Demonstrators clash with police in anti-Netanyahu protests

Police, opposition exchange accusations after 38 arrested when violence erupts as police try to enforce coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Police and opposition members pointed fingers at each other Sunday after violence marred some anti-government protests that police said violated government-mandated health regulations during a national coronavirus lockdown.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets Saturday night in a continuation of protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but in violation of lockdown restrictions that limited protests to groups of 20 people living within one kilometer of their homes. The controversial measure had been imposed as Israel’s coronavirus infections spiraled out of control and the government imposed new restrictions on September 25.

The government said the steps were needed to stop the spread of the virus, but opponents claimed the government was disproportionately clamping down to stifle protest while ignoring violations elsewhere in society where they said large groups gathered without police interference.

“I support the police and their hard work, but … can anyone explain the gap between excessive enforcement in demonstrations and almost non-existent enforcement in synagogues?” tweeted opposition Yesh Atid party member Ofer Shelah. “Police conduct in tonight’s demonstrations crossed the reasonable line,” adding he would call for a parliamentary inquiry as soon as possible.

Police said they were doing their best to enforce the government-ordered restrictions under difficult conditions, tweeting that they would “not turn a blind eye to blatant violations of the law, in protests and everywhere else.”

“The role of the police in a democratic state is to implement and enforce the provisions of the law and the Knesset, even when they do not have full support among the entire public, and even when they are not to the taste or spirit of the violators [of the law],” the police said in a statement on their Twitter account.

Although protests took place in different locations across the country, the largest incident occurred in Tel Aviv as police arrested 38 people there and four others at a demonstration in Jerusalem, where regular protests against Netanyahu had been taking place for months as Israel’s infection rate continued to rise.

All were released except for one protester in Tel Aviv who was suspected of assaulting a police officer.

Tel Aviv police commander Eliyahu Pinto said in a Kan Radio interview that press coverage of the demonstrations showed clear violations of the health guidelines.

“As the photos show, demonstrators violated the guidelines,” Pinto said, adding that “when enforcement is required in a large crowd, it is necessarily done with the use of reasonable force. The use of reasonable force will never be well photographed.”

Deputy police superintendent Shlomi Sagi rejected accusations police were not taking action against some ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups that held large indoor prayers in violation of the guidelines, saying police would allow protests, but “where there are blatant violations we will act,” adding that police dealt with several illegal gatherings in the predominantly orthodox city of Bnei Brak.

“The violence is one-way, it is not from the protesters towards the police … it is only from one direction,” former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon told Kan Radio.

Science Minister Yizhar Shai of the Blue and White party, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, said public lack of trust was palpable.

“I am very disturbed by the state of utter distrust of everyone, which we saw yesterday breaking out in the streets. We limited the demonstrations in a way that is disproportionate,” Shai said.