Violence Between Israeli Police and Public Rises With Coronavirus Enforcement, Source Says

Official describes serious jump in complaints of police misconduct, amid claims that body cameras are covered or footage confiscated

Josh Breiner
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A policewoman and a member of the public in Jerusalem on July 5, 2020.
A policewoman and a member of the public in Jerusalem on July 5, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Josh Breiner

Over the past week, police have stepped up enforcement of the coronavirus health regulation requiring the public to wear masks in public. As a result, the number of cases of violent conflict between police and citizens has also increased.

The police refused to provide data on the number of people detained or arrested over the past week due to such confrontations for failure to wear a mask, but one police source said the number of detentions has increased as a result.

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In addition, a law enforcement official said there has been a substantial jump in recent weeks in the number of complaints of police violence related to the issuance of tickets – and in the volume of investigative material that the police have transferred to the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct. This includes complaints by civilians over the use of force.

According to police regulations, investigators are required to provide the Justice Ministry department any investigative information in connection with complaints regarding the use of force by the police. Fully 98 percent of the tickets written by the police in recent weeks were for failure to wear a mask, a pace of 3,000 tickets a day.

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday approved a bill that is due to increase the fine for failure to wear a mask from 200 shekels ($58) to 500 shekels ($146), although it also gives the police discretion “to refrain from issuing a fine according to the circumstances of the matter.”

A policeman and a civilian in Lod, where a partial closure of the city was taking place amid a rise in coronavirus cases, on July 2, 2020.
A policeman and a civilian in Lod, where a partial closure of the city was taking place amid a rise in coronavirus cases, on July 2, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

The head of the police's operations department, Commander Yishai Shalem, said at a press briefing this week that police are directed to use discretion. Nevertheless, there have been several cases in which confrontations between the police and civilians have escalated recently, resulting in violence and arrests.

Police directives require police on patrol who issue tickets to turn on their body cameras in an effort to curb the use of force both by the police and by civilians. In practice, however, the cameras don’t always seem to be having an impact.

A violent altergation breaks out between police and a man stopped for not wearing a mask

Late Friday night in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, for example, police spotted three 24-year-old men who were not wearing masks. According to the police, one of the three, who is only been identified as D., refused to produce identification and when the officers sought to detain him to obtain his ID, he went wild and cut one of the officers on the eyebrow.

A video taken by a friend of D.’s, however, appears to show him trying to present his ID, but the police fired an electric taser gun at him. In the footage, D. is seen falling to the ground and the police are shown hitting him and firing a taser at him a second time. One of D. friends is heard saying that D. was “full of blood.” D. was arrested and taken to Wolfson Hospital with head injuries.

Strangely, the footage from the officers’ body cameras was not presented in court to Magistrate’s Court Judge Ilan Zur, who was on duty in handling arrest cases at the time. The police also confiscated cellphones that had been used at the scene to film the incident – on the grounds that they contained investigative material.

“Incidents of this kind happen repeatedly, involving an unnecessary escalation when it is possible to conclude them in a much more moderate fashion,” Zur said, but he extended the period of detention of D., who was only released after appealing his case to the district court. The police appealed the decision to release him, but he was released nevertheless on Monday.

The incident in Holon is not unique. Last week, there was a similar case in Dimona in the south, where police officers confronted an 18-year-old who was asked to produce identification after he was seen without a mask in public. Police claimed that he refused to provide identification. As in Holon, the situation escalated, leading to the use of force against the teen and his arrest.

Over the weekend, police arrested a social activist from Tel Aviv who police said was not wearing a mask and who said he didn’t have identification on him. In that case too, the confrontation quickly resulted in an arrest with the use of force.

In response to these accounts, Police Commissioner Moti Cohen told senior police officials that "Enforcing mask orders is an important mission for the benefit of preventing the spread of the virus, and alongside this, is corrosive and complex," adding that it is "fighting an invisible enemy" and that its results are not immediately visible to the eye, so it is unknown how many lives the effort will save.

"A decisive majority of police interactions with those not wearing masks are handled "with dedication and admirable professionalism," Cohen said. "Alongside this, anomalous conduct that does not meet the values [of the Israel Police] or the norms of conduct expected of every officer will be investigated and dealt with accordingly by figures with the authority to do so."   

Among the country’s ultra-Orthodox population, there is considerable evidence of over-policing and the use of excessive force in response to failure to wear a mask and produce identification.

L., a resident of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood, said he was walking with his wife and children late Friday night when he saw a young ultra-Orthodox male being stopped for not wearing a mask. According to L., the young man said he was exercising, during which a mask is not mandatory, “but it didn’t interest the policeman. He had already taken him by the neck and told him he was being detained.”

Police ticket someone for not wearing a mask in Jerusalem, June 30, 2020.
Police ticket someone for not wearing a mask in Jerusalem, June 30, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

L. said he tried to intervene and prevent the young man from being detained. “The policeman approached me, gave me a punch and pushed me into the bushes,” L. said, “next to my children. They started crying. He attacked me over absolutely nothing. And ultimately, he just left the scene. It was abuse for its own sake.”

L. claimed that the policeman stopped filming the incident with his body camera to conceal what had transpired.

Police regulations require officers to turn on their camera “immediately at the beginning of contact with someone against whom the officer is using force by virtue of his authority.” In practice, studies around the world have shown an increase in violent confrontations between police wearing body cameras and citizens. The studies attribute the increase to the cameras often being turned on only when a confrontation begins.

“When there is increased friction between citizens and the police, by the nature of things, there will be more cases of violence between the sides and the potential for escalation increases,” one law enforcement source said. “Simple cases involving identification deteriorate quickly, so the personal judgment of the officer on the street is very important.”

The police responded that dealing with the failure to wear a mask in public “creates tens of thousands of contacts by police with citizens every day, in issuing tickets, warnings, handing out masks and efforts to explain [the requirement].

“In the vast majority of cases in which the failure to wear a mask is enforced, the police officers get full cooperation from the citizen,” the police said. “In addition, in a smaller number of cases, the police encounter citizens who object to enforcement and try to foil it, in part by refusing to identify themselves, fleeing from the officer, resisting detention and/or arrest, attacking the officer, etc. In these exceptional cases, the policeman has the authority under the law to detain and/or arrest, as appropriate, and to the extent the resistance continues, he is authorized to use reasonable force to carry it out according to the law.”

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