A single line, sharp and clear, connects the police harassment of demonstrators in front of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s home, protesting the delay in investigating the prime minister, to police detectives striking children in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim.
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It’s a red line that was crossed long ago, but it turns out that each time, law enforcement finds a way to cross it again and reach a higher, more violent threshold. What these incidents have in common is the attempt to shut people up, to impair freedom of expression and the basic right to protest; in fact, to strike fear in individuals and the public.
Last Friday, police detectives entered Mea She’arim once again, after who knows how many times in recent months. They were disguised as ultra-Orthodox soldiers to act as “bait” and draw out residents who harass Haredi soldiers. After a disguised soldier was hurt, the detectives attacked, striking children indiscriminately and arresting people who were not involved in the assault. The court released all the detainees after about an hour and scolded the police for conducting the operation close to the beginning of Shabbat.
As expected, the wave of arrests sparked a storm in the Haredi community. Even those people who believe that attacks by extremist ultra-Orthodox on ultra-Orthodox soldiers should be stopped in any legal way possible thought the provocations by the police were unnecessary and damaging. But even if they would have helped, the end does not justify the means.
This is just a vain attempt by the police to show their presence as a response to public pressure. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who has already proven the extent of his “professionalism” on a number of occasions – for example, when he described a Bedouin teacher killed by police as a terrorist, or when he told the U.S. president about a terror attack that was nothing but a car accident – is probably not the man to put the police in its place.
Like the demonstration in front of the attorney general’s house in Petah Tikva, it seems the police are overstepping their authority, and instead of preserving public order are abusing their power and using violence to block freedom of expression. Instead of using precise intelligence to catch criminals, senior police officers prefer to impose collective punishment on a whole community living in a Haredi neighborhood. The scene of a child beaten bloody or an elderly man being led in handcuffs enrages every local resident. Even those who oppose the extremists are pushed into a corner, and thus the violence only continues.
And so it’s not for nothing that Knesset members on both the left and right have denounced police conduct. Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg proposed an urgent debate in the Knesset about police violence against the ultra-Orthodox: “A disturbing trend has become prominent lately of police violence against many groups, including the Haredim and political activists, which more than once hurt the basic right to protest. Police violence must not be accepted as routine,” Zandberg wrote.
MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) tweeted in response to the video clips showing police violence: “The police violence is unacceptable and it doesn’t matter against whom! Why should a child bleed this way from police violence? A violent police is a weak police.”
It is hoped that these lawmakers will join their colleagues from the Arab parties in harsh criticism of the handling of riots Monday night in Kafr Qasem. Even if there is criticism of the residents’ response, it’s clear that the police conducted themselves like bulls in a china shop and instead of acting with proper sensitivity, preferred to drag residents and be dragged themselves into a spree of violence that ended with an unnecessary death.
Perhaps something good can come out of this. The police are using disproportionate force and violence to prevent protests by various minorities – sometimes the settlers and sometimes the Arabs, sometimes Haredim and other times Bedouin, Ethiopians, sometimes social activists or leftists. A parliamentary caucus is being formed by Meretz MK Ilan Gilon with lawmakers from all parties to stop police violence. It’s important that the fight against police violence be shared by everyone. Even if we don’t always agree with each other, we have to remember that protecting the right to freely express our opinions, to demonstrate and protest, is an existential need of all of Israel’s citizens. Rule of law, yes. A police state, absolutely not.
The writer is a reporter and commentator on the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat.