A Nation Turns on Its Own

 Israel’s pro-democracy protesters face increasing police violence

Sign seen at a recent rally, Kaplan Tel Aviv. photo: Nili Bresler

The hot days of summer are here. And the current government is doing everything it can to make them even hotter. Netanyahu thinks he can legitimize police brutality by labeling Israel’s pro-democracy protesters as ‘rioters’ and ‘violent anarchists’. Copious video footage refutes this claim. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir who heads Israel’s Police, has called for zero tolerance against protesters. Under his instruction, increasing police violence is being used on nonviolent, unarmed civilians.

Even Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has stated that the protesters are not violent, and that “not one police officer has been taken for treatment in the hospital” after 27 weeks of protests. Recently resigned Tel Aviv Police Chief Amichai Eshed has said the same. There are protests all over the country, with the ‘main event’ being the weekly rally at Kaplan junction in Tel Aviv. For this reason, Eshed’s role has been crucial.

The first few months of the pro-democracy protests were noisy and disruptive, but without violence, thanks to Ami Eshed’s professional handling of the situation. Eshed, a 30-year veteran officer, was masterful in his ability to disperse crowds peaceably. His skill and experience enabled legal (and sometimes illegal) protest rallies to proceed largely without incident. Eshed was determined to avoid bloodshed and he succeeded – much to the dismay of Ben-Gvir. All that has changed in recent weeks, now that the calming influence of Eshed has been removed. On July 5th, Eshed announced he would resign rather than be reassigned due to “political considerations”. Ben Gvir has tried to remove Eshed for months, accusing him of being too soft on the protesters.

Police kneel on neck of protester, March 1, 2023. Photo: Association for Civil Rights Israel ( . Used with permission

Now, with Eshed out of the picture, and the judicial overhaul in full swing, all bets are off. This month, police received instructions to toughen their response, despite all evidence that the protesters remain nonviolent. I am one of the protesters, regularly attending rallies along with thousands of others. I can attest that we are disciplined and determined to follow instructions: nonviolent civil disobedience. Disruption yes; aggression no, even when provoked. There are close to half a million protesters around the country. We come from all walks of life, and our ages range from toddlers to very senior citizens. We are fighting to save our democracy; to save the very rights that allow us to gather and protest.

We gather at junctions and outside the homes of government ministers. We march down main streets and sometimes block roads or highways. We do our best to disrupt. We chant, sing, dance, beat drums, blow whistles and stadium horns. And we do it without raising a hand to the police officers who surround us, even as we get pushed and shoved and threatened. Many of us have long protested this same police violence against unarmed Palestinians. We are only now feeling it used against us: ordinary citizens who do not happen to live in occupied territories. It is a rude awakening. A reminder that the myth of the ‘Purity of Arms’ is just that. Netanyahu boasts that Israel has ‘the most moral army in the world’.

Water cannon turned directly on protesters, Ayalon highway 8-July-2023. photo: Nili Bresler

In the past weeks, peaceful demonstrators throughout the country have been met with increasingly violent police response. Police on foot, on horseback and in armored vehicles chase and beat protesters. Military border patrol and the Special Patrol Unit forces use violent anti-riot tactics against peaceful civilians. Recently we’ve seen the illegal use of anti-riot weapons: water cannons aimed directly at protesters causing severe injuries; stun grenades thrown into the middle of crowds of nonviolent protesters; and the illegal use of an acoustic weapon known as ‘The Scream’ – a sound cannon blasting deafening noises that can reach 144 decibels.

Plainclothes police officers roam the crowd with an aim to menace. These police are not ‘undercover’ but rather recognizable in their black tee shirts and black baseball caps. They pull ‘troublemakers’ out of the crowd and beat them while fellow demonstrators yell in protest. These ‘black shirts’ are muscle-bound male police officers, hand-picked and trained to operate quickly and aggressively in large crowds. Every time a protester is pulled out of the crowd, we rush over. We are told not to intervene physically, and so we shout and whistle. We take out our phones and photograph everything. That’s why so many of these police attacks on civilians are well-documented.

Ben-Gurion Airport – Border police pen in protesters while a police photographer trains her lens on faces in the crowd. photo: Nili Bresler

Other intimidation tactics include clearly identified crime scene photographers moving through crowds to take close-ups of protesters. The message is clear: we know who you are. In a country where the majority of civilians have biometric ID cards, identifying protesters from crowd photos is a piece of cake. None of these tactics are secret. We protesters know that we live in a digital age, in the ‘startup nation’ where much of the world’s facial recognition and surveillance technology was developed. I was standing on a sidewalk at a protest a few weeks ago when I saw a police photographer training his camera lens on me. No point in fighting it, so I just smiled for my close-up and stood my ground.

The government’s angry rhetoric only serves to ignite the situation further and invites extremists to join the fray. The other day, a pro-government activist ran through a crowd of demonstrators brandishing a hammer. He was disarmed by a protester, while the police looked on. Terrifying to watch.

Tactic: Instead of pacification and crowd control to de-escalate the situation, police are now instructed to exacerbate crowding and noise conditions.

Scene: Ben-Gurion Airport, Tuesday, July 11, a declared ‘day of disruption’. We protesters arrived at an organized demonstration, officially ruled a legal gathering in a public space. We streamed out of the trains only to find the stairs and escalators on the train platform were blocked by lines of border police. We were herded to the other end of the platform and forced up the stairs, where we were met by even more rows of border police. Once there, we were penned into a small area outside the main arrivals terminal, barricaded on every side.

The area was suffocatingly hot and noisy. We had two choices: walk away or dig in. We took out our horns and whistles and drums and made more noise. The plan was evidently to get us ‘amateurs’ to disperse. That plan failed. We are not novices. Most of us are veteran protesters. Many boomers, like me, lived through the ’60s. This is not our first rodeo. Like many of the white-haired protesters, I began protesting here in Israel with Peace Now in the 70’s. Many of the protesters are members of student movements. Most are military veterans, many with combat experience. In fact, these, ‘brothers and sisters in arms’, are among the leaders of the protest movement. They use their combat expertise to organize protest events while keeping most of us safe. At the airport on Tuesday, they were there to provide drinking water and hand out earplugs. There was also a medical clown on hand, to help defuse the stress and anger.

A protester hands out earplugs to the crowd penned into a confined area, Ben-Gurion Airport, 11-July-2023. photo: Nili Bresler

Even demonstrators who had never attended a protest before this year have now become experts. Now in our seventh month of the protest, we have learned a thing or two. We know what hand signals to make if we are pulled out of the crowd by the police. Our phones all have the contact numbers of volunteer lawyers, and we know how to report arrests or violence and get help if needed. Those of us who are not fit enough to run fast hang back in a safe area. We are happy just to be there, knowing that our presence will be counted. We don’t need to make a statement by kneeling in front of a water cannon or facing off with the mounted police. We let the younger, fitter ones and the combat veterans stand on the front lines.

In the past week, there have been over 100 arrests, and dozens of protesters ended up in the hospital, seriously injured by police action. In the hot months ahead, it would be wise of the government to tone down its rhetoric. It would be wise of the police to follow the law in order to avoid further physical injury to unarmed civilians. It would be wise. But wisdom has not been a hallmark of this government.

About the Author
Nili Bresler is an active member of Israel's pro-democracy movement. She is a business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, Nili was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. In her spare time, she manages communications for the nonprofit, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives happily in Ramat Gan.
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