Undercover police officers are posing as protesters at rallies against the government overhaul in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to collect information on those attending the demonstrations, the Haaretz daily reported Tuesday.
Mass protests against the government’s controversial plans to remake the judicial system, weakening its powers to act as a check against the political leadership, have been ongoing for 10 weeks.
According to the Haaretz report, the undercover officers are relaying information in real-time about the protesters, rather than just observing.
An unnamed police source told the outlet that the officers were stationed in the crowd to gauge the mood of those gathered, as well as to protect them from attack.
While there have been multiple incidents of violence toward protesters around the country, there have been no reports of them being thwarted or explicitly brought to a conclusion by an undercover police officer embedded with the demonstrators.
The Haaretz report said protesters last week in Jerusalem noticed an undercover officer in their midst, carrying a national flag, a symbol of the protest movement.
The cop had been at a protest earlier in the day, clearly identified as an officer, before attending the second protest ostensibly trying to blend in with the crowd.
שוטרים סמויים שמתחזים למפגינים במחאה נגד ההפיכה המשטרית היא תופעה פסולה.
כך למשל זוהה בלש ממחוז ירושלים ע"י מפגינים. בבוקר היה במחאה מול קהלת עם כובע משטרה והופ, בצהריים כבר עם דגל בצעדה. כשהוריד את המעיל, התגלה מכשיר הקשר והלך להסתחבק עם חבריו לבילוש pic.twitter.com/zaeJIpR3Or
— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) March 13, 2023
The report said that the crowd in Tel Aviv at a protest last week also identified what they thought was a police officer who had “infiltrated.”
On both occasions, the alleged police officers apparently refused to identify themselves when challenged — under policing procedures, an officer is allowed to maintain their cover if there may be a risk to safety or if breaking cover may impact their chances of making arrests.
When asked for comment by Haaretz, Israel Police said in a general statement that it uses both overt and undercover officers to fight crime, maintain public order and police traffic.
However, Ann Suciu of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel told the newspaper that the practice of using undercover police officers was not appropriate for the non-violent rallies, which have only seen pockets of scuffles between protesters and police, with both sides charging that the other instigated.
“Even if there are extremely unusual cases that justify the use of undercover police officers, it is clear that this method, which is usually intended for dealing with serious crime, is not suitable for dealing with non-violent demonstrations,” she said.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Israel Police have tussled recently over the response to massive nationwide protests against government plans to rein in the judiciary, with the minister pushing for cops to take more aggressive measures against demonstrators, whom he terms “anarchists.”
Channel 12 news reported that Ben Gvir or aides had on several occasions contacted police commanders below police chief Kobi Shabtai during operations, bypassing the normal chain of command.
According to several news outlets, as protesters blocked roads and freeways on Thursday, Ben Gvir or his aides made a number of calls to police commanders in the field to press them on how many fines had been handed out or whether they had opened roads yet.
Officers have reportedly complained to Shabtai and others about being stuck between their duties and Ben Gvir’s requests, which do not always dovetail.
Last week, Ben Gvir attempted to remove Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed after grousing that cops were treating protesters with kid gloves and allowing them to block roads and the Ayalon Highway.
That decision was frozen by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, placing the top prosecutor and the far-right police minister on a collision course.
Earlier this month, police used stun grenades and water cannons against demonstrators who blocked a key junction in Tel Aviv during the March 1 “day of disruption.” A number of police officers have been questioned by the Police Internal Investigations Department on their decisions to lob stun grenades into the crowd.
However, there has generally been little animosity between protesters and police on the ground — while some chants at the protests disparage the ultra-nationalist police minister, others describe serving officers are “brothers,” with some demonstrators handing out flowers to cops on duty.