Brute force on Balfour Street

Police insist that their response to the recent wave of protests has been proportionate and even-handed. A Shomrim analysis of crowd-control measures, however, highlights a range of questionable tactics, vague procedures and a low level of tolerance when the protesters are Bedouin, Ethiopian or ultra-Orthodox

Police insist that their response to the recent wave of protests has been proportionate and even-handed. A Shomrim analysis of crowd-control measures, however, highlights a range of questionable tactics, vague procedures and a low level of tolerance when the protesters are Bedouin, Ethiopian or ultra-Orthodox

Police insist that their response to the recent wave of protests has been proportionate and even-handed. A Shomrim analysis of crowd-control measures, however, highlights a range of questionable tactics, vague procedures and a low level of tolerance when the protesters are Bedouin, Ethiopian or ultra-Orthodox

Roni Singer

Photo: Bea Bar Kalush

July 30, 2020

Summary

D

epending on the political standpoint of the observer, the recent wave of anti־government protests - especially the weekly demonstrations on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, close to the Prime Minister's Residence - are either authentic popular protest, a show of anarchy or even an Israeli version of Burning Man. As far as the Israel Police is concerned, their handling of the demonstrators proves that they view than far more like dangerous anarchists than hipster partygoers.

Police have been accused - in many cases with absolute justification - of badly mishandling their response to the demonstrations. They have been accused of using of force when none was needed - in stark contrast to their apparent ineffectiveness in combatting right־wing violence against peaceful protesters. Indeed, police only took a more proactive stance in the wake of massive public pressure, having ignored the right־wing hotheads in real time. Of even greater concern is what is being seen as the widespread use methods seemingly aimed to deter people from participating in the demonstrations at all: the Shin Bet security service’s tracking of cellular phones, ostensibly to identify contact with Coronavirus carriers; the police’s video documentation of the participants; and, of course, the violence during the dispersal operations.

"My heart is with the demonstrators, but I won’t be joining them and will watch from home instead," A., a resident of central Israel, tells Shomrim. "Two weeks ago, I was worried about the Shin Bet locating me and placing me in isolation. Now, I’m scared about being stabbed and the police doing nothing about it."

The police, on the other hand, have a long list of excuses for their handling of the rallies, which cast blame back on the protesters. For the most part, police say, the protest rallies aren’t preceded by talks between the organizers and the police, as required by law; there are no agreements concerning the number of demonstrators and the location of the rallies, or about the roads along which the demonstrators are set to march, and no one requests permits for the speakers, the signage or the music. Moreover, the demonstrations are attended by a wide variety of Israelis - families with children alongside certified anarchists, political activists alongside citizens who are struggling financially due to the Coronavirus crisis. Each such group conducts itself differently, making it very difficult for police to maintain order.

"Demonstrations of this kind are particularly complex," says retired Chief Superintendent Nimrod Daniel, former head of the Interrogation and Intelligence Department in the Yarkon District, Glilot Police Station commander, and head of the Organized Crime and Terrorism Squad in the Lahav 433 International Investigations Unit.

"The mixture of families with children and demonstrators who don’t shy away from confrontation makes it very difficult for the police," Daniel explains. "Dispersing a crowd like that requires surgical work, together with a level of discretion that takes all parameters into account, particularly when it comes to the measures employed to break up the demonstration."

Another significant problem from the perspective of the police emerges only when each protest disperses. "The demonstrations on Balfour Street are showing the Israeli public exactly what happens in such situations," says Attorney Anne Suciu from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

"Until now, issues such as the police’s use of excessive force and injuries sustained from water cannons were covered mostly by the ultra־Orthodox media. Now we’re dealing with protests that are being splashed across the front pages of the mainstream media. The Balfour protests are exposing issues that were once the domain of very specific minorities," Suciu comments.

"The police will always be to blame," is the adamant response of retired Chief Superintendent Yaron Kaldas, former deputy commander of the Tel Aviv District’s Yiftach Precinct and commander of the precinct’s riot־control unit, the Yasam. "If they don’t stop protesters blocking roads and don’t clear them in a timely fashion, they’re accused of being weak. And if they decide to disperse the protesters, they’re charged with acting improperly and failing to operate surgically against the rioters. It’s very difficult to come away looking good."

Intelligence and preparation: Closing cases for information

Daniel vividly recalls the wave of social justice protests that swept Israel in 2011; he experienced them first־hand when serving in the Yarkon District.

"Everything would proceed in an orderly manner, as is the case with most demonstrations," he says. "The organizers request permission to stage the demonstration, and the police examine the request and meet with the organizers to discuss the conditions. Some of the parameters that are looked into concern the location of the demonstration - does it cause too much of a public disturbance or is it proportionate, does it hinder freedom of movement, and so forth. Other parameters relate to safety, the duration of the demonstration, and various other issues. During the protests in 2011, following these clarifications, we’d decide together with the organizers where the rally would start and where it would end, and the organizers themselves would sometimes have their own ushers on hand in keeping with demands made of them."

Retired Chief Superintendent Nimrod Daniel: "The police can’t allow things to continue for as long as the protesters please. The protesters tell the police to refrain from the use of force, but what are the police supposed to do when those same protesters refuse to comply?"

Nimrod Daniel

From the police’s perspective, a request to hold a demonstration and dialog with the organizer is often the first indication they have that a protest is planned - and this is the point at which intelligence gathering also begins. According to Daniel, however, the current wave of protests is different because there are no organizers and the rallies are spontaneous, requiring the police make unilateral preparation, chiefly gathering intelligence.

"They keep their eyes open to see - both on the ground and via Facebook - who has confirmed their participation. They look for prominent figures, identifying those who have participated in previous demonstrations and checking to see what they did then and what they intend to do this time," says Kaldas, adding that the intelligence־gathering efforts don’t end there and also involve "familiar, old־school methods," as he puts it. "They find people facing marijuana־possession charges and offer to close the cases in return for cooperation. It always works. Such actions are always carried out with the cooperation and approval of state prosecution officials."

Protesters have also voiced claims that just before leaving home to attend demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, they received phone calls from the police and were asked to come in for questioning or to provide information about the demonstration. "The police are prohibited from doing anything to impede protesters heading to a demonstration, and we’re hearing reports of this again and again. It’s wrong," says Suciu. "When the settlers were protesting, we saw police stopping buses on their way to demonstrations, and we saw similar scenes during protests staged by the disabled. This can’t be allowed to happen. Calling protesters in for questioning before a rally is against the law, as are phone calls with the demonstrators."

"When the order to disperse is sounded, it’s not very nice. It’s not violence, but it involves the use of force. One must understand the difference," Kaldas insists on pointing out.

Gathering intelligence, on the other hand, is legitimate, Suciu adds. "It’s good to know if the protesters intend to resort to violence, but the question is how is this information gathered."

"The gathering of intelligence is important both in terms of assessing the risks involved in the event and the threats that could arise from it," notes Daniel. "In addition to the need for proper preparations, the police also want to know if some elements will seek to spark unrest and ostensibly hitch a ride on the protest. Good intelligence gathering is the only thing that will prepare the police for the proper handling of the event."

Protests on Balfour Street (Photo: David Vinkor)

Just how efficient is the police’s intelligence gathering? In light of the recent assaults on demonstrators by right־wing activists, it’s safe to assume that in this regard, at least, the police knew nothing and weren’t prepared.

The red lines: When and why police use force

An "organized" demonstration is one in which the two sides show up to the rally after coming to certain arrangements, a permit has been issued, and organizers and police are somewhat familiar with one other. In the absence of permits for the protests on Balfour Street, the boundaries have not been drawn in advance, and the red lines are indistinct and elusive.

The police come to these demonstrations armed with a set of orders and regulations that are designed to offer a response to a variety of scenarios. "The focus, for the main part, is on containment, or as they say now in the Tel Aviv District, enablement," Kaldas explains.

In practice, this enablement refers to a weighing־up of the situation that takes into account a certain level of traffic disruptions and noise pollution for the residents of the area for the sake of the demonstration. "The question is one of red lines, and they are determined by the police commander in the field prior to the demonstration. There wasn’t much containment during the demonstrations staged by the Ethiopian community because they involved vandalism and violence from the very beginning. These are two scenarios in which the police respond with force, and quickly."

Mounted police at a demonstration in Tel Aviv (Photo: Bea Bar Kalush)

Ahead of time, the police determine the duration of the demonstration, the extent to which roads can be blocked, and when the protesters are required to disperse. "The problems start when it’s time to end the demonstration and the protesters fail to comply. This is where the discretion of the commander in the field comes into play vis־à־vis the dispersal of the demonstration," Daniel says.

Impressions from the field show that in the case of the Balfour Street protests at least, the police have exhibited patience - an approach that irked Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who made his feelings known to the top brass. But at some point, at around 1 A.M., a dispersal order has been issued. "And when the order to disperse is sounded, it’s not very nice. It’s not violence, but it involves the use of force. One must understand the difference," Kaldas insists on pointing out.

Video documentation: A deterrent or an intelligence tool?

In the spirit of the times, both sides come to a demonstration equipped with countless cameras, with the police, ostensibly, at a disadvantage due to the restriction on the use of body cameras, on the understanding that they can only capture two individuals and fail to offer a broader understanding of the events. "To solve this, the police have ‘documentation procedures’ that determine how protesters are filmed from various distances. I’ve yet to be shown these procedures," says Attorney Suciu, who adds that the filming carried out by the police has a cooling effect on the demonstrations: "Activists are concerned about documentation. It’s a big problem as far as they’re concerned, as it violates their privacy and serves as a deterrent. Filming someone who attends a demonstration is like asking for ID at the gate."

Kaldas confirms the video documentation, noting that at the end of the demonstration, all the video material is sent to a central storage station. One of the key questions arising from the collection of this video material concerns its usage thereafter. Does video footage from demonstrations accumulate in the form of a database? Do the police use it for other purposes - intelligence, for example?

Mounted police on their way to a demonstration in Tel Aviv (Photo: Bea Bar Kalush)

One of the major concerns expressed these days by civil rights organizations centers on the use of facial־recognition technology during protest rallies. The issue came to the fore recently during the protests in the United States, and in the wake of intense media hype, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM announced a suspension on the sale of their facial־recognition software to law־enforcement authorities. The Israel Police is conducting a series of pilots with companies involved in the field, but insofar as is known, such technology is not being used routinely during the demonstrations or at all.

In recent years, the ultra־Orthodox, primarily, have been on the receiving end of the riot police's clubs and tear־gas grenades have been employed against Bedouin demonstrators and protest rallies staged by the Ethiopian community. None of these have been used at the Balfour Street demonstrations, with the police relying instead on manhandling, forces on horseback and water cannons

The orderly video documentation aside, it’s worth remembering, too, that the demonstrations are taking place in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, and the Shin Bet is still tracing the cellular phones of people who have come into contact with confirmed patients. In fear of being traced and placed in isolation, many demonstrators are taking to the streets without their phones, or choosing instead not to participate in the protests at all. At a time when the public’s lack of trust in the establishment is on the rise, many fear that the monitoring of their movements could be exploited for less savory purposes.

The force scale: Rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon

All the officers, retired and currently serving, who were interviewed for this report asked not to use the word, "violence," but "use of force" instead. Some may accuse them of employing euphemisms, but even Attorney Noa Levy from the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel says that the project she manages, which used to be called the Police Brutality Project, had its name changed. "We realized that the phrase "brutality" is problematic and it would be better to call it the Police Project."

Kaldas clarifies. "Violence is prohibited, the use of force is permissible," says the retired senior officer. "Shoving demonstrators is akin to urging them to disperse. If a demonstrator hits a police officer, the officer can push back. Putting handcuffs on is also using force. And there are many more instances that require the use of force."

Kaldas says the district commander decides when and how much force is used. "To begin with, the demonstrators are urged back and then given some time - something like 20 minutes, and then the dispersal begins," he says. "This can be accomplished bare־handed, with clubs, with mounted officers, with tear־gas grenades and, of course, with water cannons."

In recent years, the ultra־Orthodox, primarily, have been on the receiving end of the clubs in the hands of the riot police. Tear־gas grenades, on the other hand, have been employed against Bedouin demonstrators and protest rallies staged by the Ethiopian community. None of these have been used at the Balfour Street demonstrations, with the police relying instead on manhandling, forces on horseback and water cannons (see box at the end of the report for more on the use of water cannons and the serious injuries caused in the past to demonstrators).

Did the police, in actual fact, stipulate a dispersal time? Some of the demonstrations, at least, offer evidence of the use of a different tactic. "We’ve heard testimonies from demonstrators on Balfour," says Levy. "These are people with no experience in demonstrations or politics. They described being corralled by the police and contained in a small area with no way out. This is a tactic called kettling, which involves cramming a large number of demonstrators into a small space and thereby sparking unrest and giving the police cause to make arrests."

Kaldas, who during his service in the police manhandled countless demonstrators, isn’t familiar with these first־hand reports, but he does believe that the police got it wrong at the Balfour demonstrations, albeit for different reasons. "Even if you’re in the right, you first need to be smart," he says. "You can’t initiate a without giving people time to leave the area; you can’t allow use water cannon on demonstrators gathered on a street corner with nowhere to take cover. That’s nothing short of scandalous."

The bottom line

Everybody in Israel, it seems has an opinion on how the police should deal with the current wave of protests. Opinion is also divided on whether police are using excessive force or reasonable force. Even the various people interviewed for this article aren’t in agreement.

"Under the current circumstances, I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to disperse the demonstrations," says one former police officer in a very surprising and non־police־like commentary on the situation. "People are hurting, and the drive to protest is only getting stronger all the time. When the police see that it’s eleven at night, they need to ask: What’s more problematic - noise disturbances for the residents of the area, or the dispersal of 5,000 people that will certainly end in casualties and add fuel to the fire of the next demonstration?"

Daniel is less forgiving. "You can only tolerate up to a certain point a situation in which it’s time for the demonstration to end, and people are still encamped on the roads, are still blocking freedom of movement for others, and aren’t obeying the law and the instructions from the police. You need to disperse them and restore order. The police can’t allow things to continue for as long as the protesters please. The protesters tell the police to refrain from the use of force, but what are the police supposed to do when those same protesters refuse to comply?

"After the dispersal order is given," Daniel continues, "the police then need to operate surgically, and only if such actions encounter resistance and they’re unable to disperse the demonstration should they intensify their response. The use of force comes into play to overcome resistance on the part of the protesters, since the police have to perform their duties."

Suciu agrees that the police are responsible for maintaining order, but says that the recent protests have illustrated the inadequacy of the containment policy, and have also highlighted the inconsistent use of force from city to city - and inconsistent rules in encounters with different protesters. "Until now, for the most part," she says, "the ultra־Orthodox, Arabs and Ethiopians have borne the brunt. Now, all of a sudden, everyone’s hearing about it because it’s happening at the Balfour demonstrations too."

Kaldas, whose brother sustained injuries after being pushed by a police officer at a recent protest rally on Balfour Street, confirms that the police used to employ greater force in demonstrations staged by minority communities, but insists that this is no longer the case. "In any event," he says, "there have to be red lines. Violence can’t be tolerated. But if there’s no violence, I’d rather see eight hours of blocked roads than images of fighting between police officers and protesters."

In response to this article, the Israel Police offered the following laconic response: "We don’t provide details concerning operational methods and means, and responsibility for the publication of the contents of the article rests with the publisher alone. The Israel Police will continue to perform its function to allow all citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to protest within the limits of the law, and to take action against any unrest, vandalism and violence of any kind in violation of the law."

The water cannon:

Dangerous and indiscriminate - but effective?

The disturbing images from one recent demonstration, which showed a powerful jet of water being fired directly at the head of a protester, blazed a trail through the social media networks. Manufactured on Kibbutz Beit Alfa, and brought into the service of the Israel Police in 2004, water cannons are used to assist with crowd dispersal. Sometimes, they fire these high־velocity streams of water, but they can also be used to douse protesters in Skunk - a yellowish, foul־smelling mist that sends protesters running. The vehicle on which the cannon is mounted prowls the area like a tank on the battlefield, locating hot spots, and letting loose on the protesters. It may sound like something innocent and harmless, and the police, who encourage this misconception, frequently use it to disperse demonstrations. Among the ultra־Orthodox, for example, the water cannon is an old and familiar foe.

There are procedures in place to define the considerable distance from which the water cannon is supposed to be employed, which prohibit its use against minors, and which stipulate that it should not be aimed at people on the sidewalk. But procedures are not always followed in reality. "The bottom line is that sitting inside the water־cannon vehicle are young riot police officers who probably aren’t fully aware of what’s allowed and what’s forbidden," says Kaldas. "They’re inside the vehicle, they spot individuals causing unrest outside, and it’s: Come on, let’s nail them, even if we’re too close."

According to a statement released by the police in the wake of the reports and images concerning the use of water cannons at the protests on Balfour Street, "The Israel Police employs a variety of measures to disperse riots, in keeping with a scale and in accordance with orderly procedures. The water cannon is an effective means of curbing unrest, a tool that has proven its efficacy and is used by numerous police forces around the world. The water cannon is a low־level tool and poses no threat to people or the environment."

This response, however, doesn’t exactly fall in line with the reality on the ground. Attorney Noa Levy, the Police Project manager for the Public Committee Against Torture, agrees that "if they were to use the water cannon in keeping with the regulations, it genuinely wouldn’t be life־threatening. But the police are using it contrary to procedures. They do fire on minors, they don’t fire only from a distance, and the force could certainly be dangerous."

Shortly before she was interviewed for this report, Levy was notified by the courts that the police had requested a stay of proceedings in a lawsuit she has filed on behalf of a 12־year־old boy who fell victim to a water cannon deployed to disperse a protest rally. The ultra־Orthodox kid was thrown into the air and knocked out by the force of the blow - hardly a rare sight at ultra־Orthodox protests in recent years. And water cannons have also been used to disperse protests by the Ethiopian community, by Arab residents of East Jerusalem, and by Bedouin in the south.

"The police use different levels of force with different groups of people," says Levy. "The Balfour Street protesters’ encounters with the water cannon have been understandably jarring, but the ultra־Orthodox have been getting it for years, and the Skunk too, a very harsh measure that no other Israeli group has ever been subjected to. The demonstrators at the protests staged by the Ethiopian community were hit with tear gas. They also fired rubber bullets at the Bedouin."

Following is a series of incidents from recent years in which protesters were physically injured by water cannons, compiled by Shomrim in conjunction with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The bottom line is that contrary to police claims, the water cannon is not a harmless measure; it most certainly can cause serious injury. All of the incidents involve members of the ultra־Orthodox communities in which the demonstrations took place. In most cases, the victims suffered long־term physical injuries for no wrongdoing whatsoever, an indication of the police’s slack adherence to operating procedures. Note, other testimonies also spoke of the use of water cannons and Skunk, in ultra־Orthodox neighborhoods in particular, on passers־by and buildings.

CROSS:

February 2015:

Damages to the tune of NIS 220,000

A Jerusalem husband and wife in their 60s were seriously injured after getting off a bus on Tzafania Street in the city, in the middle of a demonstration there. They were hit by a blast from a water cannon that knocked them off their feet. The woman sustained a broken pelvis and the man a broken ankle. Both required extensive medical treatment and a lengthy recovery period. The state forked out NIS 220,000 in damages.

November 2016:

Two weeks in hospital and eye surgery

A 20־year־old Jerusalem woman sustained a serious eye injury and almost lost her sight after being hit in the face by a jet of water, and all while standing on the sidewalk and not involved in any unrest whatsoever. The jet of water shattered her glasses, and several fragments caused serious damage to one of her eyes. The blow also knocked her unconscious to the floor. She was hospitalized for two weeks and underwent several eye surgeries.

November 2017:

Municipal employee and 5-year־old boy injured by water jet

During demonstrations in Jerusalem in which the police were trying to disperse ultra־Orthodox protesters from a road they were blocking, a 21־year old Jerusalem Municipality employee, who was simply trying to cross the street at the time, was struck by a jet of water fired at head־height towards the crowd. The force of the blow threw her into the air and slammed her to the ground. She was diagnosed subsequently at the hospital with a cracked rib. The stench left behind by the Skunk that was also used left her throwing up for days. Footage from the same demonstration also shows a 5־year־old boy knocked off his by a blast from a water cannon.

April 2018:

Skunk jet hits family on the balcony

During demonstrations against a post־mortem examination of an infant, a jet of water mixed with Skunk was fired at a building where a family was standing on the first־floor balcony, observing the protests. As a result, a 7־year־old boy was thrown some six feet and sustained bruising and a painful blow to his leg. The boy has been suffering from anxiety and behavioral changes ever since and is currently in the care of a social worker. An 8־year־old girl and an adult woman sustained light injuries in the same incident.