Israel police using special units to crack down on, surveil anti-Netanyahu protests

Middle East Monitor  /  February 22, 2023

Special Israeli police units are monitoring Israeli protestors and activists organizing demonstrations against the government’s attempted reform of the judiciary, sparking criticism of an assault on democracy.

According to the news outlet, Haaretz, the Israeli police are using the unit that usually deals with major crimes and criminal groups to surveil and investigate leading activist figures in the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul the country’s judiciary and implement radical reforms.

Following the protest on Monday in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, two key activists – 56-year-old Avi Moyal and his 51-year-old wife, Limor – were intercepted by seven policemen who were waiting at their vehicle. The men, who identified themselves as detectives, “followed us and waited for us by the car,” Limor said, and then “pounced on us, with a police photographer accompanying them, telling us we had devices that could be used for crowd dispersal.”

Those devices consisted of torchlights in the couple’s car, which they were planning to hold at the end of the demonstration, as is customary. “We told them that these were the same sort of torches that the scouts [youth movement] use, but they paid no attention,” she said.

The police arrested Moyal for allegedly disturbing public order, confiscating his pistol in the process, before taking him to the city’s police headquarters for three hours’ questioning. His interrogators were reportedly members of the police unit designed to fight and investigate serious crimes such as murder, rape and organized crime. Now, it seems, they have been deployed to monitor and surveil protests and their leading political activists.

Reported evidence of that unit’s surveillance lies in the fact that the interrogators knew certain details about the protests and their figures which would otherwise not have been known. During the interrogation of another activist named Costa Black, for example, he was presented with documentation consisting of data collected by surveillance cameras, various other cameras and a police drone, showing that he was under watch by the police.

“They’re employing a special unit for following activists,” Black said. “These people tracked me for hours, using special methods against me. It’s delusional. They produced clips from social media, as if I were a crime organization target. They took away my shoes.” Black insisted that “this indicates the direction this government is taking us in. While true criminals in the government are undermining the country’s democratic institutions, law-abiding demonstrators are brought to interrogation rooms.”

According to the Haaretz report, the Israeli police are also using central units to transfer intelligence on protests to police units in the capital, Tel Aviv, and its surrounding areas with the aim of bringing in and interrogating other protestors and activists. They also reportedly monitor social media and WhatsApp groups operated by the protest movement’s figures.

In a response by the Israeli police, they claimed to the paper that they “acted to protect demonstrators in Jerusalem with the aim of enabling freedom of expression and protest while maintaining public order and the safety of participants.” They stressed that they only took “preventive action” against those they suspected of intending to “disrupt public order”.

The police also addressed the torches used at protests, stating that they “spread a lot of smoke in the protest area, endangering those around … Freedom to protest does not involve fire or flammable products. We will continue to enforce law and order in any location and against anyone disrupting it.”