A former air force general and two others were ordered to be unconditionally released from police custody early Sunday after they were arrested for protesting outside of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence.
Police had sought restraining orders against former Israel 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, after the three were detained during a demonstration against Netanyahu and government corruption in the capital Friday.
But at a late night hearing that stretched beyond midnight Saturday night, Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge Orna Sandler-Eitan said banning them from Jerusalem would amount to a muzzle on free speech and ordered they be released without conditions.
Haskel sounded a defiant tone upon leaving the courtroom, hours after over a thousand people rallied in his defense in Jerusalem.
“Nobody will stop us from demonstrating, so long as we do so under the [health] guidelines,” he said, according to Hebrew media reports. He described the nation as a powder keg ready to explode. “If my arrest sparked something, it was worth it.”
During the hearing, a police representative said a temporary restraining order barring the arrested protesters from Jerusalem was the minimum to be expected, after the three refused to consent to a conditional release, according to Hebrew media reports.
“I’m having difficulty with this assertion,” the judge said. “This is in fact silencing [them].”
Supporters had also argued that the arrest of Haskel was politically motivated as a means to silence him.
“The attempt to shut people up and prevent demonstrations in a democratic country is unthinkable,” former Likud minister-cum-frequent Netanyahu critic Limor Livnat said.
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 the Haaretz news outlet. The representative said police had handled the protesters with kid gloves.
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.
Video and photos from the protest showed demonstrators sitting in the middle of Azza Street outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, some of whom were picked up and removed by police. 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 war and head of IAF personnel, was arrested shortly after speaking, according to eyewitnesses.
“Amir spoke at the protest. It was a patriotic speech and immediately after, a few police officers pounced on him, put him in a patrol car and took him,” Hanna Yablonka of Givatayim told the Ynet news site. “I go to a lot of protests but I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. It appeared as if this was a major criminal and not a pilot in the air force.”
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 separate cases, as well as bribery in one of them.
He has denied wrongdoing and claimed the charges are part of an effort by political opponents, the media, law enforcement and prosecutors to remove him from office.