haaretz daily said only one person has been indicted in the dozens of reported attacks on anti-Netanyahu demonstrators in recent months, a Sderot resident accused of assaulting a protester with a sharp object.
The most serious incident was in July, when several suspected far-right activists attacked protesters as they took part in a demonstration outside Ohana’s Tel Aviv home after he was recorded pressuring police brass to step up enforcement against demonstrators.
The attackers were seen hitting demonstrators with glass bottles, clubs and chairs and spraying them with mace. Organizers of the protest said five people were hospitalized, including two with stab wounds in their backs. Later reports said 10 people were hospitalized.
There have also been two suspected incidents of cars trying to ram protesters. However, the Haaretz report noted many of the incidents did not rise to the level of crimes, such as cursing and throwing eggs.
Protesters have also accused cops of using heavy-handed measures against them, while police have defended their handling of the demonstrations.
Late Wednesday, ministers voted to extend controversial emergency regulations restricting public events, including the protests against Netanyahu.
Under the emergency measures, protesters cannot travel more than one kilometer from home to demonstrate and must maintain socially distanced “capsules.”
Critics have charged the restrictions are aimed at muzzling the protests, which Netanyahu and his allies have frequently railed against.
Supporters of the measures say they are needed to curb the COVID-19 outbreak and claim others won’t adhere to the lockdown if mass demonstrations are taking place, though there hasn’t been any evidence that the demonstrations have been a vector for spreading the virus.
On Thursday, hundreds of anti-government protesters marched in Tel Aviv, while smaller demonstrations against Netanyahu were held in locations throughout the country, in adherence to the one-kilometer restriction on travel.
There were some light scuffles between protesters and police in Tel Aviv. At least two demonstrators were arrested, and police ticketed dozens for not wearing masks and for straying farther than 1 kilometer from home, the Ynet news site reported. Two other protesters were detained and released.
A woman in her 20s was arrested after she refused a police request to put on a mask or identify herself, then punched and kicked an officer, police said.
Thousands of Israelis have participated in weekly demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem for months this summer, calling on the longtime prime minister to resign while on trial for corruption.
Since the restriction was approved last month, tens of thousands of Israelis have staged protests on street corners and public squares near their homes against Netanyahu and against the government’s perceived mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.