Thursday evening in Jerusalem started out as a celebration, as is normally the case at the end of the Jewish fast of Tisha B’av. Many came out to Hatachana outdoor mall complex to grab some food and have a good time, and perhaps to enjoy the live band that was playing.
But at the entrance to the complex, an unusual scene erupted. About 80 members of the far-right extremist group La Familia, composed of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, gathered in order to show “leftist wimps” that the “rules of the game have changed,” according to invites shared on social media, ahead of a planned protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The La Familia activists’ average age was 16. Most of them wore all black, some covered their faces, with the initials LF embroidered in bright yellow on their masks, caps and shirts. One of them, a soldier, wore an olive green shirt and was bearing a military rifle.
In the first half hour of their time there, members of the far-right group were completely free to do as they pleased. They threatened journalists who dared pick up their camera to film the scene, stopped a Palestinian bus on the road and hit its windows, attacked Channel 13 News cameraman Kobi Cohen and shoved Haaretz journalist Nir Gontarz and Channel 13 cameramen Tal Manor.
Once they realized a man who drove past the incident was Palestinian, dozens of the group's members started chasing the car. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the fleeing car, which urging the rest to run after it. “He’s got a red [traffic] light, let’s catch him,” they shouted. In another incident, the rifle-bearing soldier and two of his friends walked up to a woman of about 60 years of age, demanding she delete photos she took of the scene. She immediately did as they said.
After 30 minutes passed, police came. Some 20 Border Police and special forces officers, as well as some undercover police who appeared, began detaining people, focusing on the organizers and some of the masked activists.
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Over the next several hours, La Familia tried breaching police lines to reach the site of the anti-Netanyahu protest outside the prime minister’s official residence, about a kilometer (0.6 miles) away. In the meanwhile, they burst into racist, hateful chants at the mall complex, repeating their greatest hits from soccer games: “Death to leftists,” “Mohammed is dead,” “Let your village burn.” Unbearable at a stadium, these chants are all the more sickening in the public sphere, particularly with so many Palestinians in that area.
For residents of Jerusalem, these chants spurred a heavy sense of deja vu. The last wave of far-right riots on the city’s streets was in 2014-2015, when members of the Jewish supremacist anti-assimilation group Lehava terrorized the area of Jerusalem’s Zion Square, on the hunt for Arab victims.
The most violent night occurred after the funeral of three Jewish teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank in June 2014, an attack that Hamas claimed responsibility for. The chants heard in Jerusalem that night foretold the murder of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem, hours after the group concluded its march in the city.
During that time, almost every Palestinian taxi driver in the city could recount attacks by hotheaded youth, but since then these kinds of events have become uncommon. On Thursday, it was clear the group of La Familia members were a rather insignificant minority, but still potentially dangerous to the delicate texture of life in Jerusalem.
Some comfort comes in the form of local activist Meir Bar, who throughout the evening tried to mediate between the police and La Familia. “They already know me and listen to me,” he explains, admitting his “Meretz-like” appearance. He managed to keep the situation calm for a while, proposing a compromise by which the activists would refrain from racist chants and confrontations with left-wing protesters, but would be allowed to move closer to the site of the protest in small groups. But the negotiations eventually failed, and the game of cat and mouse continued.
Only toward the end of the night did police manage to break the group apart and stop their rampage. Some managed to get to the protest site, approaching it one by one.
At around 11 P.M., two protesters who were walking home from the anti-Netanyahu protest were met by two La Familia activists. “One of them asked, threatening us, if we wanted to get stabbed,” said one of the protesters, Inbar Tal. “I didn’t take this guy seriously and wasn’t scared at that moment, but a second later, when he pulled a knife from his pocket, I realized what was happening.”
Tal and his friend quickly ran away, and the La Familia activists didn’t even bother chasing after them. “It’s important to say that they probably wouldn’t have stabbed us,” he said. “It was a threat and that’s where it ended.”
A little while later, Tal ran across a group of officers and asked them to track the activists down. “They told me it didn’t work that way, that I can file a complaint at a police station,” he recalled. “It was all said in quite a disrespectful tone.”
14 La Familia activists were detained throughout the night. 10 of them for allegedly trying to attack threaten anti-Netanyahu protesters leaving the main demonstration on Gaza Street. All of the 14 were all released from police custody by Friday morning.
The group’s promise to “change the rules of the game” wasn’t fulfilled, and the vast majority of anti-Netanyahu protesters weren’t even aware of their activity. La Familia remains a minor group, almost pathetic in numbers, but it’s not about quantity. Some individuals will still be on the lookout for random victims on dark streets on the edges of demonstrations. No one can guarantee that the knife that was pulled out this time won’t be used to stab someone next time.