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Head of special police unit questioned over alleged violence toward protesters

The chief of the Tel Aviv police’s Yasam special patrol unit, Yair Hanuna, and four other officers were being questioned by the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) on Wednesday over allegations they used excessive force against protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul.

Dozens of Hanuna’s fellow uniformed officers from the unit gathered outside, obstructing the flow of traffic on the Tel Aviv street, and cheered as he arrived.

Some of them shouted: “We love you!”

Hanuna responded to reporters’ questions only with “Good morning and have a good day.”

There were chaotic protests last week across the country after the government passed a law curtailing judicial oversight over the decisions of elected officials based on their reasonableness — the first piece of legislation in its contentious overhaul package.

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Videos from those demonstrations showed police kicking protesters who were lying on the ground, throwing burning pallets toward them, dragging activists by their hair and using violence during arrests of those allegedly blocking roads and highways, including those who were not resisting arrest.

וזה מה שקורה עכשיו מול משרדי מח"ש בתל אביב: כל שוטרי יס"מ ת"א עם הרכבים והציוד הגיעו להפגין תמיכה במפקדיהם וחבריהם ובהם סנ"צ יאיר חנונה שנכנסים בשעה זו להיחקר בחשד לתקיפת המפגינים באיילון.
דגלים, צ'קלקות, ניידת עברה וקראה "אין על יס"מ ת"א".
יום עבודה כן?

— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) August 2, 2023

מפקד יס"מ ת"א סנ"צ יאיר חנונה מגיע על מדים לחקירה במח"ש בחשד לתקיפת מפגינים – ומתקבל במחיאות כפיים סוערות בידי עשרות חבריו ושוטריו ליחידה: "אוהבים אותך!"

— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) August 2, 2023

Police also deployed water cannons against protesters who were not blocking roads or carrying out any illegal activity.

Hanuna was seen in widely circulated images apparently punching protester Amitai Aboudi after the 18-year-old had already been handcuffed on July 24.

Aboudi has himself been questioned by police on three occasions since the incident, most recently on Tuesday, with police saying he had tried to interfere with officers’ attempts to clear protesters from the Ayalon Highway on that day.

In video of Aboudi’s arrest, he is seen being hit and dragged by a group of police officers.

In a photo of the incident, Hanuna can be seen apparently smiling while allegedly hitting Aboudi. Police have denied that Hanuna hit the teen after he was subdued.

הי @10elilevi
אמיתי בריליאנט בן 18 מוסר ד"ש

— יוסי מזרחי Yossi Mizrachi (@yosimiz1) July 25, 2023

Multiple complaints by protesters have been filed against Hanuna, including that he broke a demonstrator’s nose at a rally last month in Tel Aviv.

Another protester, Omer Gat, has filed a complaint saying that Hanuna choked him until he almost lost consciousness, the Ynet news site reported.

Another protester, named only as Uri, said Hanuna was violent toward him during a protest on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, the report said.

Hanuna and the other officers involved in the alleged violence were not wearing bodycams at the time of the arrest, in contravention of regulations, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The chief of the Tel Aviv police’s Yasam special patrol unit, Yair Hanuna (at rear), arrests Moshe Radman, a leading anti-overhaul protester during a demonstration protest against the judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on March 23, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir claimed on Wednesday that Aboudi had acted violently prior to his arrest.

“I saw him in the videos breaking the law and he tried to hit the police water cannon. I saw how he went on a rampage and how he hit, and tried to hit. He’s not that innocent, this boy,” Ben Gvir told Kan. It was unclear which videos Ben Gvir was referring to.

Aboudi’s father Ilan said in response that the far-right minister was “a criminal and a liar.”

Ben Gvir, whose ministry oversees policing, has a long history of arrests and convictions for far-right activity, including incitement and support of a terror group.

“We never said there was no reason that [Amitai] was arrested,” Ilan told Kan, adding that the issue was that his son was beaten after he was detained for blocking the highway.

Amitai Aboudi outside the police station in Jaffa, August 1, 2023, after his release from a third round of questioning. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Police chief Kobi Shabtai has denied claims from some activists that law enforcement activity has grown more violent in recent weeks under the influence of Ben Gvir, who has repeatedly pushed for a harsher crackdown on protesters, and was behind the ouster of Tel Aviv’s police chief Ami Eshed, who resisted rough treatment of demonstrators and took his leave from the force last month.

Peretz Amar, who replaced Eshed as Tel Aviv police commander, commented on Tuesday on the images of police officers allegedly using excessive force against protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul.

“I’m sorry for the inappropriate photos. None of the police officers wanted the photos,” Amar said at a handover ceremony for senior law enforcement officials in the south of the country.

“The police officers work every Saturday [at the protests] in terrible heat, under unbearable conditions. Militant groups attacked the police officers,” he said.

At the same ceremony, also in the presence of Ben Gvir, Shabtai said there has been no change in policy toward the ongoing protests.

“I want to reassure the people of Tel Aviv that there is no change in policy. It is the same as it was,” Shabtai said. “We understand that we are destined to act as a breakwater for all the ills of the State of Israel. Our job is to preserve democracy.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, wearing at least partial uniform for unknown reasons, and Police Chief Kobi Shabtai (with his back to camera) visit a Border Police training base, August 1, 2023 (Border Police)

In an apparent reference to five officers under investigation for allegedly using excessive force against protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul, Shabtai said: “If someone deviates from the accepted norms, we will investigate it. We are not above the law.”

After the ceremony, Ben Gvir and Shabtai visited a Border Guard training base, according to an announcement from the National Security Ministry on Wednesday.

In photos released by the ministry and the Border Police, Ben Gvir appeared to be wearing at least part of a uniform, despite never having served in the armed forces. Ben Gvir was considered such a security risk as a teenager that the Israel Defense Forces refused to allow him to enlist in the military.

The Haaretz daily reported that Ben Gvir and his chief of staff Chanamel Dorfman — also a former veteran settler extremist — received uniforms from Shabtai himself.