As the police are increasingly drawn into a conflict between protecting the right to protest and attempts to politicize their work, it is clear that appointment of a full-time commissioner is long overdue
The current atmosphere in Israel takes me back to the eve of the 1996 elections, which pitted Netanyahu against Peres, when, as a young student, I attended an election rally in the heart of Jerusalem. Suddenly, with no prior warning, we were attacked by a mob armed with iron bars, clubs, and other weapons. Several police officers stood by and observed the rally, but none of them chose to get involved and prevent the attack.
Today, years later, demonstrators are reporting very similar events as they have encountered violence from both police and counter-protesters. These troubling developments have made one thing clear: it is absolutely necessary to appoint a full-time police commissioner in order to ensure the protection of protesters and it must be done as quickly as possible.
The images from last week’s demonstrations were truly disturbing. Throughout the country, demonstrators were attacked and injured, including a stabbing in the South and bloody beatings at a protest in Tel Aviv. The protestors’ trust in the police seems to have reached an all-time low, and we are now seeing self-defense initiatives cropping up. For example, a crowdfunding campaign has been launched to pay for private security, along with an independent initiative among IDF Special Forces veterans to provide protection to demonstrators. It is all too clear where all this is heading, and we must stop it—immediately.
If things were as they should be, funds for protecting demonstrators would come from the taxes we pay, and security would be provided by the police. This is after all, one of the main missions of any police force. Freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic right, and it is the duty of the police to uphold it. Without freedom of expression, there can be no free elections and no orderly transitions of governments. This is among the most basic of freedoms in a democracy, even in the most flimsy versions of democratic states, and it must be protected.
Today, the critical significance of freedom of expression has come to the fore more than ever. We find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, with large segments of the public undergoing severe economic distress. The Supreme Court was asked to rule on this issue on several occasions in the past, and has instructed the police on how to uphold the law and how to facilitate the right to protest by acting professionally and with equal treatment for all, based on a commitment to defending core democratic freedoms. Of course, the ability to exercise the right to protest is dependent on the protester’s knowledge that he or she will be free of threats and violence. In other states (to which we would prefer not to be compared), such as Turkey or Iran, anyone joining a protest against the regime is in effect, taking his or her life in their hands. This is cannot be the reality in Israel.
In healthy and vibrant democracies, the police force actively enables lively civic engagement and expressions of protests, and defends these rights while—to a reasonable extent-- at the price of other values, such as public order. Indeed, demonstrations always come at the cost of some disruption to public order.
The police force rightfully has a monopoly on enforcing the law and public order, and must do so while making responsible, professional, and proportionate use of the immense power it holds in its hands. However, in practice, we are hearing increasing first-hand accounts of impartial enforcement policies (with huge differences between enforcement in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv); of aggressive and violent use of police equipment (an apparent use of water cannons at short range and in contravention of protocols); of police turning a blind eye to attacks on demonstrators; and of mass issuing of fines to demonstrators for not wearing masks, as a deliberate tool for deterring people from coming out to protest (as emerged from recordings of the Jerusalem district commander).
There is a direct link between the serious question raised as to the actions of the police toward the protestors, and the fact that the Israel Police has been operating without an officially appointed commissioner for over a year and a half. Under normal circumstances, if Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana were to exert political pressure and demand that police officers find a way to bypass Supreme Court rulings, he would come up against a strong and independent commissioner who would stop him in his tracks. Instead, the Minister is exploiting the inherent weakness of his subordinates, all of whom are aiming to win his recommendation for the vacant post.
The Israel Police needs to have a properly appointed full-time police commissioner who will safeguard the public’s freedom to demonstrate, and will erect an iron wall between those in charge of law enforcement and the politicians. In recent days, Minister Ohana has raised serious doubt as to his capacity for handling this sensitive and non-partisan appointment in a responsible manner. Furthermore, given his strong personal loyalty to the Prime Minister, currently under a criminal indictment, and in order to bolster public trust in the police, the right thing to do would be to disqualify himself from dealing with this issue and instead establish a professional committee to recommend a suitable candidate to the government. This is the behavior we would expect from a minister for public security acting responsibly and with the best interests of the country at heart in the midst of a major crisis, and when bitter conflicts are tearing people apart.
It is troubling, but we already have seen enough warning signs of a possible “next Emile Grünzweig”—a political activist murdered at a political rally in 1983. Political leaders have a hefty responsibility to put out the flames of strife and to prevent political violence from claiming victims needlessly and tragically. Minister Ohana must understand that from the moment he was appointed to the government, he must conduct himself responsibly. He can no longer function as the personal messenger of to a Prime Minister deeply embroiled in criminal proceedings.
The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.