Israeli protest leaders to police: Don't curb freedom of demonstration

Rare meeting comes after Itamar Ben-Gvir calls for more enforcement against left-wing protestors.

protest against the current israeli government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023 (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
protest against the current israeli government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Leaders of the protest movement against the government's plans for judicial reform met with Israel Police commissioner Yaakov (Kobi) Shabtai on Wednesday morning, ahead of a mass protest planned for Saturday night and in the wake of calls by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to the police to use more force against the protestors.

The protest leaders include Movement for Quality Government in Israel chairman lawyer Eliad Shraga, and former chief and defense minister, Moshe (Bougie) Ya'alon. Also present at the meeting was Israel Police OC Tel Aviv District, Asst.-Ch. Amichai Eshed.

Shabtai stressed that the police would act "in line with the minister's [Ben-Gvir's] policy of equal enforcement while exhibiting restraint," the police said in a statement. It added that "Everyone is expected to practice their legal right to demonstrate while maintaining public peace and safety."

The meeting came after Ben-Gvir met on Tuesday with Shabtai and other top police brass and senior officials from the national security ministry.

The police and national security put out a joint statement saying that the minister "wished to ensure that police officers will not be hit or hurt." The Israel Police made it clear that it would "allow the demonstration and practice of freedom of speech within the limits of the law, but not harming police officers," according to the statement.

 Israelis protest against the current Israeli government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023 (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Israelis protest against the current Israeli government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023 (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The police and national ministry added in the statement that "if the demonstration will include lawbreaking or disruption of order, the police will act within the framework of its authorities according to the law, and the police will not exhibit patience with processes of harming police officers and will not allow wild incitement, specifically including the use of Nazi symbols."

At least two signs at the protest on Saturday evening included Nazi references. One pitched Levin with a symbol of the Nazi SS, and another compared the government to the Third Reich

Ya'alon said after the meeting, "Since we are seasoned protestors, we know that until today, in all of the protests against the defendant who is now prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu], no police officer was attacked by a demonstrator, no police cars were burnt or flipped over and no stones were thrown at police officers, and therefore these are unnecessary comments, which were said above the commissioner's head, and may filter down to the field," Ya'alon said. "That is why we wanted to ensure that the police is preparing in such a way that will enable the freedom of demonstration," he added.

Ya'alon was one of the four current or former politicians that Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel called on Tuesday to send to jail for sedition, leading to an uproar. The others were opposition leader MK Yair Lapid, MK Benny Gantz, and former MK Yair Golan.

What does Ben-Gvir expect from the police?

Another two members of Otzma Yehudit, MK Almog Cohen and Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, backed up Fogel's comments on Tuesday. Ben-Gvir in a number of radio interviews said he "really understood" their feelings but also rebuked them, saying that "no one is going to arrest the government's opponents."

The meeting came after Ben-Gvir called on the police on Monday to enforce all demonstrations equally, implying, without providing proof, that the police discriminate against right-wing protestors. Ben-Gvir specifically said that he expected the police to arrest protestors who block streets or wave Palestinian flags, as well as use water cannons if necessary.

According to the newly amended Police Law, the minister only has the authority to lay out "policy and general principles," without explaining what this means. It does not say whether or not the minister has the authority to give the police specific directives regarding the use of force.

Ben-Gvir conditioned his joining the government on the amendment passing before the government was sworn in, and the coalition therefore fast-tracked it through the legislative procedure and became law at the end of December.

Labor files appeal on Police Law

The Labor Party on Wednesday filed an appeal to the High Court against the Police Law. The party argued that Ben-Gvir's conduct since taking office proved that the law "could lead the State of Israel towards becoming a 'police state', in which the police becomes an armed force at the service of political parties, contrary to its intended role of fair and impartial law enforcement".

Labor Party chairwoman MK Merav Michaeli said in a statement, "The coup d’etat of the Bibi-Ben Gvir government should be a matter of concern to every citizen. Ben Gvir is setting up his own political police that will do as he wishes, will arrest protesters, put water cannons on the streets and crush the freedom of expression of our camp. Our petition emphasizes in the clearest way that all concerns this corrupt government is to ensure that Netanyahu evades justice. On their way there they sell and destroy our country and our democracy."

Labor Efrat Rayten MK said, "During the committee debates on amending the Police Law, we already raised serious concerns about the amendment and about the exploitation of the Israel Police for political purposes. We submitted a petition criticizing the amendments based on these concerns and now, even before the Supreme Court has had time to discuss the issue, we can already see that those fears are becoming reality. Within days, the surreal orders given to the police by the incoming minister were made public - to instruct the police how and when to make arrests during a completely legal demonstration. The police are responsible for maintaining public order, and only they decide when an arrest is required. It is not surprising that this happened in relation to a demonstration against what this predatory government is doing. This is silencing of opposition; it is abuse of power and it is doing fatal damage to the principles of democracy," Rayten said.