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Top cop sparks probe after pushing fake claim protesters planned violence

Police looking into origin of Facebook post claiming demonstrators planned to use tasers, after senior officer reads it aloud on TV despite reported warnings that it was fishy

Deputy Police Chief and head of the investigations division Ziv Sagiv in an interview with Channel 13 News on October 10, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter/Channel 13)
Deputy Police Chief and head of the investigations division Ziv Sagiv in an interview with Channel 13 News on October 10, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter/Channel 13)

Police plan to open a probe after a senior officer read a fictitious Facebook post on live TV claiming that anti-government protesters were planning on using violent tactics at an upcoming demonstration.

Activists have vowed legal actions against Deputy Police Chief  Ziv Sagiv, who was apparently warned ahead of time that the post was likely not real.

In a Saturday interview with Channel 13 news, Sagiv, the head of the police investigations division, held his phone and read aloud a post that he claimed was from the anti-Netanyahu protest movement Crime Minister.

The post detailed the purported distribution of tear gas and tasers to protesters to defend themselves against police and vigilante violence and said that “they can be used and sprayed legally.”

People protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on October 03, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For months tens of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling on him to step down over the corruption charges against him, and rallying against what they assert is his bungled and politicized response to the coronavirus crisis, which has included limiting the distance one could travel to a protest during a lockdown to one kilometer (.6 miles) from home. (The lockdown that began a month ago sees Israelis restricted to within a kilometer of home except for certain essential purposes.)

Saturday evening saw over 1,000 socially distanced protest gatherings throughout the country, the fourth such dispersed event since the government instituted the limitations on protests as part of the national coronavirus lockdown.

Before Sagiv’s interview, the police released a statement that mentioned the post’s calls for the use of tear gas and tasers against officers and said, “We are warning the protesters to avoid any act of violence and to avoid disturbing the peace.”

The post was widely circulated on the internet, including in right-wing circles, with shares from right-wing activist Yoav Eliasi, known as “The Shadow,” and the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu.

Moments before his interview with Channel 13, Sagiv reportedly showed the post to reporters present. After being asked if the post was real, due to visible indications it was fabricated, Sagiv expressed confidence in its validity, according to Channel 13 reporter Baruch Kra.

The post ostensibly came from the anti-Netanyahu protest group Crime Minister. But the group had only eight followers, as opposed to the 64,000 the real group has.

Police scuffle with protesters during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

In the interview, Sagiv was asked about the denials coming from Crime Minister, which had already disavowed the post, but he skirted the question, read the post aloud from his phone and emphatically stated that it was unacceptable.

After Sagiv’s interview, Crime Minister wrote on its Facebook page: “It is amazing to see how the messages of false incitement from Balfour are miraculously repeated by senior police officers on live TV and without any scrutiny!”

Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a lawyer and a leader of the Crime Minister group, vowed he would take action against the police in the form of a civil suit and in a formal complaint to the police.

“This will not pass in silence,” he said on Twitter.

Soon after, the police released a statement that seemed to walk back Sagiv’s interview.

“Recently, a statement was issued by a spokesperson for Crime Minister announcing that the post calling for the use of tear gas and other dangerous weapons was not published by it and that it was fake news,” the police statement acknowledged.

On Sunday night the police released another statement walking back the interview entirely, saying that a “clarification was circulated and additionally, the officer clarified the issue in two different interviews this morning.”

The police also announced they will investigate who was behind the fake post.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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