Police chief says unruly protesters to blame for violence at anti-government rally

Backing force’s version of events at weekend Tel Aviv demonstration, commissioner tells senior officers a confrontational subgroup provoked clashes

File - Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai speaks to a meeting of the Knesset National Security Committee on October 22, 2023. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset)
File - Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai speaks to a meeting of the Knesset National Security Committee on October 22, 2023. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset)

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai alleged Monday that a group of provocateurs caused scenes of violent clashes at an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv over the weekend, and vowed to keep political considerations out of police’s handling of protests.

At the start of a meeting of police command staff, Shabtai commented on Saturday night’s violence, which has already prompted the Justice Ministry to open a probe into the matter.

Amid chaotic scenes, mounted police and water cannons were deployed against protesters. In one incident caught on camera, a mounted officer was seen whipping a protester on the head with the reins of his horse, causing the man to fall to the ground.

Twenty-one people were arrested during the demonstration, police said. Several protesters were injured and required medical attention.

As the demonstration rolled through the streets, it blended with participants at a parallel rally held on behalf of hostages held by terror groups in the Gaza Strip. In scenes that jarred the public, some family members of hostages were hosed by a water cannon amid the mayhem.

In a statement Sunday, the police said protesters ignored officers’ warnings, blocked roads, and clashed with police “despite repeated negotiation efforts.”

The clashes between police and protesters were among the most intense since war broke out on October 7. Demonstrations against the coalition’s judicial overhaul ceased with the outbreak of war, but protests have ramped up in recent weeks as anti-government activists have increasingly demanded new elections over the failures that enabled the Hamas attacks on the south.

“It is our duty to find the balance point between maintaining the law and public order, and compassion required in the complex and painful situation the country has found itself in,” Shabtai said at the meeting, according to a police statement.

A demonstrator falls after being hit by a mounted police officer during an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“None of us will let the mother of an abductee get hurt, or a bereaved father who came to express his pain get hurt,” he said. He added that police work, which “has always been difficult, and even thankless,” would from now on “be even more difficult.”

He asserted that “unfortunately a group that does not belong to the families of the hostages managed to drag” police into scenes of violence that the forces did not want.

The protesters “did not comply with the agreements that were defined” for the anti-government protest, and caused “a provocation while confronting the police,” Shabtai said.

The police chief urged those he blamed for causing the violence to work with the force and “together maintain public order and the rules, in order to enable the right to protest… without harming the daily routine of hundreds of thousands of residents.”

He vowed to back officers in their tasks and to give them the tools they need, but also called on cops to act with professionalism.

“We must look not at the crowd but at the person standing in front of us, and do everything to uphold the law but even more importantly, make sure that the person standing in front of us returns home safe and sound,” he said.

Shabtai added that the force “will continue to ignore political voices that try to drag the police into divisive debates and will continue to act out of loyalty to the country.”

Police use a water cannon to disperse protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government, in Tel Aviv, on February 24, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Violent police tactics drew severe criticism during the anti-judicial overhaul demonstrations that rocked Israeli cities for much of 2023. Activists laid some of the blame at the doorstep of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who repeatedly pushed police to act aggressively against disorderly protesters.

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