As the size and intensity of demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have grown, so has a new and disturbing phenomenon. Night after night, the most extreme forms of brutality and violence have come not from clashes with police, but groups of vigilante thugs roaming the streets and after the protests have ended.
The violence reached its height in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening, following a demonstration in front of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana’s home, to protest police brutality and what they see as the minister’s attempts to subdue the growing protests against Netanyahu.
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Young men wielding bats, broken glass bottles and street signs stalked protesters – beating them, stabbing them, throwing objects and spraying mace at them.
From video shot at the scene, the young attackers were visibly indistinguishable from the young protesters and appeared to have fully infiltrated the event. Some even carried black flags, a symbol of the protests, and then used them as weapons.
According to demonstrators, police ignored their calls for help and only arrived at the scene later to break up the clashes. The attackers, whose identity is unknown and who pretended they are part of the anti-government protest, managed to flee the scene.
One man was arrested for throwing a stone during the protest, but he was a part of the demonstrators. Only on Wednesday, after a wave of condemnations, including by Netanyahu himself, three were arrested for their role in the violence. Reports said the three are being represented by lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir, a known Kahanist.
On Wednesday evening, police finished investigating the three suspects. Two put themselves at the scene of the crime and the attack itself, but claimed that they did not plan it in advance. They said that they clashed with protesters, rather than committed a premeditated attack. The third suspect denied his presence at the scene and participation in the attack.
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Later on Wednesday, police said it released one suspect under restrictive conditions and that the other two will be brought before a judge on Thursday to be remanded.
The attacks on Tuesday recalled previous incidents following large-scale demonstrations in front of Netanyahu’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem and in other parts of the country. All followed a similar pattern: taking place in the late hours of the evening and wee hours of the morning after the main demonstrations, more closely monitored by police, had broken up.
It was last Thursday – the first evening when attendance at the Jerusalem vigil ballooned into the thousands – that the first signs of an organized vigilante effort to assault protesters appeared.
It was at this demonstration that the group known as La Familia – a notorious band of far-right, racist supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team – made its first appearance at the Jerusalem demonstrations.
Haaretz reporter Moran Sharir, who covered the small pro-Netanyahu counterdemonstration, accompanied members of La Familia after the protest. He described their frustration at police efforts to keep them away from the main demonstrators and said they left, walking the streets of Jerusalem “to infiltrate the left-wing protest from behind.”
He wrote: “Like sharks on the move, they wanted to advance, to hunt down prey on the street,” recounting how they cursed anyone who looked “like a leftist,” called women “whores” and beat up a fifty-something man they thought was carrying a Palestinian flag – though it was actually a Rastafarian one.
Last Saturday night, following a still-larger demonstration outside Netanyahu’s Balfour Street home, the late-night scenes of violence were repeated. According to several eyewitnesses, five men dressed in black attacked a protester with a helmet and glass bottle. One arrest was made.
Also that night, the violence spread beyond Jerusalem, at some of the many protests taking place at highway junctions across the country. A 20-year-old suspect was taken into custody on suspicion of involvement in stabbing a protester in the neck at the Sha’ar Hanegev junction in the south.
The victim of the stabbing, Nir Sa’ar, a 40-year-old resident of Kibbutz Gevim, said he sustained superficial injuries after coming to the assistance of a friend who was being attacked. He described the scene as a “planned ambush,” saying there were 15 attackers who assaulted him and two others.
At a protest at the Aluf Hasadeh junction in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, a Netanyahu supporter – 34-year-old Eliran Kambitis – was detained for spraying mace at a protester, police reported. He told officers he had been motivated in part by incitement on social media.
He was possibly referring to the recent rage-filled posts by Netanyahu’s supporters on Twitter and Facebook, railing against “traitorous” leftists and the threat they pose to the prime minister’s life. Such posts are often amplified by Netanyahu’s social media team and by his son, Yair, who has in the past been suspended from both platforms for posting hate speech.
In a post published on the group's official Facebook page on Tuesday, La Familia wrote that due to "the ongoing debasement of Jewish symbols and anything Jewish by the haters of Israel," it will convene in Jerusalem. The post ends in a warning: "Watch out leftist wimps, the rules of the game are changing."
The involvement of La Familia also came in the week in which the public security minister was heard in a leaked audio file unloading his frustrations on the Jerusalem police and other officials, telling them in no uncertain terms they were failing to crack down on the escalating demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s official residence in the capital.
The protesters were branded as “anarchists” and “leftists” by Ohana, the minister seemingly urging police to deal with them more “intensively and aggressively,” or ban the demonstrations entirely.
While some of the protesters are indeed hard-core, anti-Netanyahu activists, a large number are young middle-class Israelis, economically devastated by the COVID-19 crisis and expressing their pain over receiving no assistance from the government.
There is no evidence that all of the perpetrators of the violence against the anti-Netanyahu protesters are connected to La Familia. But the group’s links to politically driven violence beyond the soccer field is not new.
In 2016, a dramatic national sweep by police resulted in the indictment of 19 La Familia members on offenses including attempted murder, aggravated intentional destruction, aggravated robbery, racist acts, possession of weapons and other offenses related to fan violence.
A year later, members participated in angry protests outside the military trial of Israel Defense Forces Sgt. Elor Azaria, which deteriorated into a riot as the protesters blocked roads and clashed with police.
After Azaria was convicted of manslaughter for shooting an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in Hebron, the crowd of demonstrators – which included La Familia members in their distinctive yellow shirts (the colors of Beitar Jerusalem) – chanted curses against the judge as well as then-IDF commander Gadi Eisenkot. They chanted ‘Gadi, Gadi beware, Rabin’s looking for a friend’ – threatening the then-IDF chief with the same fate as former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by far-right assassin Yigal Amir in 1995.