How Amitai Aboudi became the poster boy for Israeli police brutality

POLICE AFFAIRS: Police treatment of 18-year-old protester Amitai Aboudi has brought the issue of excessive force to the forefront.

 AMITAI ABOUDI, who was allegedly attacked by Tel Aviv district police Special Patrol Unit head Yair Hanuna during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, arrives for questioning at the Jaffa Police Station, this week. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
AMITAI ABOUDI, who was allegedly attacked by Tel Aviv district police Special Patrol Unit head Yair Hanuna during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, arrives for questioning at the Jaffa Police Station, this week.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

Last Monday, after the Knesset voted to pass the Law to Cancel the Reasonableness Standard, the first part of the government’s proposed legal reform, 18-year-old Amitai Aboudi made his way to Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, the focal point for the past 30 some weeks for demonstrations against the reform.

Little did Aboudi know that out of the tens of thousands of other demonstrators in attendance that night, he would become the new poster boy for the protest movement.

That night a photo of Aboudi surfaced that showed him handcuffed and with a bloody lip, allegedly punched in the face by the head of the Tel Aviv District police Special Patrol Unit, Yair Hanuna. The photo quickly went viral.

Ifat Brilliant, Aboudi’s mother, wrote in a Facebook post alongside the photo: “This is my son. He is just over 18 years old. He was arrested last night on Ayalon. He didn’t do much – no rioting, no cursing. He was simply protesting for democracy. After he was handcuffed, they took him aside and beat him. Take a closer look at the picture. It’s horrifying.

“The ‘charming’ officer you see in the picture punched my son in the face, all the while whispering threats about raping his mother. Later, when my son asked another officer for water, the officer lifted him into the air and threw him onto the ground, before assaulting him once again. I am immensely proud of my son.”

 Anti-judicial reform demonstrators clash with police during a protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2023.  (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Anti-judicial reform demonstrators clash with police during a protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Brilliant called on the public to share the picture and said it is a “cry against this heinous act.”

Shortly after, numerous photos and video, all from different angles of the incident, were shared by onlookers online seemingly verifying Brilliant’s claims of mistreatment by police officers.

Moreover, since then, other protesters have come forward with similar complaints of excessive force used against them by other police officers at protests.

This has even led to a shaming campaign against police officers in Tel Aviv. Posters were seen with pictures of officers with the word “caution” in red above their names, and below details of their alleged crimes against protesters. On Sunday, police said they were launching an investigation into this campaign for defamation and incitement to violence.

AT THE center of all of this is Aboudi – on the one hand hailed as a symbol of democracy by anti-reform protesters, and on the other presented as a symbol of anarchy.

A symbol of democracy and anarchy

“Amitai is very uneasy by this position, of being in the center and being a symbol for this, and on the other hand he is also angry at the way his name is being tarnished,” Brilliant told The Jerusalem Post this week.

According to Brilliant, in the aftermath of the incident, there are “two processes” her son is involved in, both running simultaneously.

“One – checking the suspicions against Amitai. On this path, Amitai has already been summoned for the third time by the police for questioning, being the No. 1 criminal in the State of Israel,” she said. “In each interrogation he is asked the same questions so that a disturbing picture emerges, that he is in fact called in for questioning for the purpose of intimidation or to silence him.”

“Amitai is very emotionally charged, and he is trying to put on a brave face. By nature he is a strong, spirited boy, but these are not particularly easy days for him, because the Israel Police does not give him respite to enable his recovery,” she added.

Concurrently, she said, Amitai filed a formal complaint with the Police Investigation Department against Hanuna and other officers involved in the incident.

Indeed, the PID summoned Hanuna and four other officers suspected of using excessive force against protesters, and the officers were questioned on Wednesday. Hanuna is suspected of beating protesters in three separate incidents.

Despite the allegations and pending investigation, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir publicly backed Hanuna and the other officers following the incident, calling them “heroes.”

He doubled down on these comments on Wednesday and in an interview with KAN Reshet Bet and cast doubt on Aboudi’s claims, saying he is “not so innocent.”

“I have seen the videos where he breaks the law and tries to damage a water cannon vehicle. I saw how he went on a rampage and how he damaged and tried to [inflict] damage,” he said.

Ben-Gvir also went to Tel Aviv headquarters Wednesday to further back the police officers.

“I want to say thank you to our fighting policemen, and to convey a clear message to them and to the people of Israel: On my watch the policemen will receive full backing,” he said. “They will not be threatened by the PID, and the shaming they are going through on social media will not deter me or them from continuing to do their sacred work for the security of the State of Israel.”

In response to Ben-Gvir’s statements, Brilliant said that his “double standards, not to mention his lies, are something indescribable.

“First, in the past he said that any policeman who harms a protester should be held accountable. So he is probably referring only to certain types of protesters. Secondly, the police change versions again and again regarding Amitai’s part in the incident, and each time they change their version depending on the moment,” she said.

She added that even if her son were to have misbehaved, the officers “violated almost every section of the detention and arrest order, especially the one that states that after an arrest no force should be used.

“We see in the videos how they pull the hairs on Amitai’s head, knee him, punch him, strangle him with his necklace, drag him on the street, and more,” she said.

When asked if she believed the shaming campaign is the right way to handle the aftermath of this incident, Brilliant retorted that while the police call the campaign a shaming campaign, they seem to have no problem “slandering” her son and presenting false accusations not backed by any real evidence.

“It is possible that if the police had done an investigation themselves, investigating the incidents of violence – I would like to mention that there are three complaints against Hanuna – then the public would not feel the need to handle the matter themselves,” she said.

Despite the emotionally charged time for Brilliant and her family, she said she hopes to put the incident behind them so her son can finally recover.

Brilliant and her son do not intend to refrain from attending the protests against the legal reform. She reiterated her belief that demonstrating is a “fundamental value in democracy, and the role of the police is to see to the realization of this value,” and called on the protesters to continue to demonstrate.

“These are important days,” she said.

IN RESPONSE to the incident, International Spokesman for the Israel Police Dean Elsdunne told the Post that the public should allow the relevant bodies to conduct their investigation and to determine guilt or innocence.

“Not only should we leave judgment to the appropriate authorities, but we also owe it to these officers who dedicate themselves to their country and their uniform. Regardless of this specific incident, we mustn’t form a sweeping opinion about an entire police force or undermine the hard work of officers based on an isolated event,” he said.

He added that “perspective can be elusive, especially when emotions guide us.”

Elsdunne said that in his line of work he often witnesses the rapid dissemination of misinformation.

“What seems real in a snapshot may diverge significantly from the truth,” he said. “Consider a scenario where an individual blocks a major highway, engages in disorderly conduct, tampers with a police vehicle, blatantly disregards law enforcement instructions, resists arrest, and even spits on officers detaining them. Such an incident conceals a more intricate narrative than that of the picture being spread around.”

He clarified that his role is “not to conceal any potentially criminal actions of police officers, but, rather, to emphasize that the public should allow relevant bodies to determine guilt or innocence.”

Elsdunne added that the police remain “apolitical,” often sacrificing time with their families, enduring late nights and missing personal events to fulfill their responsibilities to serve and protect, and ensuring the right to lawful protest.

He said it is important to note that “while the police may stand in front of the protesters, it is not standing against them; these officers are standing as protection for the general public.”

With regards to the shaming campaign against police officers, he said that “it’s crucial that the public distinguishes their fight from being directed against the entire police force or [against] those officers who willingly risk their lives to protect them from crime and terror.”

“Donning the uniform is an incredibly daring act that shouldn’t be overlooked. To shed light on the officer’s perspective, imagine the urgency of life-threatening calls they respond to, without hesitation, without considering their own safety or the loved ones waiting at home. Their singular focus is saving lives,” he said. “Thus, I ask: how do you perceive this attack on police officers? These very officers who show up on your worst days, not seeking gratitude or praise, but driven by their commitment to serve the community.”

Despite this, Elsdunne clarified that the police are not exempt from the law.

“Officers suspected of overstepping their roles and committing criminal offenses undergo investigation, not solely by the police but by the relevant authority under the Justice Ministry. Should this authority identify wrongdoing, officers will indeed be held accountable through a proper judicial process,” he said.

He added though that just as police are not above the law, neither is the public.

“The police will not permit chaos in the streets or the rise of anarchy. When the use of force is required to maintain public order, it is executed professionally and in the interest of public safety,” he said. “In essence, our officers protect the nation from descending into lawlessness, regardless of the sacrifices this endeavor demands from them.”

Yet, during this highly sensitive time in Israel’s history, Elsdunne said the police want to send a message of “understanding and unity.”

“As the police, it is our duty is to uphold the law and ensure the safety of all citizens amid these trying times. We recognize the significance of peaceful protests and freedom of expression, but we also seek cooperation and respect for the law to foster a secure and harmonious society. Our focus remains unwavering: preserving public safety, honoring democratic rights, and promoting open communication between the police and the public,” he said.

Elsdunne noted that while emotions understandably run high on all sides, “responsible decision-making is imperative.”

“These times are intricate. Police officers work tirelessly to uphold the fundamental right to lawful protest while delineating any instances where individuals exploit it for violence, vandalism, or disorderly conduct, or disregard lawful law enforcement instructions,” he said. “These circumstances place the police in challenging positions that warrant understanding before casting judgments.

“While a good amount of protests have passed without incident, the police hold a duty to prevent lawlessness from prevailing. When an officer arrests individuals who infringe upon order and the rights of others, it’s not excessive force or misconduct but, rather, a moral obligation,” he said. •