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Head of special police unit to be questioned for alleged beating of protesters

The commander of a special police unit 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.

The chief of the Tel Aviv police’s Yasam special patrol unit, Yair Hanuna, and the other officers allegedly brutalized demonstrators during mass demonstrations that erupted last week after the government passed the first law in its legislative package aimed at remaking the judiciary. Around 30 demonstrators sought medical treatment after the protest.

The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (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.

Last week, Hanuna was seen in widely circulated images punching a teenage protester, Amitai Aboudi, after the 18-year-old had already been handcuffed. The family of the teenager filed a direct complaint against Hanuna with PIID after the incident.

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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.

הי @10elilevi
אמיתי בריליאנט בן 18 מוסר ד"ש pic.twitter.com/3e9tYk7ePy

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

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.

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 pic.twitter.com/VTDmJe9OVI

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

Aboudi was questioned under caution by police last Thursday. Police said the teenager tried to interfere with officers’ attempts to clear protesters from roads.

Hanuni and the other four officers are set to be questioned at PIID headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

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.

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. National Security Minister Itamar 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.”

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

In Jerusalem outside the Knesset on Monday, police sprayed foul-smelling skunk spray at protesters who were attempting to block access to the parliamentary complex. Officers also fired a water cannon into a man who was sitting at a wall at the side of the road, knocking him backward. Physicians have long urged police to stop using the crowd dispersal method, citing the injuries caused by direct hits.

תיעוד מירושלים: מכת"זית פוגעת ישירות במפגין pic.twitter.com/3iZ1WajGWW

— החדשות – N12 (@N12News) July 24, 2023

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 are not authorized to open an investigation on suspicion of incitement against protesters without its permission.

Ben Gvir slammed the signs and expressed support for the officers pictured in the posters, calling them “heroes.”

“The campaign of shaming and incitement… is shocking and crosses a red line,” Ben Gvir said in a statement.

Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai has denied claims from some activists that police activity was influenced by 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.