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Thousands expected at fresh protests Thursday and Saturday

Police brace for mass rallies outside PM’s residence after violent incidents

Additional forces to be deployed, marches likely to be banned; acting commissioner says action will be taken against ‘violence in any form’ after far-right attack on demonstrators

Thousands of demonstrators chant slogans and hold signs during a protest against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his residence in Jerusalem, July 25, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Thousands of demonstrators chant slogans and hold signs during a protest against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his residence in Jerusalem, July 25, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Police were preparing Thursday for mass rallies planned for Thursday and Saturday evenings outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, the latest in a series of anti-government protests that have increasingly set the stage for violence.

Police are preparing to deploy in large numbers, officials said. Among other measures, police are to place more undercover officers amid the protesters, use more technology to monitor certain activists, and mobilize more officers to oppose violence against the protesters.

Protesters have for weeks been holding regular rallies outside the residence on Balfour Street, as well as in Tel Aviv, calling on the premier to resign due to his indictment on corruption charges. They have been joined in recent weeks by people protesting the government’s economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic, with crowds in the thousands and rising.

Protesters have alleged violence by police on multiple occasions, as well as by right-wing counter-protesters, including attacks by extremists at the end of a protest in Tel Aviv that sent several demonstrators to the hospital. There have also allegedly been instances of vandalism and violence by protesters against cops.

Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen said Thursday morning that security forces would allow the protests, but would counter “violence in any form, against protesters, civilians and police,” adding: “We will take determined action to the full extent of the law against those who disrupt public order.”

Acting Israel Police Chief Motti Cohen speaks at the annual Justice Conference in Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Even in this complex period we will grant every citizen the freedom to protest,” he added. “Most of the public is protesting in accordance with the law and as the police we must guarantee their rights are upheld.”

Cohen stressed that “the police isn’t a political body, it is free from ulterior motives and acts for the benefit of the entire public.”

He called on Israeli citizens to “respect the law and show tolerance for each other.”

A police source said Thursday night’s protest will not be limited in time, unlike previous protests that were dispersed using water canons at 11 p.m. or at 1 a.m., according to a Channel 12 report.

Protesters will be asked at 11 p.m. to stop making noise to avoid disturbing local residents, the report said.

The source estimated that thousands will come from Jerusalem and elsewhere, and the force will let them demonstrate while protecting protesters and making sure that “no foreign elements enter.”

“Whoever is identified as a suspicious element that might cause violence, will be dealt with immediately,” the source added, urging protesters to “exercise tolerance and respect the law.”

Protesters demonstrated against Public Security Minister Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening after he called on police to crack down on the rallies.

Afterward, several suspected far-right assailants attacked protesters as they marched from Ohana’s home toward a nearby highway. In video from the scene, the attackers were seen hitting demonstrators with glass bottles, clubs, and chairs, as well as spraying them with mace.

Following Tuesday night’s protest, five people were hospitalized, including two with stab wounds to their backs, organizers said. Later reports said 10 people were hospitalized.

Police said on Wednesday they arrested four people for involvement in the violence.

Demonstrators said they were attacked by an organized group, and accused police of not responding to their pleas for help.

Shay Sekler, a demonstrator who said he was attacked during protests against Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, in Tel Aviv, July 28, 2020 (Facebook screenshot)

Protest organizers said in a statement that the violence was not “a spontaneous event, but a planned ambush aimed at killing protesters. There is no other way to explain an attack with batons, smashed bottles and knives.”

On Thursday, far-right activist and lawyer Itamar Ben Gvir, who represents some of the suspected attackers, alleged in a radio interview that his clients were in fact the victims, citing a rock that was thrown by an anti-government protester.

“Lets apologize on their behalf,” Ben Gvir told Radio 103FM. “Sorry for protecting themselves, sorry for not turning the other cheek to the leftists, sorry that when the anarchist threw a rock they didn’t run at the rock so it would hit them.”

Lawyer Gaby Lasky, who represents the protester who threw the rock, told the radio station that the rock thrower and his friends had been attacked, they were running from the attackers and “he saw a rock and threw it aside.”

Many of the demonstrations, including Tuesday night’s, develop into marches, often with police consent. However, ahead of Thursday’s and Saturday’s protests, police were likely to ban protest marches, according to Hebrew-language media, saying that it is difficult to protect protesters when they are on the move.

Israelis and police at an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, on July 28, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Law enforcement, seeking to prevent further violence, have determined that mobile demonstrations provide an opening for extremists to attack protesters, Channel 13 reported on Wednesday. (The police are not considering preventing demonstrations, which are explicitly permitted despite COVID-19-related bans on other public gatherings.)

“We’re experiencing a rising wave of violence, violent discourse, a lack of respect at all levels,” police representative Sigal Bar Tzvi told the network. “When there is a demonstration that takes place and goes against police coordination, and definitely when it turns into a march, our ability to control every alley is limited. In order to protect protesters, which we want to do, we need coordination to be complete.”

Protesters at an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv, July 28, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Police were bracing for an attempt by far-right soccer hooligans to attack anti-Netanyahu protesters during Thursday’s demonstration, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The reported police preparations come after La Familia, a group of ultra-nationalist supporters of Jerusalem’s Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, called for its members to gather Thursday evening at the First Station, an entertainment center about a kilometer (.6 miles) from the Prime Minister’s Residence.

In a Facebook post Wednesday, La Familia said, “haters and destroyers of Israel are continuing… to harm every Jewish concept that exists.”

“Watch out, leftist rags, the rules of the game have now changed,” it warned. “We’re not prepared to remain indifferent and sit quietly.”

Channel 12 reported, however, that Jerusalem police were less fearful of violence by La Familia, a group they are familiar with, than by potential attackers who are unknown to law enforcement.

They were also concerned for the possibility of violence at the Saturday protest, the report said.

A senior police official said in a closed conversation that “Israel was in a state of social chaos,” the network reported.

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