(March 8, 2023 / JNS) Warning signs are mounting over the dangerous effects that the ever-coarsening nature of political rhetoric in Israel could have on society, a former senior Israel Police officer cautions.
“Regarding incitement, I think the writing is on the wall. Attempts to harm public figures on either the left or right could just be a matter of time,” Alon Levavi, a senior research associate at the MirYam Institute, ex-Israel Police deputy commissioner and a former chief of police operations, told JNS in recent days.
On Feb. 4, the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency said that its director, Ronen Bar, spoke with Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai following a rise in violent political discourse and incitement “against publicly elected officials in general and the prime minister specifically.”
During the conversation, Ronen said his agency identified a rise in the scope and severity of public expressions, particularly on social media, where messages calling for physical harm and violent actions against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other elected officials have appeared.
Shabtai and Bar agreed that a zero-tolerance policy would be employed by law enforcement against anyone who incites to violence or calls for harm against elected officials, as well as those who incite to violence against demonstrators who are opposed to the government’s judicial reform program.
“The right to protest and demonstration is a legal and important right in a democratic state, and alongside this, it is important to clarify that calls for harming others and violence are outside of the legitimate dialogue,” said the Shin Bet.
On Feb. 18, Shabtai told Channel 12 that a new joint commission set up by the Israel Police and Shin Bet would reduce the time it takes to investigate suspected cases of incitement to violence.
“We see threats online to harm public officials. The incitement that exists today is worrying, the flames must be lowered,” Shabtai said.
Tracking down inciters
A day later, the Israel Police announced that following the rise in online incitement, the commission would begin working to track down inciters. It is led by the head of the Investigations Division, Assistant Commissioner Shlomit Landes, and is composed of officers from various roles in the police’s Operations and Cyber Branches, in cooperation with other law enforcement units.
Levavi recalled how, as head of the Operations Branch, the names of threatened officials were discussed and an intelligence picture was formed to ascertain the severity of the threat and to decide how many resources were needed for protection.
“A package of steps can be allocated in line with the assessment. In some cases, police pass by there, in others, they are stationed at the location. In other cases, cameras and bars are installed, and even specialized protection guards,” he said.
The Knesset maintains its own security apparatus, as does the Shin Bet.
“Setting up the commission is a very logical and correct step,” said Levavi. “It doesn’t matter which organization is responsible for protecting the official, or what political color they have—public figures need to be guarded,” he said.
The police and Shin Bet have spent many years sharing information and building working relationships between department heads, as part of the lessons learned from the 1995 murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of far-right assassin Yigal Amir.
“When you see a situation in which people are moving towards the edge, an escalation is easy to envisage,” Levavi warned. “It’s easy to see the collision approaching—a crazy person can rise up and think that if they take someone out, the process they want to stop will come to a halt. They do not see another way. There have been irresponsible statements made about launching public rebellions that are dangerous if they fall on irrational ears.
“Whether it’s a government decision to remove an outpost [in Judea and Samaria] or to institute changes regarding the judiciary, someone can conclude that they’ve reached the end of the road, that the country is in danger, and that they have to do something that others won’t. We must avoid having a prime minister or minister from any side being harmed,” said Levavi.
Shabtai said last month, “The Israel Police respects and enables the freedom to protest in a democratic state but at the same time acts with zero tolerance towards anyone who takes part in a violent dialogue which is growing on social media networks.”
The new commission, he said, will also include representatives of the state prosecution, leading to less delay in addressing online messages suspected of incitement.
“The Israel Police is investing many resources and skilled, professional personnel to deal with this growing phenomenon, and all of this is aimed at preventing words from being translated into physical harm,” Shabtai said.
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