ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Mounted police, water cannon in J'lem; protests at 40 locales

Thousands take to the streets, block roads after Tel Aviv police chief steps down

Ayalon blocked for hours; at least 27 held nationwide; 1 injured as driver rams through protest; Eshed says he lost his job for refusing to use disproportionate force to curb demos

  • Anti-government protesters raise flags and light a fire on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, following the resignation of Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed, on July 5, 2023. (Oren Ziv/AFP)
    Anti-government protesters raise flags and light a fire on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, following the resignation of Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed, on July 5, 2023. (Oren Ziv/AFP)
  • Mounted Israeli police officers try to disperse anti-government protesters on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on July 5, 2023. (OREN ZIV / AFP)
    Mounted Israeli police officers try to disperse anti-government protesters on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on July 5, 2023. (OREN ZIV / AFP)
  • A car drives into anti-government protesters blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2023 (Video screenshot by Michel Braunstein; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
    A car drives into anti-government protesters blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2023 (Video screenshot by Michel Braunstein; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
  • Protesters on the Ayalon Highway, July 5, 2023. (Facebook screenshot)
    Protesters on the Ayalon Highway, July 5, 2023. (Facebook screenshot)
  • Anti-government protests in Jerusalem's Paris Square, July 5, 2023 (Times of Israel)
    Anti-government protests in Jerusalem's Paris Square, July 5, 2023 (Times of Israel)
  • Tel Aviv District Commander of the Police Amichai Eshed holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, announcing his resgination, on July 5, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
    Tel Aviv District Commander of the Police Amichai Eshed holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, announcing his resgination, on July 5, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
  • National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on July 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on July 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Thousands of Israelis took to the streets and blocked several major highways across the country Wednesday night after Tel Aviv police chief Amichai Eshed announced his resignation from the force. He was about to be removed from his post, and transferred to a more marginal role, due to what he claimed were “political considerations” and for refusing to use “disproportionate force,” following what critics said was his soft handling of judicial overhaul protesters.

The largest demonstration — in solidarity with Eshed and against the hardline coalition — took place at Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, where police clashed with protesters blocking traffic and lighting bonfires. The thoroughfare was blocked for several hours, before police used force to disperse protesters after midnight.

One driver stuck in traffic decided to plow through the demonstration, injuring at least one protester before being pulled over and arrested by police.

During the protest, fireworks were launched from nearby buildings in apparent solidarity with the demonstrators, leading to cheers from the crowd and further contributing to the sense of chaos sweeping the streets all through the evening. In several scenes posted to social media, officers at the Ayalon Highway were filmed beating protesters who refused to vacate the area.

Police deployed mounted officers and water cannons to clear the highway but struggled to restore order for several hours. After midnight on Wednesday, police said they had cleared most of the Tel Aviv protesters from the Ayalon and arrested 15 people. The protest ended with demonstrators singing the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva,” Ynet reported.

Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital later said 14 people were brought in for medical treatment from the protest. Six of them had wounds to their eyes, one of whom required surgery.

At least 12 others were arrested in protests elsewhere, including eight in Jerusalem. Police later said they arrested four more people at a protest at a major junction near Herzliya

With demonstrators lighting bonfires on the Ayalon highway, the protests appeared to mimic larger ones that took place across the country in late March after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his decision to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who raised the alarm regarding the judicial overhaul’s impact on security. Netanyahu went on to pause the overhaul the following day and later walked back his decision to axe Gallant.

Protests against the controversial legislation to remake Israel’s judiciary have been taking place since January, and recently ramped up as Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has renewed its efforts to push through some of the relevant laws.

The protests have angered the coalition, with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right Otzma Yehudit lawmaker who oversees the police, repeatedly clashing with the force over its handling of the demonstrators. Ben Gvir has argued for a tougher approach with protesters, and more arrests.

Ben Gvir’s outrage was often directed at Eshed, amid his refusal to use greater force against the months-long anti-overhaul demonstrations.

Mounted Israeli police officers try to disperse anti-government protesters on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, following the resignation of Tel Aviv police chief Ami Ashed on July 5, 2023. (OREN ZIV / AFP)

In his press conference Wednesday evening, Eshed lamented the “terrible [personal] cost for my choice to prevent civil war.”

His resignation also sparked protests in Jerusalem, where hundreds of protesters congregated at Paris Square in Jerusalem and blocked the junction. Police here too deployed mounted officers and water cannons — firing foul-smelling water — to disperse the crowd, amid cries of “Shame.”

The demonstrators included large numbers of students and middle-aged Israelis. Police forcibly cleared the protesters after midnight. At least two women were injured.

A police water cannon fires on anti-government protests in Jerusalem’s Paris Square, July 5, 2023 (Times of Israel)

Earlier, protesters gathered outside Netanyahu’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Azza Street, clashing with police as they blocked the road. Later in the night, the protesters again headed down Azza Street from Paris Square toward the prime minister’s home.

In addition to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, protesters blocked the Karkur, Carmiel, Tzemach, Horev, Rager and Azza intersections in northern and southern Israel on Wednesday night. There were demonstrations reported in some 40 locations nationwide.

‘The limits of force’

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai recently informed Eshed he would be moved to lead a police internal training center, widely viewed as a demotion. Shabtai and Eshed long had a rocky relationship, which worsened when Ben Gvir assumed office.

Ben Gvir and Shabtai said last week that Southern District Commander Deputy Commissioner Peretz Amar would replace Eshed in Tel Aviv.

In March, Ben Gvir announced that, at Shabtai’s recommendation, he was transferring Eshed to a new position, after slamming Eshed’s handling of the mass protests against the government’s judicial overhaul push.

The move was temporarily frozen by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who raised concerns that the timing of the transfer was politically motivated.

Shabtai approved Eshed’s removal, apparently in light of longstanding tensions with the top officer, but later admitted that the timing was a mistake.

In May, Shabtai summoned Eshed for an interview about taking over the training department but the latter instead responded with a letter in which he claimed that the police chief’s “considerations are personal, political and contrary to the instructions of the attorney general.”

Both Shabtai and Ben Gvir have insisted that Eshed’s removal had been planned in advance, but Ben Gvir also said his decision to make the move at the time was tied to the commander’s handling of the protests in Tel Aviv.

Eshed at his Wednesday press conference said he “could not live up to [Ben Gvir’s] expectations, which included breaking the rules and abiding clear interference in professional decision-making.”

“I could have easily used disproportionate force and filled the Ichilov [Medical Center] emergency room at the end of every demonstration in Tel Aviv. We could have cleared Ayalon [Highway] within minutes at the terrible cost of cracking heads and breaking bones and at the cost of breaking the pact between police and the citizenry,” he said.

“As a commander, I taught generations of policemen to recognize the limits of force, to safeguard our contract with the public… Unfortunately, for the first time in my three decades of service, I was met with the bizarre reality in which calm and order were not the desired goal, but rather the contrary was the case,” added Eshed.

He claimed that his refusal to follow Ben Gvir’s demands led to “a well-oiled poison machine turning against me online, leading to significant threats to my life and to my designation as being under the highest level of threat. But this did not dissuade me. At all times I saw before me one roadmap, one compass: checks and balances, the Israeli law and the rules of morality and justice.”

Police’s Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Eshed urged police not to be cowed by his ostensible ouster, saying commanders must “stand firm as a rock, adhere to the values of the organization and rise above fleeting personal considerations. A policeman is a public emissary, a public servant… The ‘Ami Eshed precedent’ must not terrorize police commanders. A district commander must not avoid stating their opinion, must not bend their values.”

He said he paid the ultimate professional cost for standing by his principles, with “33 years of service in uniform — in the final stretch before a run for police commissioner — going down the drain. All for a simple reason: I demanded that the officers under my command follow the law.”

Holding his own press conference later Wednesday evening, National Security Minister Ben Gvir accused Eshed of “surrendering to the left.”

He said, “the trickle of politics into senior police positions is a dangerous precedent.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on July 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The far-right Ben Gvir said the government, of which he is a member, was “elected to restore equality under the law, not to allow a police force to behave one way toward [settlers] and another way toward Haredim and leftist activists.”

At the Tel Aviv demonstration later Wednesday night, thousands of protesters marched from Kaplan Street to the Ayalon Highway, waving Israeli flags and blowing vuvuzelas.

“I feel absolute shock,” said Avi Dar, a 60-year-old lawyer and former security service professional at the protest.

“We’re going to face a coup by a group of extremists who took over Israel and are bringing us to anarchy,” said Dar, who donned a t-shirt from the Brothers in Arms IDF veterans protest group.

His friend Reuven, also 60, said that by coming out Wednesday night, they hope to influence Ben Gvir and future police leadership policy.

“We did this after Gallant’s firing, and they brought him back,” he said.

While the two didn’t think Eshed would return to the police force, “the fact that this is happening and the person who is responsible for Israel’s national security is a criminal really reminds us of countries where extremists came to power democratically,” said Reuven, referencing Ben Gvir’s previous convictions as a far-right activist.

But the protesters had their critics as well.

“This is not good. It’s a return to left-wing policy, which will bring us to a point where our enemies will eat us alive,” said Itzhak Maloul, a security guard for the parking lot overlooking the blocked section of the highway.

Maloul said he’s witnessed a host of anti-overhaul protests over the past several months and claimed that they’re less about preventing democratic erosion and more a reflection of political divides.

“They’re looking to cause a provocation because things didn’t go their way [in the election],” he said.

Israel has been rocked by mass demonstrations since early January when the government unveiled its far-reaching plans to neuter the judicial system. Protesters have warned that the proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters claim it is a much-needed reform to rein in an overly activist court.

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