Senior officers reportedly leveled criticism at Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Wednesday, accusing him of using excessive force against anti-government protesters in order to curry favor with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.
Police securing large rallies across Israel clashed repeatedly with protesters Wednesday, using stun grenades, water cannons and officers mounted on horseback to disperse demonstrators blocking roads as thousands nationwide vented frustration over the government’s plans to curb the judiciary.
The clashes, which left several people needing hospitalization, marked an aggressive about-face for a police force that until now has mostly tried to maintain peaceful ties with anti-government protesters holding weekly marches in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.
“It seems the minister put pressure on the police commissioner — you can see the results in the streets,” one senior police official said, according to the Haaretz daily.
Ben Gvir, considered among the most extreme of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet members, has led a public push for police to use a heavier hand against anti-government rallies and to go easier on ultra-Orthodox and other protesters. His ministerial post gives him oversight over the police, and he has sought to expand those powers to have more control of police operations.
Shabtai, who reportedly accused Ben Gvir of stirring up rioting in 2021, has sought to maintain good working relations with the minister while seemingly rebuffing his demands until now.
Shabtai on Wednesday defended police actions, saying several officers were injured in clashes with demonstrators. He said police were committed to allowing protests and free speech so long as demonstrators do not disturb the peace.
“Violence against police officers, such as throwing stones and objects at police officers, is, for me, crossing a line, which we will not allow,” he said.
But protesters maintain that they remained peaceful and were manhandled without provocation, a claim reportedly backed by some senior officers.
“You only use stun grenades in extreme cases of severe violence by protesters against police,” one officer told Haaretz. “There was none of that in today’s protest. Stun grenades are incredibly dangerous, and you don’t use them against protesters in the middle of Tel Aviv who are doing nothing more than blocking roads or breaking through roadblocks.”
According to one officer quoted by Haaretz, a reason police may have changed tactics was the absence of Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed, who is away on vacation, but who has overseen the police response to protests over the last month.
“This never would have happened with Eshed,” the officer said.
At least 11 people injured in clashes with police in Tel Aviv arrived in hospitals for treatment for various bruises, cuts and burns. One man was said to have lost an ear, apparently after being hit with a stun grenade.
At least 50 people were arrested in the nationwide demonstrations, which blocked roads, disrupted train service, and drew thousands out to march. In one video widely shared online, Border Police were seen subduing a man in Tel Aviv while kneeling on his neck.
Footage from the scene at Hashalom Interchange in Tel Aviv showed police deploying stun grenades and horses, to calls of “shame” by the protesters.
A short while later, police began using water cannons in an attempt to disperse crowds.
One officer who was filmed ordering police under his command to use force — telling them to “send them to hell” and was himself seen throwing a stun grenade — said the demonstrators “almost killed my officers.”
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“I am very disappointed with the protesters,” Channel 12 quoted officer Meir Suissa as saying.
“I have been with them for eight weeks, shoulder to shoulder, but today they almost killed my officers. The came with knives, cut the zip ties, the barricades, threw iron bars at my officers,” he said.
Suissa said he had complete backing for his actions from the police hierarchy.
As police aggressively confronted the protesters, Ben Gvir was present at the police’s forward command center, holding a situational assessment with senior officers.
Ben Gvir backed the police effort, telling law enforcement officials that there must be “zero tolerance toward anarchists.”
The minister directed his comments toward protesters “who attack policemen, break through police barriers and lead to anarchy.”
Ahead of the protests, opposition leader Yair Lapid called on the police to allow the protesters to rally peacefully, urging the police chief “to ignore the dangerous and irresponsible political attempts of Minister Ben Gvir to heat things up even further.”
Netanyahu issued a statement condemning the “anarchy” of the protesters and backing Ben Gvir’s call for zero tolerance against demonstrators blocking roads.
“We will not accept violence against police officers, blocking of roads, and blatant violation of the laws,” he said. “The right to protest is not the right to anarchy.”
Netanyahu gave “full backing to National Security Minister Ben Gvir and to the Israel Police chief and police officers, who are working against those who violate the law and disrupt the lives of Israeli citizens.”
A police spokesperson told Haaretz that the decision to use force was in response to violence from the protesters.
“Today we saw an escalation in violence from protesters toward police as they tried to break through the barricades toward the Ayalon [highway.] So the commissioner gave the order to send in mounted officers and to use means to push back the protesters towards Kaplan street,” the spokesperson said. “We allow protests but not violence.”