Two protesters were taken in for questioning by police Thursday morning for telling a soldier stationed at a police checkpoint near the Knesset that he should be ashamed of himself for helping to stop protests.
The two women, both Tel Aviv residents in their fifties, are suspected of insulting a civil servant. They filmed themselves at a police checkpoint on Tuesday on the way to the protest against tightening coronavirus regulations to clamp down on protests, which the Knesset was then debating. They told the soldier, among other things, that he is participating in a military coup and told him to disobey his orders, and called police stationed at the checkpoint “prostitutes.”
After being questioned, the two were conditionally released on a 6,500 shekel bail (about $1,900) and ordered not to enter Jerusalem for 15 days. One of the women apologized during the investigation for speaking rudely to the soldier and police officer.
“I came to demonstrate for rule of law and democracy, and I was astounded to see that they weren’t allowing a convoy of cars to move on towards the Knesset to protest,” she said. “I was very angry to see that they placed IDF soldiers at the checkpoint.” She added that since the video was posted to the internet, she has received threats.
Their lawyer, Daniel Haklai, said that the two regret the unpleasant way in which they addressed the soldier, and that anyone can understand the anger they felt about the use of IDF soldiers to negatively impact the civil rights of Israelis. But, Haklai added, it’s a large leap from there to intimidating them through questioning.
“They didn’t break a single criminal law,” Haklai said. “On the contrary: They are victims of threats by many after minister David Amselam [of Likud] uploaded the video to the internet. The police must investigate those making the threats, not the victims. This is an investigation of intimidation.” The Israeli courts tend to side with the defense in cases of insulting civil servants.
Following the incident, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that placing troops at police checkpoints near demonstrations is a "mistake that has already been addressed and will not be repeated."
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On Tuesday night, the Israeli military also decided not to place more soldiers at police checkpoints in order to help enforce the lockdown in Jerusalem.
Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, said on Thursday in a press briefing that using soldiers for policing tasks "isn't the most effective way" to use them.
He said soldiers "should not carry out enforcement against [Israeli] civilians."
The government approved restrictions late on Wednesday night that prevent residents from attending demonstrations that take place more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes, as part of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. The controversial restrictions are valid for a week.
Meanwhile, police have also changed their regulations for using water cannons to disperse demonstrations, and now allow officers to use the trucks closer to the protesters than they were previously able. The new regulations also do not explicitly ban firing the water cannons at people’s heads, as the previous ones did. The updated regulations were released two weeks ago and were submitted to the Knesset Interior Committee for oversight.
The New Contract nonprofit organization filed a High Court of Justice petition on the subject last month, after reports emerged of police using water cannons at a short distance from protesters and with great force during protests at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. The cannons were aimed at protesters’ heads, causing injury.
In response to the petition, government representatives wrote that the police were formulating updated water cannon protocols. But in practice, the changes made it easier for the police to use the water cannons against protesters.
The previous rules stated that it was forbidden to aim water cannons “at the head of a person less than 25 meters from the front of the vehicle,” and they should not spray water at anyone less than 20 meters from the vehicle. A different document with operating procedures for the water cannons states that they should not be sprayed at the head of a person less than 20 meters away.
But the new regulations state that water should not be sprayed “from about 13 meters with direct spraying at the body of a person.” They also say that water should be directed at “the center of mass and/or lower body of the subject of the operation.”
Similar to the previous regulations, the use of the water cannon vehicles is allowed in response to “public disturbances and not obeying police instructions while using violent resistance.” This means violent opposition to dispersal of a demonstration in a way that could cause physical injury or damage to property – and the “wide-scale use” of violence against the police officers dispersing the protest.
The new rules also allow the use of water cannons when there is a “substantial fear of the blocking of essential roads or the blocking of access to central government institutions.”
“We would have expected that in light of the harsh pictures that were published, and the large amount of public criticism lately, the police would realize the dangers in the use of the water cannons and make the procedures stricter,” said Anne Suciu, and attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “Instead, the police decided to shorten the minimum distance for using this problematic tool.”
She called the water cannons dangerous and said they injure people without discrimination, even when they are trying to leave the demonstration or are just standing on the sidewalk – and has caused serious injury to many, including passersby, elderly people and children at demonstrations by Haredim, said Suciu.
The police said they regularly examine and validate their regulations. “As part of the updating of the regulations, a variety of changes were made, germane and professional, after the approval of the relevant professional and command authorities, and the regulations were even presented with full transparency in the High Court of Justice and the Knesset Interior Committee, which dealt with the matter.”
The police also said it uses a variety of means to disperse disturbances based on appropriate regulations.
"The water cannons are one of the effective means of dispersing disturbances, and have been proven effective by many police forces all over the world. The water cannons reduce the friction between the police and rioters, and are only used after other methods to preserve law and order, stop the blocking of roads and riots have failed," said the police.
Yaniv Kubovich contributed to this report.