Ohana to police: Would you react the same to Arab, Ethiopian protesters?

"I am going to ask you a question and I do not expect an answer."

Justice Minister Amir Ohana (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Justice Minister Amir Ohana
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana (Likud) asked Interim Police Commissioner Moti Cohen whether law enforcement would react to a protest near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residency led by minorities, N12 reported.

"I am going to ask you a question and I do not expect an answer," Ohana told Cohen and a group of other high-ranking police officials at a meeting initiated by Ohana in relation to the Balfour Street protests

If the demonstration near Netanyahu's official residency on Jerusalem's Balfour Street "was a Haredi, Arab or Ethiopian protest, would [police forces at the scene] have acted the same way they did?"

Cohen then replied to Ohana, saying "I will tell you what," to which Ohana responded, "You will not answer the question." Cohen then told Ohana he "will answer your question. You cannot say such things," to which the minister replied, "You will not tell me what to say and what not to say."

Ohana's controversial statements resulted in public criticism, as the haredi and Ethiopian communities have both accused police of unnecessary brutality and as law enforcement in Israel often suppresses unrest in Arab villages using heavy crowd dispersal methods and deadly force.

An emergency regulation created by Netanyahu in 1998 allowed law enforcement to use lethal force against civilians. The order, called "Kesem HaMangina," meaning the "allure of the melody," was used in October 2000 to suppress protests of Arab Israelis, leading to the deaths of 13 civilians and sparking the Second Intifada, according to a report by the Or Commission tasked with investigating the events.

Protests have been taking place across Israel for the last month, with growing resentment toward the government in light of the economic crisis and the rise in police brutality. Initially concentrated in Tel Aviv, the epicenter of the protest movement shifted to Netanyahu's residency following the arrest of retired IAF Brig.-Gen. Amir Haskel.

Haskel, who is the head of the Black Flag anti-corruption protest movement against Netanyahu, was arrested in late June for blocking the road on Balfour Street during a demonstration.

The anti-Netanyahu protests on Balfour have been growing in size over the last several weeks, with clashes between protesters and police erupting.
The intensifying protests were met with police cavalry and water cannons. Civil rights lawyer Gonen Ben Yitzhak handcuffed himself to one of the cannons, attempting to block it from spraying the demonstrators.

Earlier in July, the Knesset rejected a motion to establish a parliamentary inquiry committee to investigate recent allegations of police brutality. 

Submitted by MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) following the controversial arrest of Haskel, the motion was to be voted upon on the one-year anniversary Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Tekah's killing by police and the death of special-needs Palestinian Iyad al-Hallak a month prior.

Hallak, a 32-year-old special-needs student from east Jerusalem, was shot by Border Police in the Old City on his way to Jerusalem's Elwyn school for children and adults with disabilities. 

Police issued a statement after the shooting, saying officers noticed a "suspicious object" in his hands. According to N12, Hallak fled from the officers to a nearby garbage room. Hallak was shot seven to eight times, with the coroner's report saying two of the bullets hit him, according to Walla.

His mother, Rana al-Halak, accused police of burying the recording of the shooting mid-June, according to Ynet.

At a meeting held with Netanyahu's neighbors and high-ranking police officials, Ohana also ordered Israel Police not to allow demonstrations to be held outside of the prime minister's residency, Army Radio reported Thursday. Told by police that the law allows such protests to be held due to a Supreme Court ruling, Ohana reportedly told the officers, "then challenge the Supreme Court."

Two weeks ago, officers received a message encouraging them to "enforce [the law] mercilessly and identify the coronavirus outlaws," Army Radio police affairs correspondent Hadas Shtaif revealed on Twitter.

"Whoever came to work at the [coronavirus] directorate and thinks he is on vacation is wrong," the message read. "Enforcement must be done mercilessly and the coronavirus outlaws should be identified."

It "simply cannot be that there are officers from other units who find [people not wearing masks] and there are officers among us who cannot find anything," the message continued.

"The deal is clear," it said. "Whoever returns with no enforcement will go back to working in Traffic Police with a stain in his personal file and a hearing for failing a department task, and it is not a nice place to be for anyone."

In communications obtained by The Jerusalem Post's sister publication, Maariv, an officer said "it is amazing. Do not worry, it does not mean it is you. It is the pressure on the officer in the field, from his superiors. There is no surprise that some slide into violent enforcement."

Israel Police Spokesperson's Unit responded to the Maariv report, saying "most encounters of civilians concerning not wearing face masks end with no fines but rather with a warning and an explanation, as long as the civilian is cooperating."

They added that in some cases, "officers encounter citizens who grossly disregard the law, resist enforcement or try to sabotage it. It needs to be reiterated that refraining from enforcing any [law] will never be effective in prevention, will not lead to civil discipline and will not be able to stop the contagion."