Analysis |

Anti-Netanyahu Protests Brought Police to a Boiling Point. Then the Cops Lost It

During the most recent protest, the officers' tolerance for provocations and shouts was low and they used much more force than usual

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A police officer holds his arm on the neck of a protester, Jerusalem, August 22, 2020.
A police officer holds his arm on the neck of a protester, Jerusalem, August 22, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Chief Supt. Niso Guetta is familiar to Israeli TV audiences: He was one of the stars of the docudrama “Jerusalem District.” His character in the show was a tough but attentive cop who managed violent and dangerous crime scenes with sensitivity and determination. The series, we may recall, was discontinued after it was revealed that during the filming policemen had planted weapons in the home of a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah in order to document their “discovery.”

The images of Guetta jumping two people demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Saturday night once again raises questions about the reliability of the TV series and the portrayal of the characters in it. During the protest on Balfour Street, it looked as if the police had really “lost it.” The officers were more violent than they had been in recent weeks, their tolerance for provocations and shouts was low and they used much more force than usual.

One can guess that the events of last week contributed to this. First and foremost was the High Court of Justice ruling that dismissed a petition against the demonstrations but accepted a police plan to gradually reduce the noise level by forbidding bike horns and drums from 9:30 P.M., and megaphones after 11. This led police to act against the demonstrations at an earlier hour than expected.

A protester perches atop a wooden structure as police try to get her down, Jerusalem, August 22, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Then came the violent and superfluous evacuation of the protest tent on Balfour Street to make room for a right-wing demonstration in support of Netanyahu. It was superfluous because attendance at the counterdemonstrations was especially sparse, and violent because the anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, who included former Shin Bet security service head Carmi Gillon and former senior army officers, had handcuffed themselves. The Jerusalem Police argued that Gillon and the others had created the impression that the police had cuffed them. “People were inciting on social media; the story with Carmi Gillon and the handcuffs is fake news,” said Brig. Gen. Ofer Shomer, the Zion Precinct commander.

A third factor was the failure of the police to stop the march from the Chords Bridge at the city entrance to Balfour Street earlier in the evening, which didn’t add to their patience with the demonstrators. And a fourth reason for the police aggression was the behavior of the demonstrators; it seemed as if many of them made it their business to irritate the officers and unsettle them by yelling, “shame,” making animal sounds, using their first names and other provocations.

The evening began, as noted, with an unauthorized march. Some 2,000 protesters marched on the main roads despite a police ban, and the police were unable to block them. As the policemen stood in a row on Herzl Boulevard to block the march, demonstrators jumped over a fence and traffic island to circumvent them. When the police tried to run after them, the demonstrators just outran them.

Police officers lifting up two anti-Netanyahu protesters in front of his official residence in Jerusalem, August 22, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

As the march got longer and started to snake through the streets of Rehavia and the downtown area, it looked as if the police were losing their cool. On Bezalel Street another small force of police and horsemen tried to block the marchers and again failed; there they hit protesters who forcefully penetrated the police line. Some 200 meters later, on Yeshurun Street, the police tried to block the marchers again. A video shows the commander of the force at that point, Guetta, forcefully pushing a demonstrator. Then we see a hand in Guetta’s face. The police claim it was a punch, more likely it was an attempt, bad as it was, to block Guetta or separate him from someone else. Either way, the mask came off his face and he lashed out at the demonstrator with a well-aimed fist.

Other photos and videos that were collected later show that at least two other demonstrators were hit by Guetta during those minutes. Haaretz photographer Emil Salman photographed him forcibly pinning a demonstrator to the ground and a Getty Images photographer documented him forcefully grabbing an older man whose glasses came off.

In the end the marchers managed to join the others at Paris Square. At 9:30, in accordance with the High Court ruling, policemen pushed into the crowd to confiscate drums and horns. But it was like trying to dry up the sea with a spoon. For every horn confiscated, 10 others blared. At 11:20, after incessant clashes around the fence that surrounds the square, the police declared the demonstration illegal. It was dispersed with horsemen and a large contingent of policemen who pulled, dragged and arrested dozens of demonstrators.

The large demonstrations near the prime minister’s residence began on July 14. On Saturday roughly 20,000 protesters passed through the square during the evening, with around 15,000 demonstrating at its peak. One must conclude that whoever thought, or hoped, that the demonstrations would peter out by now got their answer to that last night. The demonstrators were determined and their message was clear: “We won’t back down until Bibi resigns.” That was the most popular slogan Saturday night. The conduct of the police only added fuel to the fire.

Former Shin Bet head Carmi Gillon being cleared by police at anti-Netanuyahu protest, August 20, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

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