‘Protesting is a democratic right’: Police chief pushes back at Ben Gvir’s criticism

In missive to officers, Kobi Shabtai defends members of force, stressing they are ‘police for all of Israeli society’

Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai attend a Hanukkah ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, December 19, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai attend a Hanukkah ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, December 19, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai defended his officers on Thursday after criticism from far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who has lashed out at Jerusalem cops for not using force during an anti-government protest and slammed officers over the demolition of an illegal West Bank grove.

As national security minister, Ben Gvir oversees the police force and the Border Police.

In a missive to officers, Shabtai said Israel is “in a difficult period” and stressed the police force’s duty to enforce the law, prevent crime, “strengthen the civil norm of obeying the law,” protect people and property, and maintain public order — all “while respecting human rights.”

“We are the police for all of Israeli society,” he wrote. “Protesting is a democratic right.”

He also emphasized his backing for commanders in the field, “as long as they act in accordance with the Israel Police’s rules and according to the law.”

“I expect you commanders and officers to pay extra heed to the spirit and values of the police, despite the stormy atmosphere,” he added.

Ben Gvir declared his disappointment Wednesday with the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after it uprooted trees planted illegally by a settler in the West Bank.

Ben Gvir criticized police for their involvement in the uprooting, forcefully arresting settler protesters, and allegedly sexually assaulting a member of his party, MK Limor Son Har-Melech. Police have insisted that Son Har-Melech was treated respectfully as she attempted to prevent them from carrying out their orders.

Police officers clash with demonstrators during a protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, in Jerusalem, February 9, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last week, Ben Gvir publicly lashed out at Jerusalem police after they did not use force to disperse anti-government protesters when pockets of violence broke out at a demonstration in the capital. Ben Gvir accused police of “losing control of the city to a group of anarchists.”

The incidents are the latest amid growing tension between Shabtai and Ben Gvir, who has sought greater power over police policy decisions at the expense of the professional force.

The minister has previously accused police of being disproportionately soft on demonstrators who have held rallies against the government and its plans for sweeping changes to Israel’s system of governance.

Weekly protests against the government’s judicial makeover are expected to continue on Saturday night, with police planning to close off central areas in Tel Aviv. Smaller demonstrations are anticipated in Jerusalem and other cities.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 4, 2023. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

In addition to clashing over police enforcement at protests, Ben Gvir also reportedly clashed with Netanyahu and Shabtai earlier this week after the pair rebuffed his requests to demolish structures built illegally by Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Ben Gvir, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, has vowed to take a more aggressive stance against Palestinian homes that were built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank without the necessary permits from Israel. He has framed the demolition of such structures as part of Israel’s efforts to combat Palestinian terror, even though there have been no links between the owners of the homes razed for a lack of permits in recent weeks and security offenses.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to the press at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek hospital on January 28, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ben Gvir has also been prevented from launching a sweeping police crackdown in East Jerusalem.

Shortly after a deadly car-ramming attack on Friday, Ben Gvir released a statement saying he told police to gear up for a major anti-terror crackdown starting Sunday, specifically mentioning a massive 2002 military campaign against West Bank terror groups.

However, Ben Gvir lacks the authority to approve such an operation on his own and his comments were dismissed by a senior government official.

In past election campaigns, Netanyahu said Ben Gvir — who has been convicted for incitement to violence and has said he would encourage Arab citizens to emigrate — was not fit to hold a cabinet post. But ahead of Israel’s November 2022 election, and amid Ben Gvir’s growing popularity in polls, Netanyahu backtracked, saying he could “certainly” hold a ministerial position in his next government.

Former police commissioner Moshe Karadi on Saturday said Ben Gvir was  “a pyromaniac with a gas tank” and “entirely unequipped” to head the national security ministry.

Ben Gvir has also faced criticism from the hard right after several deadly terror attacks in recent weeks, with detractors saying he has so far failed to deliver on his vows to crush terror and introduce punishments of unprecedented severity against attackers and their families.

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