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Security services said preparing for scenario in which Knesset is stormed

Knesset Guard, Shin Bet, other services reportedly practice securing parliament from violent protesters on or after election day, in bid to avoid local version of US Capitol riots

Illustrative: Members of a Knesset security team take part in a defense drill against terror attacks, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 26, 2017. (Maor Kinsbursky/ Flash90/File)
Illustrative: Members of a Knesset security team take part in a defense drill against terror attacks, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 26, 2017. (Maor Kinsbursky/ Flash90/File)

The Knesset Guard and security agencies are reportedly preparing for a scenario in which masses try to storm the parliament building during or after Tuesday’s national election, in what would mirror the scenes in January at the US Capitol after Donald Trump lost the presidential election there.

The scenario is one of several that featured in the Knesset Guard’s preparations for election day, Channel 13 reported Monday.

The network said a special operations room is being set up at the Knesset by the police, the Shin Bet security service and the state prosecution to monitor potentially violent or inflammatory events akin to those that preceded the Capitol riots.

The alert will be high throughout the voting and will reach its peak at 10 p.m., as voting ends and exit polls are published.

File: A security guard has a dog check the seats at the Knesset Plenary Hall, ahead of the opening Knesset session of the new government, on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Israel is a fairly young democracy and widely considered to be less stable than the US, with political friction and social rifts able to upend governments. The inside of the Knesset can be more raucous than Congress, with shouting matches and even the rare physical altercation, in place of decorous US lawmaking.

Outside as well, angry political demonstrations are not unheard of, and the threat of terrorism is a constant concern, though one would need to go back nearly 70 years to find a scene that came close to what was witnessed in Washington in January.

The Knesset Guard has jurisdiction over the actual legislature and the grounds surrounding the building, as well as personal security for members of the Knesset.

The Guard does not answer to the police or the military, but is considered its own branch of the security forces, under the direct authority of the Knesset speaker, currently Likud MK Yariv Levin.

The force is made up of hundreds of armed guards, formally called ushers, headed by Sergeant-at-Arms Shmuel Zubari. (The ushers who work inside the Knesset and occasionally remove disruptive or recalcitrant MKs are part of a separate unit.)

File: Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, January 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

According to a Knesset source who spoke to The Times of Israel earlier this year, the Guards cooperate closely with the police and Shin Bet. Guards receive weapons training and some come from IDF special forces units.

Even before the riots in Washington, the Guard was training for how to deal with riots and the possible kidnapping of lawmakers either from inside the building or somewhere in the grounds, the source said.

File: View of the main building of the Knesset, in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

The gardens surrounding the Knesset serve as a regular spot for large demonstrations, which are not normally dangerous.

On a regular week, the sidewalks between the Finance Ministry and Wohl Rose Park, which is adjacent to the Knesset, hold hundreds and sometimes thousands of people carrying signs, flags and placards.

The Knesset Guard marches during the opening session of the new Knesset, following elections, on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Protests range from calls for reforms to demands for public attention for issues like workers’ rights, stipends for the disabled, or unequal budget allocations to Arab and Druze towns.

Members of the Knesset Guard drill against terror attacks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 26, 2017. (Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)

Last July, the Guard came in for criticism for failing to intervene when protesters demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marched on the area.

While protesters did not try to break into parliament, some did climb on a sculpture of a menorah and a Star of David in a traffic circle just outside the Knesset that is within the Guards’ grounds, including a young female social worker who took off her shirt while atop the menorah.

A topless protester sits on a menorah statue near the Knesset during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some accused the woman of desecrating a national symbol and the incident underscored the thin line the Guards must walk between granting free speech and protecting state symbols.

A (short) history of violence

The Knesset building, a squat square structure built in the international style, sits on a hill overlooking Jerusalem surrounded by acres of parkland, making it one of the few government buildings in Israel not on the street or built into the fabric of the neighborhood, such as the Prime Minister’s and President’s Residences.

But before 1966, the Israeli parliament sat at Frumin House, in a nondescript building on a busy corner of downtown Jerusalem, and it was there that it saw two of the most violent episodes of its history.

Frumin House in Jerusalem, seen on November 4, 2003. (Flash90)

On January 7, 1952, thousands of people gathered outside the building to protest the government’s decision to enter a reparations agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany, seven years after the end of the Holocaust.

As lawmakers debated the agreement, a rally by opponents, led by future prime minister Menachem Begin, grew increasingly agitated. Police set up roadblocks and wire fencing, but protesters began throwing stones at the building, including one which shattered a window and hit MK Hannan Rubin in the head.

It took five hours before the police were able to disperse the angry crowd, and hundreds were arrested.

In 1958, Frumin House was again the scene of an attack on lawmakers, when Moshe Duek, a mentally disturbed man, threw a grenade into the building.

Justice Minister Moshe Shapira was severely wounded in the attack. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir also suffered minor injuries.

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, center, speaking in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on October 30, 1957, after being sworn in for a second successive term of office, the day after a grenade was thrown at the Knesset, injuring several ministers. (AP Photo)

Following the event, lawmakers voted to create the Knesset Guard, first as a division of the police and later as an independent command with its own designated mandate enshrined by law.

Most protests recently have been centered around Jerusalem’s Paris Square, outside Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street in central Jerusalem, and surrounding streets. While protests have seen some clashes between police and demonstrators, they have remained largely peaceful.

After the Capitol riot, some Netanyahu allies, including his Likud party’s coalition chief Miki Zohar, tried to compare the protesters to pro-Trump backers in Washington who stormed the capital, even though there has never been a concerted effort to breach the police barricade in front of the residence. (Protesters have managed to breach barricades in other directions to hold unauthorized marches through the city.)

On January 2, some protesters who arrived earlier than expected for a regular Saturday protest managed to get through one police barricade and hold a rally near the rear of the residence, leading the Netanyahus’ security detail to relocate them to a safer position inside the house.

Police officers scuffle with demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside of his official residence in Jerusalem, on January 2, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The incident was kept under wraps, but after the Washington riots, it was leaked to all three of Israel’s main news channels on Friday night, in what some saw as a coordinated effort to draw a parallel between the two sets of protesters.

The Shin Bet unit charged with protecting the Prime Minister maintained that there was “no drama,” as claimed in the reports, which also said that Netanyahu and his wife were rushed to a secure room at the time.

However, the police, led by Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist, released a statement saying the officers on the ground were concerned the event could have “spiraled out of control.”

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