Israeli Police Officer Who Beat Lawmaker Claims He Was Attacked First

The Joint List's Ofer Cassif says officers at Sheikh Jarrah were 'going wild, not letting people demonstrate' as weekly protest in support of the neighborhood's Palestinian residents draws large crowd

Nir Hasson
Josh Breiner
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An Israeli policeman strikes lawmaker Ofer Cassif, yesterday.
An Israeli policeman strikes lawmaker Ofer Cassif, yesterday.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP
Nir Hasson
Josh Breiner

Police officers clashed with protesters and punched an Israeli lawmaker in the face on Friday during a weekly demonstration against Jewish settlement in an East Jerusalem neighborhood as the threat of eviction sharpens for several families.

Several hundred protesters participated in the demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, which drew a larger crowd than in previous weeks, as they called to stop the eviction of Palestinian residents.

Footage of the incident Credit: Nitsan Ron

Video footage from the protest shows Ofer Cassif, a Knesset member from the Arab-majority Joint List, arguing with officers before they began hitting him. Cassif's glasses were broken and he required medical attention.

The police’s Jerusalem District chief, Doron Turgeman, ordered an investigation into the incident.

The police later said in a statement that clashes began when Cassif “assaulted one of the officers, kicking him and boxing him in the face.”

Israeli lawmaker Ofer Cassif covers his eye after being hit by police at an East Jerusalem demonstration protesting Jewish settlement activity, on Friday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

According to their statement, the lawmaker refused to identify himself, but after it became clear that he was a Knesset member, he was released from police custody.

The police also said they used “reasonable force” to stop Cassif, and added that several officers were also wounded.

A police source said that officers were told beforehand that some Knesset members were expected to take part in the demonstration, but they may not have identified Cassif in real time.

After a tour of the neighborhood, activists advanced toward a park to protest there. But they say an elite police force blocked the road, shoved them and fired stun grenades. Two activists were detained and several protesters were injured after falling to the ground.

Cassif told reporters after the incident: "The officers are going wild. They don’t let people demonstrate. They were told I was a Knesset member, they didn’t care… and started beating me. They’re here to protect the damned settlers who are taking over homes. It’s a disgrace."

A protester being taken into a police car during a demonstration in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, on Friday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This is the second time in weeks that a Joint List lawmaker was hurt by police. In February, Yousef Jabareen was wounded by a stun grenade along with the mayor of Umm al-Fahm, Samir Mahameed, at a protest against police inaction over gun violence in the Arab community.

'Hundreds of protesters now in Sheikh Jarrah against the eviction of families'Credit: Hagit Ofran

Knesset speaker 'shocked'

Politicians from across the spectrum condemned the violence against a sitting lawmaker.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, said in a statement that he was "shocked to see the grave incident," and drew attention to the fact that Cassif is "entitled to freedom of movement under the law in order to be able to fulfill his role" as legislator. 

He called on Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to ensure the incident is investigated.

Knesset Member Aida Touma-Sliman, also from the Joint List, tweeted that Cassif was attacked by "the same government and police who are aggressively trying to uphold the rule of the occupation and settlers in East Jerusalem." She added: "We are committed to continuing the struggle against the occupation."

Protesters in East Jerusalem, on Friday. The Arabic reads, 'Stop the evacuation of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz said he asked Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to suspend the officers involved, while fellow Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg called in a tweet to "end police violence," which she said "undermines the foundations of democracy, particularly when aimed at a Knesset member." 

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said “The violence against Knesset Member Ofer Cassif is outrageous. It’s unacceptable that a person goes out to protest and ends up beaten and wounded.” 

Cassif's political opponents also censured the violence, with Gideon Sa’ar, leader of the right-wing New Hope party, tweeting that he “despises” Cassif’s worldview, “but the brutal police violence against him is a death blow to the Knesset and to parliamentary immunity.”

Bezalel Smotrich from the far-right Religious Zionism party also called the incident "serious and unacceptable in a democratic country. The [parliamentary] immunity of MKs is critical for the fulfilment of their role, and is not an issue of one side or another on the political map. Too many times in the recent period have police violated the law in this matter."

A decade of protests

Weekly demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah have been happening for about a decade. Dozens of Palestinian residents of the neighborhood have faced potential eviction for years, amid intensified efforts from right-wing settler groups that assert the land was owned by Jews before 1948, when Israel was founded.

In February, 81 members of the British parliament called on their foreign secretary to put pressure on Israel to stop the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem by settler organizations.

In recent months, Israeli courts have forced Palestinian families to leave their homes in favor of settler organizations such as Ateret Cohanim. Most of the evictions are based on claims that the Palestinians are living in buildings or on land that was owned by Jews before the state was founded in 1948. Many of the families are refugees or descendants of refugees who were removed from their homes in 1948 and prevented from recovering their property by Israel’s Absentees’ Property Law.

Josh Breiner contributed to this report.

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