Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a staunch ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said on Saturday that he expected the police to act in an “equal manner” against protesters from Israel’s different communities, amid sustained protests in Jerusalem against the premier.
The comment came after Ohana, whose office oversees the police, reportedly accused police earlier this 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.
“I expect the police to act in an equal manner in regard to all communities,” Ohana said during a Channel 12 interview on Saturday evening. “I don’t support police violence and I expect commanders to act against it. But how do I explain that in a Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] protest, police act in one way, and in this protest, they act another way?”
Ohana said that the right to protest and the right to self-expression must be upheld, but that the demonstrations were, first, a coronavirus risk, and second, a disruption to the lives of residents near the PM’s home in Jerusalem. He said he has heard complaints that residents have had their lives turned into an “unacceptable nightmare” and accused the protesters of “relieving themselves” on or around their properties.
The minister said that amid the rising number of coronavirus cases, there is a “need to restrict the number of protesters and possibly [change] the location,” advocating for a “more open space.” Ohana said that the country’s resources need to be “poured into combatting the coronavirus.”
Ohana rejected a suggestion that Netanyahu was pressuring him to bring the protests to an end, adding that the premier had not spoken to him about the demonstrations against him.
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.
Protests have been held almost every evening over the past week near the official residence. In the last demonstration late Thursday and early Friday, police arrested or detained 55 protesters calling for Netanyahu’s resignation.
Officers sprayed protesters with high-pressure water cannons in a bid to move people off the streets after midnight. Some protesters who were peacefully dispersing were shot in the back by the water cannons, and activists said police left them with nowhere to go.
According to a Channel 13 report on Thursday, Ohana protested what he described as police restraint in a meeting on Wednesday evening with Interim Police Commissioner Motti Cohen that discussed complaints by local Jerusalem residents.
“I’ll ask you a question, and I don’t expect an answer,” Ohana reportedly told Cohen. “If this was a protest by ultra-Orthodox people, Arabs or Ethiopians, would you have acted the same [way]?”
Cohen then said: “I’ll answer you — you cannot say such things.”
In his Channel 12 TV interview on Saturday, Ohana downplayed the exchange and denied that Cohen’s response would not be considered for the police commission role. Ohana said all options were on the table regarding that appointment and indicated that Netanyahu would not be involved in the decision-making.
The Channel 13 report noted that Ohana has no legal authority over decisions related to the police beyond setting policy. It cited a senior law enforcement official accusing Ohana of “terrorizing the upper echelons [of the Israel Police] on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“The minister has no authority to intervene in the matter of protests related to Balfour [Street, where the Prime Minister’s Residence is located],” the official added. “The person who deals with that is the police’s legal adviser.”
Police responded to the report by saying they “don’t comment on the content of work meetings,” adding: “Police will continue acting in this regard with equality and without discrimination, in accordance with the law and court rulings.”
A report earlier Thursday by Army Radio said police had also pushed back against a direct request from Ohana during the same meeting to relocate the mass protests.
Ohana met with a group of local residents who have complained about the noise and chaos of recent protests, saying they have made life unbearable for those who live near the Rehavia neighborhood residence, the report said.
The minister told senior police officials, who were also participating in the meeting, to move the protests to another location, such as Sacher Park, where there is more open space and less risk of disturbing residents, according to the report.
But police officials said such a move would not be possible as previous High Court orders prevent law enforcement from transferring protests on such grounds.
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.
As a result, Ohana recommended to the residents that they themselves petition the High Court in order to have the protests moved. Later that day, the residents petitioned and are now awaiting a response from the top legal body.
Police in response to the report said they would continue to protect free speech, while also taking into consideration the concerns of local residents and the need to maintain public order.
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.
Netanyahu in a Thursday night press conference on the coronavirus, held during that evening’s protest, said to the demonstrators: “Don’t drag the state into anarchy, violence, and destruction of property. Don’t drag it into attacks on police; they’re doing their job.”
Anti-Netanyahu protests have been going on for several years, led by a core group of older protesters, but in recent weeks have drawn in a younger cohort. The financial crisis and soaring unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have provided the impetus for younger people to join their elders on the streets.
Israel’s spiraling coronavirus crisis, and the economic effects of its second wave, have ratcheted up tensions in the country and caused a steep drop in Netanyahu’s approval ratings.
Aaron Boxerman and Anat Peled contributed to this report.