After Violent Arrest, Public Security Minister Warns Against Attacking Police Officers

Amir Ohana's statement comes after video shows officer hitting an asylum seeker pinned to the ground, but police say video does not show violence they were subjected to first

Josh Breiner
Bar Peleg
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Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaking at an accountants' conference, Jerusalem, March 2, 2020.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaking at an accountants' conference, Jerusalem, March 2, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Josh Breiner
Bar Peleg

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana warned on Thursday that a person who attacks a police officer bears full responsibility for the consequences, adding that "Their blood will be on their own head," after a violent arrest of two Eritrean asylum seekers earlier this week.

Video footage of the event obtained by Haaretz shows a police officer hitting one of the asylum seekers while he is pinned to the ground and restrained.

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Ohana, who made the comments in a Facebook post, also wrote that during a visit to a south Tel Aviv police station earlier that day, he made it clear "To all the police officers and commanders that if they were attacked – they would receive our full backup."

"A person, *any person*, who attacka a police officer, *any police officer*, must know that their blood will be on their own head." The newly appointed minister added that "there will be a firm hand regarding attacks on the police."

This was Ohana's second visit to south Tel Aviv since he was sworn in as public security minister after heading the justice ministry in the previous government. During his first day on the job, Ohana had an effusive meeting with anti-asylum seeker activists in the same neighborhood last week. During the visit, he promised to address their concerns, one of which is perceived police "softness" with asylum seekers.

On Tuesday, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court ordered the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit to open an investigation into the violent arrest in south Tel Aviv the evening before, which was caught on video. The police claim that the suspects had attacked police officers at the scene first and that the initial part of the confrontation was not caught on film.

Screengrab from footage of a violent confrontation between police and asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, May 2020.
Screengrab from footage of a violent confrontation between police and asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, May 2020.

At a hearing on Tuesday following a police request to extend the two Eritreans’ detention, Judge Roy Peri expressed what he described as “discomfort at the sequence of events” after watching the video, which he said showed “a policeman striking a man lying on the ground, who, it seems, was not endangering anyone.”

Police prosecutor Doron Cohen qualified the police officer’s action as “a soft hit.” Judge Peri declined the request to extend the Eritreans’ detention and instead ordered them confined to house arrest.

The south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Shaanan is home to a significant number of Eritrean asylum seekers. Since last weekend, the police have boosted their presence in the neighborhood to coincide with Sunday’s observance of Eritrean independence day, which in prior years led to violent incidents.

The incident came after Ohana promised activists fighting to deport African asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv that he would do his utmost to address their concerns two weeks ago. They claim that police enforcement in their neighborhood has been lax in the last few years. The lives of neighborhood residents, “have become even more difficult in recent years because of the concentration of infiltrators in the area,” he said, using activist parlance for asylum seekers that was widely adopted by Israel’s government.

On Monday at about 10:30 P.M., as four asylum seekers sat outside a grocery store drinking, four officers from a police special forces unit arrived. They demanded that the four leave the scene and spilled their drinks onto the street.

Haaretz obtained footage of the event, including some from security cameras, that appears to show a physical confrontation between the four men and the officers, who were not wearing body cameras. The police are seen wrestling two of the four Eritreans to the ground, and in one clip, a policeman is seen hitting one of them after he was restrained.

Footage showing the confrontation.

The police characterized the incident as “very serious” and said that in the course of the confrontation, bottles were thrown at the police, which also broke a police cruiser’s window. The police arrested four suspects but released one of them that evening after it became clear that he had not been involved. A second suspect was released on Tuesday.

The two suspects still in custody arrived in court on Tuesday in restraints, chained to one another by their legs, in violation of police regulations. Judge Peri admonished the police and asked that the restraints on their legs be removed.

The suspects in restraints at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, May 26, 2020.
The suspects in restraints at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, May 26, 2020.

The judge initially ordered the two released to a location outside Tel Aviv, but because no location was found, they remained in jail overnight Tuesday. “The court cannot make a hard and fast decision regarding the defense lawyers’ claims of violence on the part of the police at the scene,” the judge stated, but he ordered the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit to investigate the incident.

Israel Police issued a statement regarding the incident in which it said that the video footage only related to a portion of the incident and did not include the beginning.

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