Anti-government protesters who were attacked by suspected far-right assailants in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night said they were assaulted by an organized group and claimed police failed to respond to their pleas for help.
Several suspected far-right members attacked protesters late Tuesday after they took part in a demonstration near the Tel Aviv home of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. In video from the scene, the attackers were seen hitting demonstrators with glass bottles, clubs and chairs and spraying them with mace.
Organizers of the protest said five people were hospitalized, including two with stab wounds to their backs. Later reports said 10 people were hospitalized.
Protesters have for weeks been holding regular rallies outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, as well as in Tel Aviv, calling on the premier to resign due to his indictment on corruption charges. They have been joined in recent weeks by people protesting Netanyahu’s economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic. Tuesday’s protest targeted Ohana after he called on police to crack down on the demonstrations.
Police said on Wednesday they arrested four people for involvement in the violence.
One of the protesters who was attacked, Shay Sekler, said in a video statement on Wednesday that the attackers coordinated their assault, and that he asked for police help after the incident but was ignored.
He said the counter-protesters had come to the scene of the demonstration as a group, armed with glass bottles and pepper spray, and hit him in the head with a sharp object. Sekler and several other demonstrators described a surprise attack launched near the area of the Cinematheque theater complex in central Tel Aviv.
“I was attacked by an organized group that was incited by the instigator who sits at Balfour,” Sekler said, referencing the street of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
“When the march reached the area of the Cinematheque a group of some 10 people wearing black joined. They started attacking demonstrators with knives, clubs and glass bottles. I ran to help the people who were injured and then one of them attacked me with some sort of sharp object and immediately another two pounced on me,” Sekler said.
“In the area of Kaplan Street I met undercover police officers — I was covered in blood — and asked them for help and that they call for medical assistance. I was ignored,” he told Haaretz. “I understood that the police are not here to protect public order and civilian rights. They have chosen the side of power and this is a result of incitement.”
Sekler was photographed shirtless, with a bandanna around his face and blood dripping from his forehead, in images that were disseminated widely in Israeli media.
Other demonstrators said they had seen the attackers at a restaurant near the site of the protest watching a Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer game ahead of the rally.
“They arrived at the protest after the game, some of them with black shirts, and marched with us,” one protester told Ynet. “They walked between everyone on Ibn Gbriol Street, close to each other but not right next to each other, and then, when we got to the Cinematheque, one of them shouted, ‘Now!’ and they all of a sudden started to hit one of the protesters.”
“When he fell to the ground they went on to other protesters. There were a few who tried to separate from them and get away but they continued to throw chairs and hit people, then ran away as a group to a side street while spraying tear gas,” she said.
Another demonstrator said, “Everything was planned. They came to beat up people. For the whole march, there were police with us, but right when we got to the Cinematheque there were no detectives or police, and even though we shouted ‘Police! Police!’ no one came to help.”
Protest organizers said in a statement that the violence was not “a spontaneous event, but a planned ambush aimed at killing protesters. There is no other way to explain an attack with batons, smashed bottles and knives.”
Police said they arrested four suspects in connection with the attacks, saying they were collecting evidence about the suspects. One had been arrested during the protest for throwing a stone. Three more were arrested on Wednesday for suspected involvement in violence, police said in a statement quoted by Ynet. Other reports said only three people had been arrested.
Two of the suspects admitted their role in the assaults, according to Hebrew media reports.
The two said they were at a bar and saw the attacks develop, and hadn’t planned to assault people beforehand, Channel 13 news reported.
A third suspect arrested earlier Wednesday denied being present during the attacks.
Far-right activist and lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir said he was representing some of the suspected attackers and denied any wrongdoing on their part, claiming that far-left protesters called his clients “Nazis,” chased them and threw stones at them, according to the Arutz 7 news site.
Ohana, the public security minister, commended police for making the arrests.
“Despite all the disagreements, there isn’t and won’t be any kosher certification for violence and each case will be handled with the fullest severity,” Ohana, a Likud party colleague of Netanyahu, wrote on Twitter.
He added: “The wellbeing, security and liberty of all Israeli citizens, regardless of political views, is a paramount value and will be strictly upheld by the Israel Police.”
Tuesday’s protest in Tel Aviv began outside Ohana’s home after he was heard in a recording aired by Israeli television pressing police to crack down on the ongoing protests against Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem municipality employees confiscated equipment belonging to protesters on Wednesday.
Some 30 city employees with a police accompaniment took the gear from demonstrators in the city’s Independence Park, saying the demonstrators were blocking public movement. The equipment included mattresses and mats the demonstrators were using to sleep in the park.
The demonstrators attempted to block the confiscation and scuffles broke out with the authorities at the scene, Haaretz reported.
On Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu issued his first public response to the violence the night before.
The statement, which came after the prime minister was panned for his nearly day-long silence following the incident, made a point of mentioning a police officer who was injured in a recent protest as well as alleged threats against Netanyahu and his family.
“The investigation of the incident in Tel Aviv is underway. I expect the police to get at the truth and bring to justice those responsible. There’s no room for violence for any reason,” he wrote on Facebook.
He added, “At the same time, there’s no room for incitement or threats of murder — explicitly or implicitly — against me and members of my family, including the shameful threat of crucifixion made today in Tel Aviv.”
Netanyahu was referring to an art installation placed in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Wednesday morning that depicted the prime minister eating a sumptuous meal, including an oversize cake, at a banquet table, in a play on Jesus’s Last Supper.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz blamed the Tuesday night violence against anti-Netanyahu protesters on “organized criminal gangs,” and said he’ll make sure those behind the violence are punished.
President Reuven Rivlin warned that Israel had already seen incitement end in political murders.
“I would like to say clearly in light of the violent developments in the last day: The murder of a demonstrator protesting in the State of Israel and the murder of an Israeli prime minister aren’t imaginary scenarios,” Rivlin said in a statement, referring to the 1983 killing by a right-wing activist of left-wing protester Emil Grunzweig at a Tel Aviv protest and the 1995 assassination by an opponent of the Oslo peace process of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.