Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on police Wednesday to investigate attacks on protesters at a rally against police brutality, while blaming his political opponents for undermining the "foundations of Israeli society.
"The investigation into the events in Tel Aviv is underway," Netanyahu wrote on Facebook. "I expect the police to get to the truth of the matter and carry out justice for those responsible," Netanyahu wrote.
Later Wednesday, police said they had arrested three people suspected of attacking anti-Netanyahu protesters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night. "We will allow protests any time and any place but we will not permit violence or vandalism," the police said.
On Thursday evening, police finished investigating the three suspects. Two put themselves at the scene of the crime and the attack itself, but claimed that they did not plan it in advance. They said that they clashed with protesters, rather than committed a premeditated attack.
The third suspect denied his presence at the scene and participation in the attack. Later on Wednesday, police said it released one suspect under restrictive conditions and that the other two will be brought before a judge on Thursday to be remanded.
Five demonstrators were injured Tuesday night by an unidentified group as hundreds protested near Public Security Minister Amir Ohana’s home against what they view as attempts to subdue the growing protests against Netanyahu's government in recent weeks.
"On the eve of Tisha B'Av (a Jewish day of mourning) I call on you all to turn down the flames and preserve the public order. This is the time to unite. We all have a joint mission – to defeat the coronavirus. We will only succeed if we act together," the premier said.
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"In the same vein, there is no place for incitement or death threats – explicit or implied – against me and my family," Netanyahu added.
"To my dismay, when a police officer was hit hard by protesters in front of the prime minister's residence and needed surgery, or when death threats are published against me and my family daily – including yesterday, when a man was stopped near my office threatening to kill me while carrying a knife – the media and many public figures choose to ignore it," Netanyahu said.
"Yair Lapid, much like Ehud Barak, even cheers on groups of anarchists whose goal is to disturb the peace and shake the foundations of Israeli society," Netanyahu said.
President Reuven Rivlin said in response, "I want to say clearly in the face of the developing violence over the last day: The murder of a protester or the murder of a prime minister in Israel are not imaginary occurrences. We have known this horrific and upsetting reality. Pity our souls if we devolve to that reality again. Disaster for our democracy if men begin to strike their brothers."
Also on Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz harshly condemned the attack on the demonstrators, vowing that “no one will silence protests in Israel.”
Gantz said that “rampant hatred has ruined and continues to tear apart the people of Israel, whose true resilience emanates from their unity. Those who attacked the protesters must be apprehended and brought to justice. No one will silence protests in Israel while we are here.”
Also condemning the violence, Ohana said: “It doesn’t matter who you are rooting for – whether you are leftists, rightists, Netanyahu supporters or opponents – I call on all of you to lower the flames. The police will act to eradicate violence with a firm hand. We are one people. It would be catastrophic if our disagreements make us forget that.”
Echoing Ohana’s remarks, National Union Chairman Bezalel Smotrich tweeted: “Violence is off limits. My brothers and sisters on the right and left, we will argue, discuss, protest and demonstrate. That’s how it goes in a civil and engaged society. But we will never lay a hand on one of our own. Violence is not an option. Period.”
Responding to the incident, Police Commissioner Moti Cohen said, “Our duty is to allow the freedom of protest for every citizen in accordance with the law. Our duty is to work for the implementation of civil rights for all of Israel’s citizens, as we have been doing every day."
“The wellbeing of the public and its safety are our first priority, and therefore we will act with determination against any kind of violence, vandalism or inflicting harm to civilians and police officers. I call on the demonstrators to keep the protest free of violence, follow police orders and not allow protests to escalate to violence and breaking the law,” Cohen added.
The Israel Police issued a statement saying that “We gravely view any kind of violence, whether it’s directed towards civilians or police officers. Last night, protests were staged across Tel Aviv, without coordinating them with the police. In one location, a police force spotted an altercation and one person suspected of throwing stones was arrested. Police added that they would request the court to extend the suspect’s detention on Wednesday.
Police added that they “launched an investigation Wednesday morning into the incident and we intend to act accordingly against all those involved in the violence.”
The anti-corruption Black Flags Movement said in response: “Unfortunately the defendant continues to incite against citizens protesting [against him]. The people of Israel need a different leader.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter: "The violence and blood spilled yesterday in Tel Aviv is on Netanyahu and his emissaries’ hand. Those who incite, will cause bloodshed. Those who call protesters disease spreaders and incite against citizens protesting against [Netanyahu], are leading Israel to a civil war. Today is Tisha B'Av Eve and our biggest problem is that the biggest Israeli warmonger is seated in the Prime Minister’s Office.”
On Tuesday night, protesters were assaulted by a group of people who infiltrated the protest. The attackers stabbed protesters with broken glass bottles, punched them, beat them with chairs and sprayed them with pepper spray. Two of the demonstrators were cut on their necks, one requiring stitches.
Meanwhile, an art exhibit dubbed the “Last Supper” was erected overnight Tuesday at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Sqaure. The exhibit portrays Netanyahu sitting alone at a table with a gluttonous banquet spread out upon it, eating a cake decorated with the Israeli flag. Netanyahu referred to the artwork as a "shameful threat of crucifixion" against him.
Some senior lawmakers from Netanyahu’s party commented on the exhibit, claiming it constitute incitement to murder the prime minister.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at the same square in 1995 by a right-wing extremist.
Transportation Minister Miri Regev tweeted: "On the eve of Tisha B'Av, there are those who choose to inflame the hatred and deepen the polarization. It’s only a matter of time until an exhibit of a guillotine and a noose is erected. I call on Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, stop shutting your eyes and immediately remove this inciting exhibit."
Likud lawmaker Osnat Mark tweeted: “Ron Huldai will tell you it’s art, freedom of expression. [Attorney General] Avichai Mandelblit will back him with an elaborated legal opinion. The writing is on the wall, and it’s written with blood. If the incitement continues, it will end in blood.”