Lapid calls for police not to use force against protesters

Police say intel points to potential unrest at anti-government rallies this weekend

Cops provide no details on ‘fear of riots’ during protests, but say no tolerance for ‘disturbance of the peace’ or Nazi symbols; organizers: Police are lying’; Gantz to attend

Israelis protest against the government, in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis protest against the government, in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Police on Thursday warned against potential unrest at mass anti-government rallies this weekend, prompting allegations of politicization by protest groups.

During a weekly security assessment, officers presented National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir with intelligence pointing to a “fear of riots” at the scheduled protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Saturday, according to a statement from police.

The statement gave no details on the alleged concerns.

An unnamed police source quoted by the Haaretz daily said there were indications that a handful of protesters were planning to attack officers, block major roads and “perpetuate provocations.” Some protesters briefly blocked the Ayalon Highway during a demonstration in Tel Aviv last weekend.

Describing protesting as a “basic right of every person in a democratic country,” the police statement called on demonstrators “to maintain the peace and to allow the protests to be held lawfully.”

Police also said they have completed their “operational preparations” for Saturday’s rallies, which come after the government unveiled plans to dramatically reform the judicial system — a move critics warn will undermine democracy.

Protesters hold signs, including one with Nazi-style imagery, at an anti-government rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. The sign on the left reads ‘Know from where you came and where you are going.’ The second sign reads ‘We won’t allow ayatollahs.’ (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The police again stress that they are acting to allow all demonstrators to hold protests, but at the same time will not allow any disturbance of the peace and will not allow the use of Nazi symbols,” the statement said.

The display of Nazi symbols is not illegal in Israel but can be barred on grounds of incitement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has railed at several such signs during last weekend’s demonstration and equated them to comments by a member of Ben Gvir’s far-right party calling to lock up opposition leaders.

The police statement did not mention how officers would respond to the display of Palestinian flags by protesters. Ahead of this weekend, Ben Gvir has pushed for police to take a tougher line against demonstrators blocking roads or flying the Palestinian flag, but has reportedly been rebuffed.

Israeli law permits the display of Palestinian flags, though police have wide leeway to take action to maintain public order and regularly remove them from public spaces and confiscate the flags from those waving them.

Responding to Thursday’s statement, protest organizers accused police of lying about the possibility of unrest.

“We call on the broad public to come to protest against the constitutional coup and completely ignore the police’s lies. We remind the police commissioner and police spokesman… that they are not Ben Gvir’s servants,” the Black Flags group said.

Crime Minister, another group that has protested against Netanyahu over his ongoing trial on graft charges, denounced the police statement as “libelous and dangerous incitement.”

“This is a transparent attempt to weaken the protest and deter the public from coming. It seems the police have raised a white flag and become Ben Gvir’s political police,” the organization said.

Eliad Shraga, who heads the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, also hit out at Ben Gvir.

“With all due respect to Minister Ben Gvir, he does not determine if it is permitted or forbidden to protest. If he thinks it’s North Korea here, he will very quickly find that he’s very much mistaken,” Shraga said.

A protester holds a Palestinian flag in Tel Aviv at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, January 7, 2023. (AP Photo/ Tsafrir Abayov)

Meanwhile, opposition leader Yair Lapid sent a letter to Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai calling for police to refrain from using force against anti-government protesters.

“These protesters are the biggest lovers of Israel and that’s how you should treat them,” Lapid wrote. “I expect you to instruct the police to treat them with respect and to do everything to ensure that they can make their legitimate protests.”

Lapid asked Shabtai not to use water cannons and ensure no force is used against them.

“Your role is to ensure that the police are not political,” he added.

The opposition chief also said he will not attend the protest in Tel Aviv after being told that he and National Unity party leader Benny Gantz would not be allowed to address the crowd.

Gantz, however, declared Wednesday evening that he will attend the rally, a day after Lapid said the two agreed not to attend so that it won’t be overly politicized.

In a pair of tweets announcing his attendance, Gantz accused Netanyahu and the ruling coalition of carrying out “a constitutional coup” and undermining “the most foundational values” in the Declaration of Independence.

“I call on you to come this Saturday night to [Tel Aviv] with Israeli flags, act lawfully, without inciting signs and without being dragged into provocations that will only harm the struggle,” he said following the police statement.

“This isn’t a civil uprising — this is a civil duty,” Gantz added.

A number of other opposition lawmakers are also planning to attend the demonstrations, including Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, who on Tuesday urged Arab Israelis to attend such rallies but not to display Palestinian flags to avoid provoking clashes with police.

The upcoming protests come after thousands of Israelis attended a large anti-government rally in Tel Aviv last Saturday against plans by Justice Minister Yariv Levin to controversially refigure Israel’s judicial system, weakening the Supreme Court, among other changes.

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