Israeli police have fired stun grenades and water cannons at demonstrators who blocked a Tel Aviv highway and protesters scuffled with police near the Israeli leader’s home as weeks of anti-government protests turned violent for the first time.
Thousands of protesters across the country staged a “national disruption day,” the latest in a string of mass protests against the Netanyahu-led government’s judicial reforms.
In Tel Aviv, crowds of protesters amassed outside a salon where PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, had gone to get her hair done late on Wednesday. Israeli media said police were called to rescue her as protesters chanted, “The country is burning and Sara is getting a haircut!”
Videos on social media showed hundreds of people outside the building, screaming and blowing horns. In one video, dozens of members from the paramilitary border police rushed through the streets of Tel Aviv toward the salon, and the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, called on the forces to “protect her life.”
Police announced several hours later that they had successfully “rescued” Mrs. Netanyahu.
Amateur videos showed her being whisked into a black vehicle that drove away as the crowd chanted “shame.” Netanyahu later tweeted a photo of him embracing his wife, saying she had returned home safely. “The anarchy has to stop,” he said. “This can lead to the loss of life.”
‘Where were you in Hawara?’
In a late-night address, Netanyahu criticised the anti-government protesters and attempted to compare them to the violent mob of illegal settlers that tore through the occupied West Bank town of Hawara this week, torching scores of homes, businesses and cars and killing one Palestinian.
“The freedom to demonstrate is not a license to drag the country into anarchy,” Netanyahu said. “We will not accept breaking the rules and violence, not in Hawara, not in Tel Aviv and not anywhere.”
Netanyahu made no mention of a call on Wednesday by his Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a firebrand illegal West Bank settler leader, for Hawara to be “erased” by Israel.
Protests continued into the night. Near Netanyahu’s Jerusalem home, demonstrators briefly broke down a barricade and scuffled with security forces.
Since they started two months ago, the protests have been large and violence-free. But that changed on Wednesday, after Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, ordered police to take tougher action against “anarchists” who blocked roads.
In the first scenes of unrest, police arrived on horseback in the centre of the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, hurled stun grenades and used a water cannon against thousands of protesters.
A video posted on social media showed a police officer pressing his knee into a protester’s neck and another showed a man who reportedly had his ear ripped off by a stun grenade.
Police said protesters threw rocks and water bottles at the officers.
In Tel Aviv and later in Jerusalem, the protesters shouted “Where were you in Hawara?” at policemen, referring to Sunday’s rampage by illegal settlers.
Police said they arrested dozens of protesters nationwide for disturbing the peace while 11 people were hospitalised with various injuries, according to Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.
‘Protesters are patriots’
Both Ben-Gvir and Netanyahu turned their wrath toward opposition leader Yair Lapid, accusing him of encouraging the unrest and trying to plunge the country into new elections.
Lapid called on police to show restraint and said Netanyahu’s government had lost control.
“The protesters are patriots,” Lapid tweeted.
“They are fighting for the values of freedom, justice and democracy. The role of the police is to allow them to express their opinions and fight for the country they love.”
Netanyahu has been the centre of a years-long political crisis in Israel, with former allies turning against him and refusing to sit with him in government because of his corruption charges.