The Supreme Court of Israel recently ruled that although National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s portfolio puts him in charge of the country’s law enforcement, he did not have the power to direct the police’s management of demonstrations and protests. He could not dictate what crowd dispersal methods they use or when and how protests can be forcibly broken up. The court also said, rather cryptically, that Ben Gvir does have the power to “outline policies and general principles for the Israeli police” when dealing with protests.
The court’s generalization should not be surprising. With the nationwide turmoil now gripping Israel over proposed reforms by the Netanyahu government, members of the Supreme Court can hardly be counted among the neutral.
As the Times of Israel reported, the ruling came after the Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a petition claiming that Ben Gvir was attempting to use the police to quell protests against the reforms. “There must be zero tolerance toward anarchists who attack the police, breach police barriers, and bring about anarchy,” Ben Gvir allegedly said during a March 1 visit to the Tel Aviv Police Forward Command Center while a protest was under way. On March 8, Ben Gvir made a public statement ahead of protests scheduled for the next day, saying, “I am in favor of protests, in favor of freedom of expression, but Ben Gurion airport and major traffic arteries must be out of bounds.” Shortly after the March 9 protests in Tel Aviv, Ben Gvir reportedly said he was “very disappointed” with how the police had handled the demonstrators and generally encouraged more forceful responses.
Of course, these statements can be read as consistent with the Supreme Court’s own guidelines, but the court delivered a rebuke to Ben Gvir nonetheless.
One suspects that what was really on the minds of the judges was a well-publicized meeting Ben Gvir had with senior police commanders in January two days after the first anti-government demonstration took place. Ben Gvir reportedly told the brass at the time, “If you use water cannons in Jerusalem, I expect you to use them in Tel Aviv.” It was an apparent reference to the usage of water cannons (and what many say is frequently unnecessary levels of force) to break up ultra-Orthodox protests in Jerusalem.
Indeed, many in the chareidi community have argued that the police have demonstrated exceptional animosity toward chareidi demonstrators. Nor could the judges be unaware that Ben Gvir ran for the Knesset last year on a platform calling for more evenhandedness in police enforcement. Sadly, the Israeli Supreme Court has rarely been solicitous of chareidim claiming police abuse, despite numerous accounts of mounted police wantonly beating chareidi demonstrators with batons.
Despite the adverse court ruling for Ben Gvir, perhaps the police have gotten the message that they are not a power unto themselves and that they are being watched. If that means yeshiva students will escape being the victims of court-sanctioned mayhem, that would be a good thing.