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Protesters fear ‘escalation’ of police violence ahead of weekly Jerusalem demo

Anti-Netanyahu protesters set to march from capital’s Chords Bridge to PM’s residence, as tensions with law enforcement authorities run high

Police officers remove demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister's Residence, in Jerusalem, on August 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Police officers remove demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister's Residence, in Jerusalem, on August 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Protesters and police were gearing up for another night of demonstrations outside the Jerusalem residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday evening, a week after scuffles broke out at last week’s protest, and some 30 people were arrested amid allegations of incitement and police violence.

According to Yishai Hadas, a leader of Crime Minister, one of the main groups leading the weekly mass demonstrations against Netanyahu, the biggest fear going into the protest Saturday is that the violence will escalate and someone will get seriously injured.

“We have dozens, maybe hundreds of people who have been lightly injured and… a few cases where it was a little more serious; but up until now, there has not been irreversible harm [done] to anyone,” Hadas told The Times of Israel.

He hoped there would not be an “escalation in police violence” on Saturday which would change this situation.

Israeli policemen remove demonstrators during an anti-government protest in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, on August 22, 2020. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

Hadas was one of three protest representatives at the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environmental Protection Committee hearing on Monday on police violence. The hearing was Hadas’ idea, and featured testimony by both protesters and Jerusalem police chief Doron Yedid.

The hearing was called after public outcry following the events of last Saturday, especially the conduct of Chief Superintendent Niso Guetta.

Jerusalem Chief Superintendent Niso Guetta is seen in video as he shoves and hits protesters, August 22, 2020 (Screen grab/Kan)

In one widely circulated video, Guetta was seen shoving and hitting one protester and then pushing people to the side as he chased down another demonstrator, whom he hit in the face before pushing him to the ground. Guetta and other officers then dragged the person along the pavement before hauling him off.

Other photographs showed him kneeling on a supine protester and pushing his head to the ground with his elbow.

Guetta claims he was assaulted by the demonstrators and that he did not use excessive force.

However, despite an ongoing investigation by the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department, Yedid told lawmakers that Guetta went back to work following a 24-hour suspension, and that he would be present at the Saturday protest.

A number of the groups behind the protests said the decision to let Guetta return amid an ongoing investigation was unacceptable.

People protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, on August 27, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Tuesday, the Crime Minister group and the Black Flags movement petitioned the High Court of Justice asking that Guetta not be allowed to return to the protests until the investigation into the case was completed by the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department.

Former Israeli Air Force general and leading critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel poses for a photo in Tel Aviv, on June 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Amir Haskel, the leader of the Ein Matzav (No Way) group, was present at the Knesset hearing and said he was frustrated by the decision. Haskel added that he was concerned about the effect Guetta’s presence could have on the protests.

“Why do you need to insist on bringing back Guetta? This is what will provoke people [on Saturday]. It’s clear to you what will happen when he comes here and people see him. Why do that? It is not smart,” he told The Times Of Israel

Haskel said he believed the decision stemmed from the police’s desire to publicly display backing for subordinates, but that in his opinion, this “automatic” support was a mistake.

On Friday, when asked about why Guetta was being brought back to the protests, police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld insisted that Guetta returning to duty was according to protocol and that his case “was out of their hands.”

No trust

Saturday’s protest comes at a time when trust between police and the protesters seems to be at an all-time low. Last Thursday, police raised protesters’ ire when a protest encampment in front of the Prime Minister’s residence was forcibly cleared in preparation for a rally of Netanyahu’s supporters, which ultimately attracted just a few hundred demonstrators.

According to Haskel, despite promises, the equipment that was taken by the police has still not been returned.

Protesters at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a sign reading: ‘You have destroyed the country I built. Resign!’ Jerusalem, August 28, 2020 (Anat Peled)

During Monday’s Knesset committee discussion, a suggestion was made that protesters and police sit at a round table and reach an understanding. But Haskel insisted that in order to sit at a round table “there needs to be a minimum amount of trust between the sides.”

Crime Minister, which is known for being less willing to work with the police than Haskel’s Ein Matzav, announced this week that it would no longer communicate with the police.

Hadas said that his main takeaway from the Knesset committee was that “the Jerusalem police has turned into Netanyahu’s last line of defense.”

Several signs decrying the police as “political” and “bad” could be seen interspersed among protesters’ signs during Friday afternoon’s protest in Jerusalem. According to organizers, some 4,000 people attended that demonstration, a large number compared to the typical weekly protest on that day.

People protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on August 27, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Deputy State Prosecutor Nurit Litman signed a new policy directive aimed at reducing the number of protesters brought before the courts. The directive calls on police to scale back the number of protesters charged with minor offenses such as participation in illegal gatherings, the Haaretz daily reported. Such a charge would be reserved for more serious incidents, such as using violence while protesting.

There are early signs that protesters may be looking to capitalize on this policy directive. One of the protest leaders, Or-ly Barlev, tweeted a message to her followers Saturday afternoon saying that there were plans circulating to sit quietly without making noise after 11:00 p.m, when police usually begin dispersing the protests. The rationale, it seems, is that if protesters merely sit without making noise, the police will have no reason to disperse them.

Noise Regulations

One of the reasons for the violence at last Saturday’s protests was likely a decision by police to begin enforcing noise regulations, and thus their decision to start clearing the protest earlier than in the past. This new policy came following a Supreme Court decision, after complaints were filed by local neighborhood residents about the protests.

Attorney Gonen Ben-Yitzhak, another leader of the Crime Minister group, tweeted a message to his followers ahead of Saturday’s protest calling on them to abide by the regulations to stop making excessive noise with air horns and other equipment from 9:30 p.m. and to stop using speakers at 11:00 p.m.

“It is an annoying rule, but that is the ruling and we must respect it,” he wrote. He also reminded protesters that the police are not the target and urged protesters not to “curse them or scream at them.”

However, Hadas and Haskel explained that they had limited control over Saturday’s crowds, which have surpassed 15,000 participants in recent weeks.

“This protest is completely decentralized,” said Hadas. “This protest is conducted with no management in the field, we do not have a speaker system, we do not have means of control.

“There are many organizations of people who bring [out] their rage spontaneously and in the way they see fit, and the messages are diverse,” Hadas added.

Anti-Netanyahu protesters at the Chords Bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem, on August 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Police have said that any violence on their part was a response to protesters’ actions. Although Times of Israel reporters have not witnessed physical violence by demonstrators at recent protests, there have been curses and angry calls toward the police.

On Friday, acting police commissioner Motti Cohen released a statement saying that he was “aware of the conversation” surrounding the Israeli police.

“To some of it we must listen deeply, as legitimate criticism; but unfortunately there is also a conversation that is incendiary and destructive, that sometimes even verges on incitement, which must be stopped immediately,” Cohen said.

Between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

On Saturday, protesters plan to hold a march from the capital’s Chords Bridge to the Prime Minister’s residence, where they will link up with the rest of the protesters, despite the fact they have not received a permit from the police to move through the city.

Last week, despite the ban on marches, an estimated 1,500 walked through the city, and although police attempts to stop the procession led to scuffles and to seven arrests, protesters were eventually allowed to proceed to the area near the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Demonstrators are also expected to stand at over 300 bridges across the country as part of the weekly Black Flag protest.

During Friday’s protest, Haskel took to the stage and told the crowd about the policing he saw at a protest a day earlier in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

“I saw with my own eyes a different [kind of] police. A police that does not trap the protesters in barricades, a police that allows the protesters to march without receiving permission to march [in advance], a police that knows how to solve problems, a police that does not use water cannons, a police that speaks about democracy and a police that protects democracy,” Haskel said.

However, police spokesperson Rosenfeld insisted that the differences were simply due to the forces in the two cities dealing with different situations on the ground.

“There is no differentiation whatsoever between police in Jerusalem and police in Tel Aviv. The orders are the same orders. The response of the police is to what takes place on the scene, and each scene is different,” Rosenfeld said.

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