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Amid concerns over police conduct, new Tel Aviv chief says protests must be calm

The newly appointed Tel Aviv police commissioner said Tuesday that the protests against the judicial overhaul should be orderly, amid growing allegations of rising violence from police since he began his tenure, and as Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai tried to reassure Tel Aviv residents that there had been no change in policy.

Shabtai has denied claims from some activists that law enforcement activity has grown more violent in recent weeks under the influence of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who has repeatedly pushed for a harsher crackdown on protesters, and was behind the ouster of Tel Aviv’s police chief Ami Eshed, who resisted rough treatment of demonstrators and took his leave from the force last month.

Peretz Amar, who replaced Eshed, commented on the images of police officers allegedly using excessive force against protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul.

“I’m sorry for the inappropriate photos. None of the police officers wanted the photos,” Amar said at a handover ceremony for senior law enforcement officials in the south of the country.

“The police officers work every Saturday [at the protests] in terrible heat, under unbearable conditions. Militant groups attacked the police officers. It should be a calm protest,” he said.

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Amar said that while he would enable lawful protests to take place, the police would act against the “small groups of violent demonstrators.”

An injured demonstrator is dragged by police to during a protest against plans by Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“The police act according to principles dictated to them in advance. There is no room for maneuver for a district commander. Every protest has two sides — the side that wants to protest and the side that wants freedom of movement and to carry out their activities,” Amar said.

“Protesting is allowed, and I will help protests take place, but there are small groups that create the violent chaos. They go down to the Ayalon [highway in Tel Aviv] and throw stones at policemen. The Ayalon should remain open, but it is not a red line,” he said.

Shabtai reportedly decided Monday that Eshed’s deputy, David Filo, would also be transferred and move to the position of deputy commander of the Central District.

According to Hebrew-language media reports, he will be replaced by Meir Eliyahu, commander of the National Guard and a former high-ranking official in the Border Police.

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai addresses a State Control Committee meeting at the Knesset on June 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At the same ceremony on Tuesday, also in the presence of Ben Gvir, Shabtai said there has been no change in policy toward the ongoing protests.

“I want to reassure the people of Tel Aviv that there is no change in policy. It is the same as it was,” Shabtai said. “We understand that we are destined to act as a breakwater for all the ills of the State of Israel. Our job is to preserve democracy.”

Shabtai claimed that the chaos at recent protests was due to “more incidents of violence in the field that required more use of force.”

“We acted with sensitivity during the 30 weeks of protests. As soon as the level of violence goes up, we act according to the law,” he said.

In an apparent reference to five officers under investigation for allegedly using excessive force against protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul, Shabtai said: “If someone deviates from the accepted norms, we will investigate it. We are not above the law.”

Clashes as anti-overhaul activists rally in support of 18-year-old Amitai Aboudi at the police station in Jaffa, August 1, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meanwhile, there were clashes outside a Jaffa police station on Tuesday when two key figures in the protests were summoned for questioning.

Amitai Aboudi, an 18-year-old who was allegedly assaulted by a police officer after he was handcuffed at a protest last week, arrived for questioning at the station.

Moshe Radman, the leader of the tech industry’s protest group, was summoned to the same station and said he was initially not told why he was called in.

Amitai Aboudi outside the police station in Jaffa, August 1, 2023 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

One person was arrested for allegedly attacking and injuring a police officer, police said. The officer received treatment for his hand at the scene. Three others were arrested for making noise above a level considered reasonable, police said in a statement.

According to a later statement from the protest groups, Radman was questioned because he was seen holding a flare at a protest on Saturday.

However, Radman’s lawyer Gonen Ben Itzhak said that the protest leader had taken the flare from another protester who was holding it in an unsafe manner, and that the questioning was “an attempt at unnecessary harassment and persecution on the part of the police, a direct continuation of the delegitimization campaign against the protest.”

In a statement, the Kaplan Force protest group said it did not believe it was a coincidence that Radman was summoned for questioning at the same time that Amar sat with Ben Gvir at the handover ceremony.

“If the new Tel Aviv commander is thinking of doing what Ami Eshed was not prepared to do, to crack heads and hunt down the leaders of the protest, and that it will pass quietly, he is making a serious mistake,” the statement read.

The chief of the Tel Aviv police’s Yasam special patrol unit, Yair Hanuna (at rear), arrests Moshe Radman, a leading anti-overhaul protester during a demonstration protest against the judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on March 23, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Radman has been detained on a number of occasions, often for unclear reasons.

In a statement, Radman noted that flares are often lit at soccer games and at protests, without legal consequence.

Police have said Aboudi tried to interfere with officers’ attempts to clear protesters from the Ayalon Highway after the government passed the first piece of legislation in its contentious judicial overhaul package.

Last week, chief of the Tel Aviv police’s Yasam special patrol unit, Yair Hanuna, was seen in widely circulated images punching Aboudi after the 18-year-old had already been handcuffed. The family of the teenager filed a complaint against Hanuna with the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) after the incident.

הי @10elilevi
אמיתי בריליאנט בן 18 מוסר ד"ש

— יוסי מזרחי Yossi Mizrachi (@yosimiz1) July 25, 2023

In video of Aboudi’s arrest, he is seen being hit and dragged by a group of police officers on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. In a photo of the incident, Hanuna can be seen apparently smiling while allegedly hitting Aboudi. Police have denied that Hanuna hit the teen after he was subdued.

Radman and Aboudi were both released later on Tuesday afternoon.

פרסום: מפקד יס"מ תל אביב, סנ"צ יאיר חנונה, קיבל מסרים והחליט לצאת לחופשה מתפקידו. לא ברור האם ומתי יחזור אבל יש לי תחושה שהמפגינים לא יתגעגעו @N12News

— יוסי מזרחי Yossi Mizrachi (@yosimiz1) July 30, 2023

During last week’s protests, videos showed police kicking protesters who were lying on the ground, throwing burning pallets toward them, dragging activists by their hair and using violence during arrests of those allegedly blocking roads and highways, including those who were not resisting arrest.

Police also deployed water cannons against protesters who were not blocking any roads or carrying out any illegal activity.

Hanuna and four other officers were summoned on Monday for questioning by Justice Ministry investigators over allegations they used excessive force against protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul. Around 30 demonstrators sought medical treatment after the protest.

The PIID is conducting the probe into officers’ handling of the protest. Hanuna and the other officers are suspected of beating protesters in three separate incidents in Tel Aviv, Channel 12 reported.

Multiple complaints by protesters have been filed against Hanuna, including that he broke a demonstrator’s nose at a rally about two weeks ago in Tel Aviv. Hanuna and the other four officers are set to be questioned at PIID headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

The officers involved were not wearing bodycams at the time of the arrest, in contravention of regulations, Kan reported.

Police have defended officers’ conduct during the protests. Ben Gvir backed up the officers, saying PIID was trying to “threaten the Yasam commander of Tel Aviv, an outstanding officer, only because he acted to enforce the law with determination.”

On Saturday, protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul circulated flyers at a number of locations in Tel Aviv with photos of officers accused of violence, including Hanuna.

Signs identifying individual police officers in a photo issued by police on July 29, 2023. (Israel Police)

In response, police said they would open an investigation on suspected offense to public workers as well as slander and incitement to violence, but the State Attorney’s Office on Sunday clarified that the Israel Police is not authorized to open an investigation on suspicion of incitement against protesters without its permission.