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Selective Enforcement Will Destroy Israel’s Trust in Its Police

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A protester is seen being carried away by police in Jerusalem near the prime minister's residence, October 18, 2020.
A protester is seen being carried away by police in Jerusalem near the prime minister's residence, October 18, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Recent reports about the way the police have been enforcing the coronavirus regulations are deeply troubling.

At first, we were told that a senior police officer reached understandings with ultra-Orthodox leaders that the police would refrain from enforcing regulations as long as those who violate the rules make sure the violations – including massive ones – are not photographed.

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The lack of enforcement invites violations without fear. And telling lawbreakers not to get their photo taken is encouragement, because without evidence there cannot be enforcement. The police are therefore making themselves a central partner in violating the law.

This understanding was also meant to create a false impression for the general public that violations were not occurring. Instead of protecting the general public from the spread of the coronavirus, the police granted legal and public protection for criminals. In this twisted view, the enemy is not the virus – which is of course immune to such tricks – but the general public that needs to be deceived. If this is not breach of trust by a public official, then what is?

Now we have been informed that the police are using a unit that fights organized crime against the people they think are the leaders of the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This includes clandestine surveillance and photographing their meetings. These activities sometimes lead to the arrest – without any clear justification – of these activists. Cellphones of demonstrators are confiscated after their arrest. It is not clear why, unless the police are – illegally and without a court order – looking at information on the phones. It seems that the police are demanding that the demonstrators, without cause, identify themselves and provide their personal details. 

Protesters with signs are seen in Jerusalem near the prime minister's residence, October 18, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The police deny they are creating a database of personal information on the protesters. But if this information is not destroyed proactively, the police could establish such a database at any time. Meanwhile, many protesters are surprised to receive fines sent in the mail, when they didn’t identify themselves to the police officers and were not told that they broke a law or would be issued a fine. In any case, they were not given an opportunity to comment on the violation of which they were accused.

The very fact that the police are operating a unit that deals with organized crime to pursue possible violations of coronavirus guidelines is a frightening ethical mistake. There is no common denominator between organized crime and organizing a protest. When officers who investigate organized crime are assigned to handle protests, the police officers become confused – it creates an association of opposites. 

Organized crime groups are the largest threat to public law and order. The protesters' activities, including those who organize the demonstrations, are entirely legal. Legal – not just because it is not banned, but because they are making use of a cornerstone of democracy. There is no similarity between the heads of organized crime, who are the enemies of society, and the protesters, most of whom, if not all, are law-abiding citizens. According to law, the police are obligated to protect them, a job that they do not excel at

The police are strictly prohibited from abusing protesters, violating their privacy, harassing them or doing anything that would express a negative message about the demonstrations and protesters or that would it make it more difficult or encourage them not to protest. The police’s role is limited to just those cases in which some of the protesters, and these are only a very small minority, break the rules. This should also be in accordance with the law, which requires informing a suspect of what offense they committed, listening to their response and writing it down, and it must be done with proportionality. 

The hostile attitude the police have shown toward law­-abiding citizens will destroy the public’s trust. This is a disaster for the institution, which cannot function without public trust. But even more important, it is a disaster for all of us.

It is hard to fathom that the resources and energy that need to be directed against organized crime are being directed against protesters. After all, it is clear that the resources are limited and so what is directed against the protesters has been diverted from dealing with the most dangerous of criminals. The police’s high command is very badly mixed up.

It is impossible to enforce the coronavirus guidelines on all the violators – therefore, the police must act rationally in allocating resources and setting policy. In other words, they must focus their efforts on places and situations that constitute the most dangerous and most extensive violations. It is unreasonable to give priority to enforcement against violations in the open air where the danger is relatively small, compared to violations in enclosed spaces which is much more dangerous.

If there are not enough police officers to prevent gatherings in enclosed spaces, especially in “red” areas, then it is inconceivable that there are enough police officers to enforce rules against protesters. How can it be that police enforcement is decided according to the level of support for or opposition to the prime minister? Such enforcement turns the rule of law into a joke.

Police arresting one of the protest leaders in Jerusalem, October 17, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

How is it possible to explain this scandalous behavior of the Israel Police? The first mistake was in the delegitimization and slandering of the protesters conducted mainly by Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, but also by other supporters of Netanyahu. Secondly, this is how a police force looks when it is without a permanent police commissioner. The force’s senior commanders are competing for the top job by trying to curry favor with Netanyahu and Ohana. 

In dictatorial regimes, “legal bodies” operate against those who the regime marks as enemies, and persecute them – not because of their illegal actions but because they are not loyal to the government. Is this where we are heading?

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