The Israel Police “won’t allow any violence against protesters, civilians or officers,” acting commissioner Motti Cohen said on Thursday, ahead of planned anti-government demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Similar rallies have been met with increasingly harsh police response, as well as attacks on protesters by far-right activists.
“We will continue to allow demonstrations across the country, regardless of their messages or the identity of protesters,” Cohen said, vowing to stamp out “rioting.”
According to him, “The police are not a political body…We will ensure every citizen’s freedom of speech and freedom of protest, within the bounds of the law. The majority is protesting lawfully, and we, as police officers, must ensure they can exercise their rights.”
The police are expected to bolster their presence as groups from the far-right, primarily the La Familia fan club of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, have called on members to come out and show anti-government protesters that "the rules of the game have changed."
La Familia, which has taken part in two counter-demonstrations in Jerusalem and whose members were accused of assaulting protesters, instructed its members in a Facebook post to gather at Jerusalem's First Station complex on Thursday night, not far from the protest hub near the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"As you know, the haters and wreckers of Israel are continuing to make a mockery of every Jewish symbol and harm every Jewish concept in existence," La Familia's post said. "We never dreamed that this could happen in the State of Israel, and in addition, they are continuing to upload more and more pictures and videos that disparage us and the Jewish religion on despicable websites. Therefore, we do not intend to remain indifferent and take this quietly."
The statement continued, "Pay attention leftist wimps: The rules of the game have changed from here on in."
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Accounts obtained by Haaretz show that La Familia members were invited by Netanyahu's Likud to protests the party had organized. In a video obtained by Haaretz, one of the pro-Netanyahu protesters can be heard calling them "A group of heroes" and saying that the "left is done for." He can also be heard calling on viewers to "share how La Familia came here and this will be the end of them.”
During the protest, a young member of La Familia was called to the microphone, and called left-wing demonstrators “the worst of the trash," and added "they aren’t Jews, they aren’t Jews, this is a religious war, simply a religious war and you’re a bunch of sons of bitches.”
Police presence and private security
The Israel Police are preparing to bolster their presence at the protest Thursday night in light of La Familia's call. Due to the concern that the group will try to attack demonstrators and the violent assault of protesters at a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, police will likely send more officers to the First Station complex and the Prime Minister's Residence, including undercover and special forces in both locations.
For their part, the anti-Netanyahu protesters have started initiatives to defend themselves from right-wing attacks. They started a number of WhatsApp groups to coordinate with demonstrators who are combat unit veterans, who will patrol the streets around the protest, document the event and summon police if necessary.
They have also founded the "Protest Watch" group, which has a number of goals: guarding the protesters on their way home, finding the provocateurs and preventing vandalism. “If a single stone is thrown, the protest has been destroyed, and a single poster of Netanyahu in an SS uniform also destroys it,” Dvir Kariv, a Protest Watch member, said. Kariv worked for 33 years in the Shin Bet, nearly 20 of them as part of the unit that investigates Jewish extremists. Kariv was also the first to question Yigal Amir after he assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"If we spot a provocation and a provocateur who won’t stop their actions despite our requests we surround them with Israeli flags and call the police," Kariv said. He relates that one woman at a Jerusalem protest had a bottle thrown at her head. The incident was never reported because she wasn't hurt, he said, but "it creates a phenomenon where people are afraid." The group's goal, then, is to diffuse this fear by giving protesters an escort and calling the police if tension rises.
In another project, started by political activist and television presenter Emilie Moatti, left-wing activists raised money to hire a security firm to protect protesters. Some of the money will be used to buy body cameras for volunteers. “I woke up this morning to many messages about friends who took punches at the protest in Tel Aviv," Moatti said. "In the beginning I tweeted that maybe we should organize some security for these people. Afterwards, I thought we needed to do it instead of writing about it.” Within three hours of sharing the donation link, she raised 30,000 shekels.
The organizers are advising protesters to attend in large groups and to keep emergency telephone numbers handy. “Contrary to the person accused of criminal wrongdoing (Netanyahu) we care about each other,” Roee Peleg, one of the organizers, said. “I hear about people deterred from attending, but they're not afraid. People want to exercise their democratic right, but they didn't come to get stabbed or pepper sprayed. Every blow suffered by a protester is the fault of the Israel Police and the criminal defendant as well.”
Hostilities in Tel Aviv
Police sources have criticized how the Israel Police handled the anti-police brutality protest in Tel Aviv Tuesday night, which took place outside of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana's house. The sources criticized the inadequate planning for the event, and how protesters were able to disturb public order. Tel Aviv police have, on the other hand, expressed satisfaction that they did not prevent the protesters from demonstrating.
The Israel Police are investigating an incident in which protesters were attacked by fans of the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team while police were in the immediate vicinity. A police source said that they cannot be present at all times at a protest spread out across the city, and that police immediately responded when they got the call.
Police are aware of the increase in threats on protesters, but note that in many cases in which demonstrators were attacked, the suspects involved were arrested.
Dvir Kariv said that it's only a matter of time until there is another political murder, and not necessarily that of a politician. "We are weeks away from the political murder of a protester. Based on conversations I’ve head on a purely professional basis, beyond my views, the situation is very ripe for murder," he said.
"The responses from politicians today only reinforce and speed up the process. Police intelligence has a very difficult time thwarting someone who comes to a protest with a grenade," Kariv said, adding: "It’s not Yigal Amir, who wasn’t a lone attacker, and we didn’t succeed there either.”