Why Are Israeli Police So Violent Toward Protesters? Former Top Cops Think They Know

Some retired officers, including former police chief, suggest that district commanders are seeking to ingratiate themselves to Public Security Minister Amir Ohana in the hope of being appointed police commissioner

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A police horse confronts a protester in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.
A police horse confronts a protester in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

District police commanders are taking a hard line against protesters at the recent demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in order to please Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a number of high-ranking former police officers have told Haaretz.

According to the former officers, the district chiefs, particularly the head of the Jerusalem district, Doron Yedid, are seeking to please Ohana, the minister responsible for the police, to improve their own chances of becoming Israel’s next police commissioner.

“The police are in the process of falling apart,” a former senior officer said, “and the question that disturbs me most is how they function if things get worse. It’s obvious that Netanyahu and Ohana have a clear interest in weakening the police, and on the ground, you see good police officers who are confused, who don’t know what is wanted of them, and [police] brass who want to please the minister.”

It’s obvious that Netanyahu and Ohana have a clear interest in weakening the police

A former senior officer

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Amid three Knesset elections in two years and disagreements between Likud and Kahol Lavan, the two major parties in the current coalition, the Israel Police have been headed by an acting commissioner, Motti Cohen.

“No [police] major general would want to get into trouble, so first he goes by the book rather than using discretion in the field,” said a retired senior police official. “Why get embroiled with a minister who may appoint him police commissioner?”

Plain clothes police officers detain a protester during a demonstration against the government, Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.
Plain clothes police officers detain a protester during a demonstration against the government, Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Ohana, who is a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party, has the district commanders in a sensitive spot, the source said, “so they dance according to his tune.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Alik Ron, one former senior police official who agreed to be named for this article, remarked: “I don’t envy the police in the field. I’m furious at the commanders.” He had particular criticism for Yedid, the Jerusalem district commander of the Israel Police.

When you see the conduct in Jerusalem compared to Tel Aviv, it’s clear that just as the minister wants to please the emperor, the commanders below want to please the minister

Retired Maj. Gen. Alik Ron

“When you see the conduct in Jerusalem compared to Tel Aviv, it’s clear that just as the minister wants to please the emperor, the commanders below want to please the minister,” Ron said sarcastically. “The source of the problem is the refusal to appoint a new permanent commissioner. It’s despicable and impudence on the part of the dictator, and the result is that the police are cooperating with attempts to destroy democracy, such as by preventing demonstrations and conducting unnecessary investigations.”

In response to criticism of the actions of the police at last weekend’s demonstrations, acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen said: “The function of the police in a democratic country is to enforce the law and the provisions of the Knesset, even when they don’t have the full support of the public and even when they are not to the liking of those who break them. Unfortunately, there are those who break the law and don’t obey the police. We won’t turn a blind eye to infractions of the law, at protests or anywhere else.”

“We are in a national emergency and an ongoing battle for our lives. I support the commanders and police officers, who are facing complex and multiple tasks while faced with an ongoing lack of appreciation,” Cohen added. He called on the public to obey the law and the police who are enforcing it.

Police arrest a protester during a demonstration calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.
Police arrest a protester during a demonstration calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

For his part, Ohana called the comments by former police brass political in nature and said he was the first person who wished to have a new police commissioner appointed, but claimed Kahol Lavan was blocking the move.

The former officers who spoke to Haaretz repeatedly mentioned a number of exceptional steps that the police have taken recently. They cited the violent removal of protesters – in Jerusalem more than elsewhere; the dispatch of a policeman to the home of someone who posted a photo of Netanyahu on Facebook in which a younger Netanyahu had his arm outstretched in a pose that looked like a Nazi salute; the arrest of the artist Ze’ev Engelmayer, who demonstrated in costume as a bare-breasted woman; and the interrogation of two women protesters for allegedly insulting a soldier.

Ohana said the police were not allowed to protect the protesters, and commanders were terrified... Suddenly they were bringing mounted police into the heart of Tel Aviv

A former senior officer

“So far, the protests in Tel Aviv had been going on in an exemplary manner, even if some protesters have begun to march. They protested and they went home,” said another former senior officer. “And then Ohana said the police were not allowed to protect the protesters, and commanders were terrified and shifted gears. A few hours after his tweet, we saw a 180-degree turn. Suddenly they were bringing mounted police into the heart of Tel Aviv.”

Contrasting the situation with that in which police encountered resistance in evacuating a West Bank outpost in 2017, he said: “We’re not evacuating Amona, with major violence against police that require mounted police.”

“Since when do you send the police to make sure protesters are abiding by their house arrest?” the officer added. “They don’t even devote those kinds of resources to underworld figures … We’re seeing a clear move to the extreme coming from above, from the district chiefs who want to be commissioner.”

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana alongside Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen, visiting the southern Israeli city of Sderot, August 2020.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana alongside Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen, visiting the southern Israeli city of Sderot, August 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

For his part, Ron asked: “Why was it necessary to question the women who spoke out against the soldier in Jerusalem. I might not be happy about the way they spoke, but calling them in for questioning? They used to send paratroopers to repel the enemy. Today they are sending them to repel protesters who come to Jerusalem to defend democracy. It’s intolerable.”

Another former senior officer said police officers are approaching him and telling him that they are having difficulty enforcing coronavirus rules that they say are arbitrary and constantly changing.

There’s chaos in the field. There are constant changes… It’s a farce. And then you see film clips on social media where the police look bad... and the district commanders disappear, so they don’t get caught up in it, in the hope they receive the next appointment.

A former senior officer

“They’re confused. There’s chaos in the field. There are constant changes. Is it the policeman’s job to check whether somebody’s out buying milk or getting their phone fixed? … It’s a farce. And then you see film clips on social media where the police look bad. They put the lower ranks on the front lines and send the [mid-level] chief superintendents to [appear] on television, and the district commanders disappear, so they don’t get caught up in it, in the hope they receive the next appointment.”

“Usually there’s time to absorb new laws, but here people are having a hard time getting used to such dramatic restrictions, and it’s not easy for the police either – and it’s very confusing,” said retired Maj. Gen. David Tzur, the former commander of the Tel Aviv district and of the Border Police. “All of a sudden, people are prevented from protesting, even though it’s still permitted, because the policeman in the field hasn’t been informed of the change.”

Tzur attributed the conduct on the part of the police in large measure to the absence of a permanent commissioner. “The fundamental thing is that the police haven’t had a leader for two years already. This stalemate affects the district chiefs, and therefore there’s a different policy, for example when it comes to demonstrations, between the Jerusalem chief and the Tel Aviv chief. Suddenly with the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, they’re stricter and in Bnei Brak less so. It’s because there’s no commissioner who has the final word.”

Police arrest a protester in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.
Police arrest a protester in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Former Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi said he believes the fact that no permanent police commissioner has been appointed for two years might be intentional. He called it “a destructive decision for which the public has been paying dearly for a long time.”

“With all my appreciation for the hard work being done by [acting police commissioner] Motti Cohen, by district commanders and police personnel, it seems as if the police are acting more out of awe for the politicians than of the law.”

The police spokesman’s office responded as follows for this article: “Contrary to what has been claimed, the police are strong, professional, not political and never will be. It is clear to everyone that a situation in which no permanent police commissioner has been appointed for two years is not desirable and not appropriate and that it would be better if this were not the case. Nevertheless, during one of the most difficult times in Israel since the establishment of the state, the Israel Police have been standing strong for a long period in the fight against the coronavirus, led by the acting police commissioner and his senior staff.

Commanders and officers are working with endless devotion, day and night, for the Israeli public, and unfortunately get no appreciation for their work

Israel Police

“Commanders and officers are working with endless devotion, day and night, for the Israeli public, and unfortunately get no appreciation for their work,” the police statement said. “The police are acting and will continue to act in an egalitarian manner, responsibly and without discrimination, in accordance with the law in a democratic country. That is the case with regard to the coronavirus regulations and the other laws, as well as in dealing with protests, without regard to the identity of the protester, the issue or the location.”

Public Security Minister Ohana said in response: “With all due respect to retired officers, when they use terms like ‘the emperor’ and ‘the dictator’ for a democratically elected prime minister, they are speaking as political players, and there is no professional value to their statements. In addition, none of them has had to deal with a pandemic on a global scale to preach to police about over-enforcement.”

Police and protesters clash in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.
Police and protesters clash in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“Beyond their blatant political tone, they are adopting the lies of the left wing: The mounted police were present at the protests in Tel Aviv even before the things that I said. That’s already how it’s been for many weeks. In their time [in the past], the police dispersed demonstrations not only with mounted police but with water cannon and concussion grenades, as was the case in the demonstrations by those of Ethiopian origin, so they should confine their political propaganda to where it’s appropriate.”

Regarding the lack of a permanent police commissioner, Ohana said: “I am the first to say that the situation in which the Israel Police don’t have a permanent commissioner is very problematic. I am ready to appoint a commissioner. What’s blocking it now are our coalition partners, because in the coalition agreements there are two requirements – that in its first six months, the government won’t make senior appointments of this kind, and that a team with equal representation be established to examine how to make the senior appointments. So far, the Kahol Lavan party has refused to comply with the agreement and establish the team.”

A senior figure in Kahol Lavan told Haaretz that his party will not accept the establishment of the panel, even if it means violating the coalition agreement. “Likud’s attempt to politicize the manner in which senior officials are appointed in Israel ends today,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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