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Police chief says he ‘won’t condone’ cops’ rally backing officer accused of violence

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai came out Thursday against a display of support by members of Tel Aviv police’s Yasam special patrol unit toward their commander, Yair Hanuna, while he was being questioned for allegedly using excessive force against protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul.

As Hanuna and four other officers accused of police brutality arrived at the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) to be interrogated, dozens of uniformed officers from the unit gathered outside, obstructing the flow of traffic on the Tel Aviv street, and cheered as he arrived. Some of them shouted: “We love you!” Hanuna responded to reporters’ questions only with “Good morning and have a good day.”

According to a Thursday statement by the Israel Police, Shabtai told senior police commanders to “emphasize to all officers to be statesmanlike as uniform-wearers who represent a leadership symbol.”

Shabtai added: “We must all be careful not to harm leadership institutions and preserve our existence as an apolitical police force that enables legitimate protests in accordance with the law. Supporting colleagues is an important thing that attests to the organization’s spirit, but this must be done without harming leadership institutions — I won’t condone that.”

Chaotic protests were held last week across the country after the government passed a law curtailing judicial oversight over the decisions of elected officials based on their reasonableness — the first piece of legislation in its contentious overhaul package.

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Videos from those demonstrations 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.

מפקד יס"מ ת"א סנ"צ יאיר חנונה מגיע על מדים לחקירה במח"ש בחשד לתקיפת מפגינים – ומתקבל במחיאות כפיים סוערות בידי עשרות חבריו ושוטריו ליחידה: "אוהבים אותך!"

— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) August 2, 2023

Hanuna was seen in widely circulated images apparently punching protester Amitai Aboudi after the 18-year-old had already been handcuffed on July 24.

Aboudi has himself been questioned by police on three occasions since the incident, most recently on Tuesday, with police saying he had tried to interfere with officers’ attempts to clear protesters from the Ayalon Highway on that day.

In video of Aboudi’s arrest, he is seen being hit and dragged by a group of police officers. 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.

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

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

Multiple complaints by protesters have been filed against Hanuna, including that he broke a demonstrator’s nose at a rally last month in Tel Aviv and choked another until he almost lost consciousness.

Hanuna and the other officers involved in the alleged violence were not wearing bodycams at the time of the arrest, in contravention of regulations, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Shabtai offered his support Thursday “to all cops who operate in accordance with the law,” while again criticizing a campaign by overhaul opponents that publicly names officers who allegedly used excessive force against protesters, including Hanuna.

“Any claim of deviation from the rules by a police officer will be examined only by the official bodies, and not in drumhead court-martial,” the police chief said.

Yair Hanuna arrives for questioning at the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Police earlier issued a more vague statement, stating that “an officer is allowed — not as part of a group — to accompany an officer summoned for questioning to the PIID offices to support them. This is appropriate and welcome. The rules will be emphasized accordingly.”

Earlier Thursday, former police commissioner Assaf Hefetz voiced much more blunt criticism of the Yasam officers’ display of support, telling the Ynet news site: “It’s inappropriate. The PIID must be allowed to investigate without all sorts of solidarity demonstrations by police. Cops shouldn’t be doing this kind of things and the police authorities shouldn’t back this, and definitely not the minister.”

Hefetz referred to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s solidarity visit Wednesday to the Yasam offices as “a horror show” and as “a grave mistake.”

“Police commanders and definitely the minister need to be very careful about intervening in criminal proceedings,” he charged.

Former police commissioner Assaf Hefetz attends a press conference in Tel Aviv, January 15, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

During his visit, Ben Gvir, whose ministry is in charge of the police, told officers that the behavior by the PIID — which is in charge of probing allegations of police brutality — was “puzzling and very grave.”

“I saw how they try to deter you and threaten you, it won’t work,” Ben Gvir said, and questioned why the PIID spent several hours interviewing Hanuna. “What do they want? For the streets of Tel Aviv to be a free-for-all?”

“You are our heroes, and on my watch, you will have complete backing,” Ben Gvir said.

Ben Gvir has pressed police to take a firm hand against protesters of the government’s drastic overhaul of the judiciary. Demonstrators have routinely blocked main highways as part of their protest tactics, leading to increasingly intense clashes with police.

Ben Gvir noted that he doesn’t condone police violence and that “sometimes they go a little too far,” but stressed that in his opinion he had not seen any wrongdoing in footage of recent clashes that led to the PIID probes.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a meeting with police officers from the Yasam riot control unit, in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“In the videos I saw, reasonable force was used. You are working for all of us, so that there is a correct balance between freedom of expression and freedom of movement. I have seen quite a few videos where you see how some of the protesters — most of whom are normative people — curse, spit and throw barriers at you and try to attack you.”

The State Attorney’s Office responded to Ben Gvir’s remarks, saying in a statement that it “completely rejects the attempt to besmirch the PIID. The PIID will not be deterred from doing its job. We reiterate that the PIID acts professionally and out of practical considerations only, and any attempt to criticize its work will not succeed.”

“The law enforcement system will continue to act in accordance with the law, without fear and without bias,” the statement said.