Police removed anti-Netanyahu protesters — among them two former senior defense officials — outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem by force on Thursday afternoon so that a demonstration of right-wing supporters of the premier could be held there later in the day.
The demonstrators were part of a “protest tent” on Ben Maimon Street, close to the official residence. The sit-in on Ben Maimon is part of a movement that has seen tens of thousands take to the streets to rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past two months.
Police also removed Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzanu from the area, despite him telling them he is a legislator with immunity.
“After lengthy attempts to negotiate with the demonstrators, and in light of their refusal to move to the area they had been assigned, the Israel Police began transferring them to that area,” Jerusalem police said in a statement.
This summer’s protest movement against Netanyahu began in early July, when police violently dispersed several thousand protesters with water cannons and dozens of arrests in Jerusalem’s Paris Circle. Since then, the Jerusalem protests have swelled to tens of thousands. Hundreds of smaller demonstrations have also been held on bridges across the country.
The protesters’ central demand is that the prime minister resign. Some demonstrators emphasize Netanyahu’s three indictments — for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust — while others say that the government’s supposed mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis prompted them to take to the streets.
Despite calls by Netanyahu for counter-demonstrations, only a few hundred have turned out in support of him. Police said on Thursday afternoon that they expected a larger pro-Netanyahu demonstration, however, and closed down parts of Gaza, Arlozorov, and Keren HaYesod streets, as well as Paris Square, so that the pro-Netanyahu demonstration can take place.
On Thursday afternoon, former Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon handcuffed himself to a fence next to retired brigadier general Amir Haskel before both were forcibly removed from the protest tent. Gillon’s hands and arms were scraped and bloodied. Haskel’s widely publicized arrest in late June was one of the sparks that ignited the current protest wave.
“We tried to speak to police, we listened to each other, but there was no progress,” Gillon told The Times of Israel. “I’m willing to be arrested to protect my right to protest, which is a sacred right in my eyes.”
Haskel told The Times of Israel that police previously told them that they would not have to leave in order for the pro-Netanyahu protest could take place. Haskel said it was a double standard for the anti-Netanyahu protesters to be removed when a similar pro-Netanyahu protest encampment there has never been asked to do so.
“This is a clash of their right to protest versus our right to protest. It’s their right, just like ours,” Haskel said. “We’ve been protesting here for more than two months. Have we ever asked the [pro-Netanyahu protesters] to remove their tent here?”
Rami Matan, an IDF colonel in reserve duty and a regular anti-Netanyahu protester, initiated the idea of protesters handcuffing themselves. According to Matan, the police began by clearing the protesters that were not handcuffed and then proceeded to clear the handcuffed “with excessive violence.”
“They pushed us on the floor, injured us, pushed us on the fences, they almost broke one person’s hand,” he said. “And we are talking about people who are past age 40 and are 70 plus…they [the police] don’t care.”
“They cleared us, the protesters, one by one with unbelievable aggression… one of the policemen stepped on me on purpose… another one hit me… pushed me and hit me,” said Professor Yehuda Afek, a 68-year old computer scientist at Tel-Aviv University.
In a statement, Jerusalem police said they were not “evacuating” the anti-Netanyahu protest tent, but merely “moving it several meters away so that the other protest could take place.” Police said they informed activists that the anti-Netanyahu protest tent could be rebuilt as soon as the demonstrators supporting the prime minister leave.
“The decisions of the Israel Police are purely professional. They are intended to maintain the security of the protesters and to prevent friction between the parties as much as possible,” police said.
Senior opposition MK and former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon (Yesh Atid-Telem) and Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar were also present for the dispersal. Avidar is one of the few prominent right-wing politicians to attend the anti-Netanyahu protests.
“[Right-wing Israelis] don’t feel comfortable coming. But we are slowly persuading them to come,” Avidar said. “They think this is a left-wing protest, but they’ll come. Every day more and more people are opening their refrigerators and finding they have nothing to eat.”