The continued tensions over the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah moved a few kilometers south on Monday, relocating to the Knesset where MKs and police faced off, slinging allegations and accusations as to who acted inappropriately during recent demonstrations.
Interior Committee chairman David Azoulai (Shas) was conspicuously absent from the hearing where Yehonotan Yosef, grandson of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, blasted the behavior of left-wing demonstrators in the Shimon Hatzadik area, which is surrounded by Sheikh Jarrah.
Instead, MK Dov Henin (Hadash) chaired the meeting, setting a combative tone early on when he complained that “in recent months, the police have been acting in a severe manner to suppress protests.
“It begins with the fact that the police refuse to issue permits for protests, and the protests were declared to be illegal. According to witnesses on the scene, the police officers dispersed the protesters with gas and pepper spray,” he said.
“The Israel Police has the role of maintaining order,” continued Henin, “but also to maintain freedom of movement and of protest and not to harm that right. Perhaps the police have yet to understand that you cannot suppress by force, and thus the proper standpoint is to respect basic rights.”
But Zion subdistrict chief Dep.-Cmdr. Bruno Stein argued that the police do allow protests and even allowed the left-wingers to hold their protests without a permit. Only when the protesters began to assault worshipers did the police intervene and make arrests, he said.
Left-wing activists have held protests in the east Jerusalem neighborhood for several consecutive Fridays, demonstrating against the growing Jewish presence in the predominantly Arab neighborhood that surrounds the site revered by Jews as the tomb of Simon the Just, a high priest during the time of the Second Temple and a Tanna rabbinic sage.
All of the protests prior to last week’s were deemed illegal by the police, but the most recent was declared legal after a court ruled in the protesters’ favor.
Yehonotan Yosef, the representative of the Shimon Hatzadik residents, said “there were left-wing protesters who dressed up as clowns, came as far as the houses and ran wild. Others throw rocks, bottles and hurt residents, but the police do not always act quickly.”
The police and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel presented dueling video evidence during the hearing. In the police version, protesters harassed each haredi they saw walking down the street, and ultimately waved PLO flags.
In the ACRI’s videos, police officers were seen arresting nonviolent demonstrators, although the organization’s representatives confirmed they had blocked a street.
“We saw pictures of protesters blocking worshipers, spitting, and some of them even throwing rocks. Is that part of free speech?” MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) asked.
But it was MK Arieh Bibi (Kadima) who launched the fiercest attack against the demonstrators’ representatives.
“These protesters are the ones causing all of the problems. They incite, and that is not okay. The police are standing guard there. [The protesters] are a fifth column inside of the State of Israel,” complained the former senior police officer.
In response, MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) called out, “I also protest there. Are you saying that I am a fifth columnist?”
His fellow faction member, veteran MK Haim Oron, complained that “each time a new person comes to the Knesset, I have to present a certificate of legitimacy.”
Bibi snapped back that “if you sit and protest quietly, that’s okay. In many instances they block and make problems in order to create a provocation, which is exactly what happens. Have you ever protested for the good of the State of Israel? Or is everything against?”
Afterwards, Bibi apologized to “anyone who was hurt by my outburst. What bothered me was that this hearing turned the police into a target. The police are at the top of my agenda.”
Attorney Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said that police violating demonstrators’ rights was a pervasive problem.
“We see over and over the same responses by the police all over the
country. Both during the period of disengagement [from Gaza in 2005]
and during Operation Defensive Shield [in 2002] we saw violation of
demonstrators’ rights by the police.
“The police arrested protesters who had done no wrong, and infringed on their rights,” Yakir said.
Yehudah Glick of the Organization for Human Rights on the Temple Mount
expressed support for the protesters, arguing that police should not
arrest those who were merely trying to protest in a democratic manner.