Protesters claim Jerusalem municipality using heavy hand to clear campsites
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Protesters claim Jerusalem municipality using heavy hand to clear campsites

Independence Park site emptied multiple times, with activists saying municipal workers use force and confiscate personal belongings illegally; city says they are a public nuisance

Jerusalem municipality workers and police officers seen evacuating demonstrators who built a protest tent camp, against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Independence Park, Jerusalem, August 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jerusalem municipality workers and police officers seen evacuating demonstrators who built a protest tent camp, against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Independence Park, Jerusalem, August 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At the end of July a group of young protesters set up a new encampment in Jerusalem’s Independence Park, across the street from the site of ongoing demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence.

Unlike their elders camping out on the sidewalk outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in the hopes of precipitating his departure from there, these young adults wanted to imagine the day after Netanyahu, spending their days in discussion circles and sleeping on the grass in tents and sleeping bags.

The Jerusalem Municipality seemed to be against their presence from the get-go and over the past week has repeatedly cleared the site, arguing that protesters are camping outside the designated area allotted to them by the city.

“For the last week and a half or more we have been in on-and-off dialogue with the municipality,” 18-year-old Mitchell Akawie, who has been a regular at the new encampment, told The Times of Israel.

“We have not had any good-faith dialogue with the municipality in probably five days,” he said. “The municipality has made promises they have then immediately broken. They’ve refused to put anything on paper.” Akawie added that protesters had originally been camping out in a different part of the park and had moved to the designated area after an earlier round of dialogue with the municipality.

He and other protesters claim that even though they remain in the specified area, they and their stuff have been removed from the site and their personal equipment has been confiscated.

Jerusalem municipality workers and police officers seen evacuating demonstrators who built a protest tent camp, against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Independence Park, Jerusalem, August 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While the encampment was cleared several times last week, Sunday was a particularly eventful day for the group. Representatives of the municipality arrived at the campsite three separate times and forcibly cleared the area twice, with the activists claiming it was done in a violent manner.

According to the protesters, the first action took place around 7 a.m. when a group of 30 people who presented themselves as representatives of the mayor’s office began to confiscate personal equipment.

According to Sasha Ermakov, 27, from Bet Shemesh, they began by clearing a group of people who were not associated with the protest who had set up tents outside the designated encampment area. But soon they proceeded to also take equipment from those in the designated area without identifying themselves or explaining what the offense was.

“I witnessed with my own eyes that right there [by] that tree there was a mother with her three-year-old son in a tent. And a man with no name tag, on whose shirt was written [in Hebrew] Department of Supervision and Enforcement Jerusalem, he just tore the tent and went away with one of the spikes of it and part of the fabric,” Ermakov said.

He said the child was “in shock inside the tent” after they “dragged the tent while the child and the mother were inside.”

After the protesters saw their personal equipment being taken away into a truck, they attempted to block the vehicle from leaving. The police arrested one person with a knife who protesters say tried to slash the truck’s tires. The protesters who spoke to The Times of Israel soke said that they do not support harm or sabotage of police property and that the individual was a radical and a newcomer at the encampment.

Protesters also said that those who tried to block the truck were met with force.

“We went to block their truck so that they wouldn’t take our personal belongings, which according to the law they are not allowed to take,” said Nicole Schwartz, 19, from Ramat Gan, who spent the night at the encampment.

Schwartz said she was dragged away from the street three times by inspectors who, according to the law, are not allowed to touch people. “It’s like they didn’t know it was illegal,” she said.

At noon representatives of the mayor’s office arrived again, but on that occasion they were people the protesters knew. Protesters were asked to fold up their tents and complied. The representatives left without any clashes.

However, a few hours later a large number of inspectors returned. According to activists, who insist they were within the designated area, inspectors once again came without name tags and without explaining what the violation was. They confiscated not only sleeping bags and tents but bags with cellphones, wallets, identification cards, chargers and laptops.

A few protesters including Ermakov and Akawie attempted to stop the inspectors’ truck from leaving by getting underneath it. They were joined by 62-year-old veteran Balfour protest organizer Shay Erel from Ein Matzav (“No Way”), one of the main groups behind the protests.

“I understood that it wouldn’t end well,” Erel said. “I acted like a responsible adult — an idiot, but a responsible adult. I got under the vehicle in a way that it was impossible to remove me from there. You could run over me or take me out in pieces. I have no problem. I refused to get out despite the pledges and threats until it was promised that all the personal equipment that was taken in the morning and in the evening would be returned to the protesters.”

Erel pointed to two young girls who walked barefoot on the sidewalk. “There are two girls here, 12 and 13 who do not have shoes. They took their shoes,” he said.

Protesters lying under a truck while Jerusalem municipal workers and police officers evacuate demonstrators who built a protest tent camp, against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Independence Park, Jerusalem, August 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Times of Israel reached out to the Jerusalem Municipality asking why the second clearing of the encampment was ordered, and for clarification about protesters’ claims regarding inspectors’ use of force and refusal to identify themselves.

“During the day, protesters at Independence Park acted in way that disturbed the public order in the center of the city of Jerusalem in proximity to and in Independence Park,” the city said in a statement. “For that reason, The Jerusalem District Police and the Jerusalem Municipality were forced to clear them.

“The [protesters’] presence in the center of the city has become insufferable for residents,” the statement continued. “This is their home, and this is their neighborhood. We call for protesters to abide by the law and specifically the law concerning keeping within the designated space in Independence Park. Any other conduct will cause a removal of equipment and people. Any disturbance to public order will be met with determined action of the Jerusalem District Police and Jerusalem Municipality.”

Laura Wharton, a member of the local city council for the Meretz party, arrived on the scene after the afternoon eviction to try and understand what had happened. She said she was “very distressed” by what she had heard from protesters, adding that she thought the municipality had “overstepped the bounds of what is legal for them to do.”

“It’s not yet clear to me and it is not yet clear to the protesters what [the activists] did that was in violation of the law,” she said.

Protesters believe that the municipality is trying to quash their protest.

“The city is under political pressure from the prime minister and [Public Security Minister] Amir Ohana… to make this protest smaller and to wipe us out,” Akawie said. “They are trying to break us.”

Shwartz added: “I don’t want to give up, because I know that is what they want.”

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