For the second consecutive day, police and city inspector cleared out a protest encampment across the street from the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem. Law enforcement confiscated equipment and clashed with protesters; two of whom were wounded and taken to the hospital.
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The demonstrators, who are demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu step down in light of the corruption cases against him, are mostly older people who have been staying at the site for about a month. On Fridays they hold protests attended by hundreds of people, blocking nearby Gaza Road to vehicular traffic.
Protesters said that police arrived before 6 A.M. to take “About 30 people were sleeping out here,” said Yaniv Segel, one of the protesters. According to him, the officers “came and started violently tearing down the banners… took people’s mattresses out from under them, personal equipment. There’s someone here without shoes, somebody else got his phone taken and another, his wallet. They didn't show us a warrant, we couldn’t even talk to them.”
According to municipality protocol, protesters need a permit to put up a gazebo for more than 48 hours, and it is forbidden to erect it within 200 meters of the Prime Minister's Residence. The protesters claim that they received a permit to protest from the police, and therefore do not need municipal permission.
Police told media that they were there to protect municipal workers, who had received complaints from residents who live near the Prime Minister's Residence that the protesters' equipment blocked the sidewalk to pedestrians.
Former defense minister and outspoken Netanyahu critic Moshe Ya’alon, now member of the Knesset's opposition Yesh Atid-Telem faction, decried the “force, violence, terror… and wild behavior” by officers, who he argued in a tweet were sent there to “stamp out the protest and defend [Netanyahu’s] dictatorship.”
The Jerusalem Municipality released a statement saying that "After the outpost on Balfour Street was cleared out yesterday, the protesters returned and re-established it. Therefore, once again this morning, equipment that was put up without a permit and harmed public order was removed." The municipality added that "All claims of violence by law enforcement against protesters and bodily harm have been examined and found to be false and baseless."
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On Sunday morning, police and city inspectors tore down the same encampment, which the city said "had actually become a takeover of the land, using permanent elements such as a kitchen, a generator, fences and elements that could actually create a permanent outpost in the middle of the street in the heart of a residential neighborhood."
Protest organizer Amir Haskel, a former IDF general who has long been leading demonstrations demanding Netanyahu step down, had said “I’m not a commentator, but I see the protest yesterday in Tel Aviv" against the government's handling of the economic crisis "and I know that we’ve been here a month already and no one came to [remove the encampment] before.”
Haskel was arrested late last month, with police claiming that he had encouraged protesters to block a road. He refused to be released on the condition that he agree to stay away from Jerusalem. He remained in police custody for more than 24 hours, until a judge ordered him released with no restrictions.
About three years ago, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit struck down city ordinances banning the pitching of permanent tents for demonstrations, ruling that these ordinances impaired freedom of expression. Among the ordinances overturned was one prohibiting the pitching of a tent near the prime minister’s residence and limiting the approval of a demonstration to three days.
The municipality claims that that does not mean that protesters can permanently take over a public space. Deputy Mayor Arieh King has been pressuring Mayor Moshe Leon over the past month to take action against the protesters. King praised the municipality's clearing out of the encampment on Sunday and Monday, while city council member Yossi Havilio has opposed it.
"With the current circumstances, freedom of speech supercedes public disturbance," Havilio said. "In the past month and in light of pressure from Arieh King on the mayor and municipal director to clear out the protesters, I have requested from the mayor a number of times that the municipality not act against them and he has promised me that they would do so. It seems that Arieh King's pressure, and perhaps other sources, took care of themselves."