Ben Gvir says ruling 'cancels the government'

Top court says police don’t take orders on protests from Ben Gvir, who slams ‘coup’

Ruling follows incidents in which far-right minister instructed police commanders on crowd dispersal methods, highways to be cleared

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to police officials ahead of a protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset, February 20, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to police officials ahead of a protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset, February 20, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice ruled on Sunday that National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir may not issue operational orders to police forces regarding how they manage demonstrations and the use of force during protests. In response, Ben Gvir assailed the ruling as a “coup” by the court that “cancels the executive branch.”

The court also ruled that the far-right minister may not instruct the police as to what crowd dispersal methods to use, or when, where and how protestors involved in civil disobedience can be forcibly dispersed.

The ruling noted, however, that Ben Gvir is authorized to “outline policies and general principles for the Israel Police,” including in relation to protests and clearing demonstrators from highways.

The High Court decision issued by Justice Isaac Amit comes amid increasingly vocal claims that the ultranationalist minister is trying to repress the mass protests against the government’s judicial reforms by ordering the police to use tougher methods of crowd dispersal.

Protest groups and opposition parties have claimed Ben Gvir’s approach to policing is turning the police into a “private militia” under his control.

The minister has visited police command and control centers over the course of several recent anti-government protests and has given specific orders to the police as to how to conduct its response to these demonstrations, such as which highways the police should ensure remain free from demonstrators.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in the Traffic Police’s National Control Center with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Thursday, March 9, amid nationwide protests against the government’s judicial overhaul program. (Courtesy: Office of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir)

Ben Gvir himself claims he is merely cracking down on illegal protests such as the blocking of highways and other forms of civil disobedience in order to preserve public order.

In a press conference hours after the ruling, Ben Gvir argued that “with a half-page-long ruling without any explanations, Justice Amit today canceled the executive branch. The decision that the minister can only set a general policy without any operative ability to implement it is not only unprecedented — it is a coup in the full sense of the word.

“To Justice Amit and some of his friends, the prime minister and government ministers are no more than ornaments,” he charged. “The minister can say what they think should be done, but can’t carry out any of it and ensure their policy is being implemented. According to him, ministers are merely academic researchers who can submit position papers — nothing beyond that.”

Ben Gvir accused Amit of being in “a distinct conflict of interest” by issuing the ruling in relation to protests aimed at defending the High Court from government plans to weaken it. He said the ruling was proof of the legal overhaul’s necessity.

The minister said he intended to change the law once again to ensure not only that he can set police policy, but also ensure it is implemented in the field: “It’s sad that such an amendment is even necessary because in a democracy this should be obvious, but it is Justice Amit who is dragging us to more and more legislation that will clarify that the executive branch carries out [policy]. This is democracy.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a press conference in Jerusalem, March 19, 2023. (Courtesy)

The ruling came in response to a petition by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel (MQG), which claimed Ben Gvir’s interventions into police tactics at the time protests are taking place politicizes police action and is unlawful.

MQG’s petition noted that on March 8, Ben Gvir made a public statement ahead of protests scheduled for the following day, saying, “I am in favor of protests, in favor of freedom of expression, but Ben Gurion Airport and major traffic arteries must be out of bounds.”

Shortly after the March 9 protests, Channel 12 reported that Ben Gvir was “very disappointed” with how the police had handled the Tel Aviv demonstration, and shortly afterwards it was announced that the commander of the city’s police force, Amichai Eshed, was being transferred to head up the police instruction branch.

On March 1, during a visit to the Tel Aviv Police Forward Command Center with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai while a protest was underway, Ben Gvir said, “There must be zero-tolerance toward anarchists who attack the police, breach police barriers and bring about anarchy.”

Back in January, Channel 12 reported that two days after the first anti-government protests, Ben Gvir met with senior police commanders and told them that “if you use water cannons in Jerusalem, I expect you to use them in Tel Aviv,” apparently in reference to ultra-Orthodox protests in the capital during which police have used water cannons to disperse protestors on many occasions.

An attorney for MQG who helped draft the petition also noted that the far-right leader gave his full backing to a police officer who lobbed a stun grenade into a crowd of protestors last month.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Tel Aviv Police Forward Command Center with Police Commissioner Koi Shabtai, March 1, 2023 (Courtesy Office of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir)

The group’s petition contended that under the law governing the relationship between the national security minister and the police, the minister has no authority to give the police direct, tactical instructions as to how to handle a protest, or other matters of on-the-ground police operations.

The organization also noted that other democratic countries bar police ministers from intervening in police tactics at the operational level in order to avoid politicizing policing.

Justice Amit concurred with MQG’s petition.

“The minister is not permitted to give operational orders as to how to implement his policy, the manner in which the use of force is exercised, the forms of the use of force, crowd-dispersal methods, conditions relating to the time, place and manner the incident is conducted, and similar [such orders],” Amit wrote.

“The minister must therefore refrain from giving operational orders to the police, directly or indirectly, and all the more so regarding protests and demonstrations against the government,” he added.

Amit also noted that in the written response to the petition, Ben Gvir conceded that “judgment regarding the use of force lies with the commanders in the field,” and wrote that it appeared to him that “there is agreement [in this matter] between the two sides.”

Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit during a court hearing, July 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But he added that the minister is entitled to define general policy, including regarding protests.

“The minister is entitled to outline policy and general principles for the Israel Police, including in relation to demonstrations and the blocking and freeing-up of traffic arteries,” wrote Amit, noting that the attorney general and Ben Gvir had both agreed to this position.

Since the justice concluded that all sides appeared to be in agreement, there was no need to issue a formal court order since the presumption was that they would act accordingly.

MQG said in response that it was glad the court “decided to prevent Ben Gvir from continuing to destroy the fabric of life in Israel, and sow chaos and strife.”

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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