Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a staunch ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has accused police of being too soft on demonstrators protesting against the premier over the past week, a report said Thursday.
Protests have been held almost every evening over the past week near the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. In the latest 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 Channel 13, Ohana protested what he described as police restraint, in a meeting on Wednesday evening with Interim Police Commissioner Motti Cohen that discussed complaints by Jerusalem residents who say the noise from the protests is disrupting their lives.
According to the report, Ohana accused police of being soft on the demonstrators relative to other protests — particularly by minority groups — in which police have been accused of using excessive force.
“I’ll ask you a question, and I don’t expect an answer,” Ohana told Cohen. “If this was a protest by ultra-Orthodox, Arabs or Ethiopians, would you have acted the same?”
Cohen then said: “I’ll answer you — you cannot say such things.”
The report said Ohana — whose office oversees police — 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 will 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, and police were reportedly wary of further clashes.
Netanyahu in a Thursday night press conference on the coronavirus, held during the 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.