Police brutality and its use to supress political opposition is not an Israeli invention, not even a Benjamin Netanyahu brainchild; we see it on too many occasions across the globe. But for a public security minister, a former justice minister no less, to lay the responsibility for such brutality at the door of the High Court is a unique act of chutzpah.
Amir Ohana told a Knesset committee that the excessive force, including injuries inflicted on protesters, was a genuine attempt by the police to enforce the court’s ruling that noise must be curtailed beyond a certain time of day in the streets surrounding the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. It’s hard to say which is worse — that police officers honestly believe the highest court in the land allowed them to assault people exercising their democratic right to demonstrate, simply to ensure residents could have a quiet evening; or that a cabinet minister should show such utter disrespect for the intelligence of committee members and the public by making such an outlandish claim, in the process making himself look very foolish.
There have been mass protests before against Israel’s political establishment, even calls for governments to resign. In 1959, Mizrahi Jews in the Wadi Salib neighbourhood of Haifa protested against discrimination. Veterans have taken to the streets en masse to express their anger at governments sending them to fight needless wars due to negligence, incompetence or sheer folly, as was the case in 1973, 1982 and 2006. In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated against the rising cost of living and the widening gap between the haves and have nots.
At many such demonstrations there were a few scuffles with the police, but most of the aggression was verbal, even if the occasional push and shove and use of the baton was never far away. But it is important to note that police violence has not always been so restrained; for example in 1976, when Palestinian Israelis protested against the confiscation of their land, and in 2000 when they came out in solidarity with their brethren in the West Bank. On those occasions live ammunition was used to kill or injure scores of protesters.
Furthermore, a substantial proportion of the security forces in charge of maintaining order in the current demonstrations have been involved in the oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories, in many cases away from the probing media, and have habitually abused their power with excessive force. The behavior of the police in the current anti-Netanyahu demonstrations is one of the rare occasions that the Israeli population itself, especially the Jewish one, has been on the receiving end of such brutality, and even this is a much milder version of what Palestinians experience daily in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; violence that is carried out with almost complete impunity.
It can be argued that big political protests are by their very nature tense and ferocious… however, this is no excuse for the security forces to lose their rag and behave like a bunch of untrained thugs at the behest of the prime minister.
Thankfully, no one has been killed yet in the protests outside the prime minister’s Balfour Street residence and other places where citizens are exercising their basic right to peacefully assemble, to express their displeasure at the authorities, and demand Netanyahu’s resignation. It is hard to separate the police’s treatment of the protesters from the constant incitements against them by the prime minister and his son Yair, whose Twitter account is a boundless source of hate speech against the demonstrators; in one tweet he said he hoped they would contract COVID-19.
It can be argued that big political protests are by their very nature tense and ferocious and attract those eager to confront authority in ways that are neither eloquent nor calm. However, this is no excuse for the security forces to lose their rag and behave like a bunch of untrained thugs at the behest of the prime minister. I have watched numerous video clips in recent weeks in which, in response to some heated verbal exchange between police and protesters, or when a demonstrator stepped into the road, the police responded with disproportionate force, not sparing women and elderly people from their brutality. Some victims were pushed to the ground and dragged along or carried off like sacks of potatoes.
One senior police officer, Superintendent Nisso Guetta, was filmed punching and attacking protesters who he claimedlater had sworn at policemen. This is usually the sort of excuse the police hear from mindless thugs embroiled in brawls before locking them in a cell overnight to cool down. Although the Justice Ministry launched an investigation, he was not suspended, and instead oversaw his officers in the very next protest. This makes a mockery of police accountability, and appears to be a message to the rank and file that the use of disproportionate force is permissible because it is what their political masters wish.
Police brutality is a global phenomenon that can take the form of false arrest, intimidation, racial profiling, surveillance abuse, sexual abuse, or corruption. It leads to individual and collective trauma, and a loss of faith in those charged with protecting us from violence when our defenders become the offenders. It is even more worrying when politicians turn a blind eye to this behavior or unscrupulously encourage it to tighten their grip on power. Sadly, this is currently the case in Israel, where those being met with such unwarranted violence are protesters sick to their core with a prime minister who is a defendant in the most serious of corruption cases, and has also been exposed at his most incompetent by his failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic and its disastrous economic consequences.
The situation is a shambles, and if it is not contained and reversed, the road to the collapse of the democratic order could be rather short.