“From the moment I enter the protest compound I feel that the secret police are homing in on me,” says Haim Shadmi, describing his most recent arrest on Saturday night a week ago, this time nowhere near the site of an anti-Netanyahu protest.
“I was actually arrested at the Mamilla mall, where I had gone to accompany someone, not in the area of the demonstration at all,” recalls Shadmi, a prominent figure in the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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“They approached me, two muscular guys, [wearing] non-brand name T-shirts, very polite. They pulled out police IDs and told me to wait on the side. They started filming me on their personal smartphones [and said] ‘It’s only a preliminary inquiry.’ In the end I was questioned about a crime of ‘disorderly conduct.’ For that they put undercover cops on me all evening.”
What Shadmi describes has become a common occurrence at almost every demonstration: Undercover cops take part in the protests and engage in surveillance of the leaders. During the protests, they remove one of the demonstrators, far from the crowd, identify themselves and arrest the person, usually for disorderly conduct. What was meant to be a mode of operation against criminal elements is increasingly being used against prominent demonstrators in the anti-Netanyahu protests.
The method has become so widespread that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel last week asked the attorney general to order a halt to the use of undercover cops against demonstrators.
“This method, which is usually designed to deal with serious crime, is not appropriate for dealing with non-violent demonstrations, and cannot turn into a routine tool in light of the disproportionate harm to individual rights,” they wrote in the request to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. “Activating policemen who pretend to be demonstrators, carry out arrests and film their activity is a serious blow to freedom of expression and deters the entire public from exercising the right to demonstrate.”
The police not only fail to conceal the use of undercover cops, but are even proud of it. “We won’t use the undercover cops to harm the demonstrations. On the contrary, if anything, we want to enable people to exercise their right to demonstrate, but police have to be there in order to prevent demonstrators from being harmed by extremists,” said a senior police officer. “If a guy from La Familia, for example, who wants to harm a demonstrator, enters the compound, by the time police arrive it will be too late,” said the officer, referring to the far-right supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, who have been involved in attacks on protesters.
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But the practice seems to be employed mainly against the demonstrators themselves.
Daniel Ohana, a 32-year-old activist from Pardes Hannah, recounts what happened to him at a recent protest in front of the prime minister’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. “At a certain point I found myself at the front of the march leaving Balfour. I was walking at the front, and I was being assertive. Suddenly I realized that there were undercover cops alongside me, whom you can identify immediately: plain shirts, two-way phones sticking out of the shirts, they don’t shout slogans, and they don’t have signs – it’s clear that they’re not part of the protest,” recalls Ohana.
“Everyone was shouting ‘undercover cops, undercover cops,’ but I didn’t pay attention. At one point I entered a nearby kiosk to buy water and when I went outside they were waiting for me. ‘Come with us,’ they said and pulled out police IDs. They tried to take me ...where nobody would see, but I immediately shouted and activists came and started to film. Why am I being arrested? ‘The officer will tell you at the station.’ I was put into the police van and during the investigation I was told that I was being investigated for disorderly conduct. It’s clear to me that they singled me out as the leader of the protest, that they decided to focus on people who they think are the leaders, out of a desire to scare people from being dominant at the demonstration.”
Shai Sadeh, 26, from Be’er Sheva has been arrested twice already by undercover cops. The last time was three weeks ago in Tel Aviv. “I saw that all along there were undercover cops following me. You can recognize them immediately.In one of the streets where they penned us in they simply ‘plucked’ me, without identifying themselves, into a civilian vehicle. They filmed me with their personal smartphones and sent the pictures. I was interrogated in the Tel Aviv station for disorderly conduct. When I arrived I already saw a paper ready with my terms of release. It’s clear to me that they had their eye on me,” said Sadeh.
The police’s use of undercover detectives and civilian cops may be a violation of its own regulations. In effect, already in 2013, the police claimed that they don’t use undercover cops in order to undermine a protest, according to a document written by Brig. Gen. Ayelet Avisar, a senior official at the time and now the Israel Police legal adviser.
“To the best of my knowledge, the police do not use undercover police at demonstrations,” she wrote in August 2013. “Demonstrations are usually handled by uniformed police. Using police in order to ‘cool off’ the demonstrators, intimidate them, or for any other unacceptable reason, is certainly not permitted. Nor are we familiar with such cases.”
However, Avisar said that there might be instances in which undercover police would be used at demonstrations. “We are referring not only to cases in which there is a suspicion of committing crimes ‘external’ to the protest, such as pickpocketing, but also when the situation analysis indicates a possibility of crimes committed by the protesters themselves, such as crimes of incitement and sedition, violence and so on. Clearly using police in these situations requires caution and special sensitivity.” But to date, none of those arrested by undercover cops was investigated for crimes of incitement or sedition.
Yigal Rambam says he has been arrested seven times during the recent protests, five times by undercover cops. “I know for certain that the police central unit has had it in for me since July, and each time they ask me about my involvement in the struggle,” says Rambam. “In the end, there are no indictments against the demonstrators, while the police resort to disproportionate violence and dubious police methods against those who want to exercise their right to act and to demonstrate.”
According to attorneys Ann Suciu and Tal Hassin of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the use of undercover cops spreads fear and has an adverse effect on freedom of expression and the freedom to demonstrate. “Police who operate in camouflage are one of the trademarks of shady and tyrannical regimes. An undercover cop is likely to act without restraint, and there is no possibility of criticizing his activity,” they say.