Public Security Minister Amir Ohana is seeking to “challenge” a High Court of Justice ruling that allowed the continued protests in Jerusalem against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and is applying immense pressure on police to step up enforcement against demonstrators, according to leaked recordings published Sunday.
Protests have been held almost every evening over the past week near the Prime Minister’s Residence. The protests have drawn thousands of Israelis angry at government corruption, the handling of the coronavirus crisis, and other ills. There have been occasional scenes of violence at recent protests, often from police officers attempting to disperse the demonstrators, videos from the scene have shown.
Netanyahu and some of his supporters have spoken out against the protesters as “anarchists.”
Ohana has previously been reported to be pushing for the Jerusalem demonstrations to either be banned or relocated away from their usual location outside the official residence.
On Sunday, the Kan public broadcaster published recordings from closed meetings attended by Jerusalem Police chief Doron Yadid, other top police officials and Ohana, whose ministry oversees the police force.
“We cannot continue with this mess,” Ohana can be heard saying, referring to the protests. “We cannot continue with this anarchy. There is a difference between a protest and the events we have see over the last few weeks.”
The High Court has approved the continued protests near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, angering some local residents who have petitioned the court to ban them, saying they have been disrupting their daily lives.
“I wish to challenge that ruling by the court,” Ohana told the top police officials. “Whoever wants to protest can protest, no problem. But not to make the lives of residents miserable.
“[The protesters] are taking over the sidewalks with sleeping bags and mattresses.I don’t know how to explain to the public why we forbid prayer and culture and art events but we don’t forbid this,” Ohana said, referring to restrictions imposed to stem the coronavirus outbreak.
Yadid can be heard answering Ohana by touting the unusually high number of fines handed out to participants of the protest for failing to wear face masks, fines which police have generally refrained from issuing at protests.
“Yesterday [we handed out] 160 fines for not wearing masks in the protest, which isn’t common,” Yadid can be heard saying. “Usually at protests [we] avoid that.”
However, that didn’t seem to satisfy Ohana.
“District commander, you know I appreciate you, but vandalism isn’t only smashing glass,” Ohana said. “Vandalism is also making residents’ lives miserable, desecrating state symbols, as happened yesterday, blocking the entrances to the Knesset, blocking roads, and of course violence against police officers. It is not something you can accept.”
The Israel Police commented on the report by claiming that despite the words of its district commander, it enforces mask wearing “also in protests, without discrimination and without any connection to the identity of the protesters or the subject of the protest.”
Earlier Sunday, Ohana warned that violent clashes at the demonstrations against the prime minister were likely to end in bloodshed.
Ohana spoke to Kan public radio a day after thousands took part in demonstrations throughout the country against Netanyahu. Several people were arrested at the largest rally in Jerusalem as police clashed with protesters. Three others were arrested in separate incidents for attacking demonstrators in the capital and at other locations.
“There is a feeling and high probability that it will end in bloodshed,” said Ohana. “I am really worried by the hate in the air.”
Ohana has claimed several times in recent days that the protests are part of a trend of “incitement” against Netanyahu that he says is worse than the lead-up to the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
He also raised concerns that the demonstrations, which have been held almost nightly in Jerusalem over the past week, are a danger due to the spread of the coronavirus. Ohana noted that other types of public gatherings have been banned to prevent the virus spread.
“There always are, and always will be, demonstrations against the government,” he said. “We are prohibiting people from holding social events, to pray with more than ten people together, and to do what they regularly do, in order to prevent the virus spread. Is the virus so smart that it can tell the difference between gatherings for those purposes and a demonstration? The answer is ‘no.'”
On Saturday Ohana said he expected police to act in an “equal manner” against protesters from different communities, amid the sustained protests in Jerusalem against the premier.
The comment came after Ohana reportedly accused police last week of being too soft on the Jerusalem demonstrators relative to other protests — particularly by minority groups — in which police have sometimes been accused of using excessive force.
According to a further report last week, police had pushed back against a direct request from Ohana to relocate the mass protests. Ohana also suggested that the anti-Netanyahu protests be barred altogether, but the police’s legal adviser said law enforcement had no legal authority to make such a decision, Army Radio reported.
Thousands of demonstrators again gathered at various protest points across the country on Saturday night, including at Charles Clore Park in Tel Aviv; near the prime minister’s private home in Caesarea; and, in their thousands, across from the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Protest leaders have accused police of applying disproportionate force by using water cannons to disperse demonstrators in Jerusalem and have threatened to seek a High Court order against the practice.