Israeli police officials have been given the go-ahead to investigate the leaders of a Jewish settlers group on myriad charges, including conspiracy.
The investigation will focus on the leadership of Zo Artzeinu, or “This is Our Land,” which has spearheaded protests against the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to expand Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
At the same time, opposition leaders in the Knesset have become increasingly vocal in charging that the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is attempting to stifle protest against expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
They claim that attempts to stifle dissent include repeated acts of police brutality, an increasingly frequent charge made by settlers during a summer of widespread demonstrations against the government’s peace process policy.
“Freedom of expression is a basic right in a democratic regime, but public order is also a value that must be protected,” said Attorney General Michael Been-Yair of the decision to probe Zo Artzeinu.
Police officials said they had cause to investigate the group because it published a pamphlet that detailed instructions on blocking the highways.
The grass-roots settlers group coordinated an Aug. 8 protest in which roads throughout Israel were blocked during the evening rush hour.
The group’s leaders will be investigated on conspiracy to commit a crime, encouraging people to prevent police officers from doing their duty and obstructing an investigation.
Rabbi Banny Alon, one of the Zo Artzeinu leaders, said in an interview on Army Radio that he welcomed the police investigation, adding that the group had “nothing to hide.”
Opposition leaders are comparing the investigation of Zo Artzeinu to recent government efforts to shut down a right-wing pirate station known as Channel 7.
In both cases, say opposition leaders, the government is doing whatever it can to quell dissent to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Members of the opposition also assert that the government has created a climate in which the Israeli police commit acts of brutality against demonstrators.
The suggestion this week by a Knesset member that demonstrators may fire back if fired upon by the police has provoked a storm of controversy.
Knesset member Rehavam Ze’evi of the right-wing Moledet Party made the remark during a special session this week.
Ze’evi was complaining about what he called the use of excessive force by police against protesters demonstrating against the government.
He said that if the opposition parties assume power, there would be a “blacklist” of police who hit demonstrators.
“If they use (tear) gas against us, we will consider it live fire, and respond accordingly,” he added. .TX.-Police Minister Moshe Shahal condemned the statements.
“This is a totally inappropriate declaration,” Shahal said. “There is a kind of rebellion against law enforcers, to interfere with their fulfilling their duties.”
However, after consulting with the attorney general, Shahal decided not to press charges for the statements, which he said were made by a “politician whose opinions are known.”
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Shahal had received information that rightwing extremists were planning to attack government ministers.
Shahal reportedly was taking such warnings seriously and had stepped up protective measures for Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
At the same time, Shahal called on right-wing leaders to moderate their statements in an effort to avoid inciting extremists.
In response, Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called on the government to allow public debate, which he described as legal and democratic.
Aharon Domb, spokesman for the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said acts of violence could work against the legitimate struggle of the settlers.
But he also accused Shahal of waging psychological warfare against Israel’s right wing.
Ze’evi’s remarks came amid rising concern among political leaders that opposition to the peace process is becoming increasingly violent, in both word and action.
Shahal said he was concerned that certain individuals would be deeply influenced by statements such as Ze’evi’s and would take “extreme actions.”
Environment Minister Yossi Sarid also denounced Ze’evi’s remarks, saying, “These kinds of threats are exactly the sign of a totalitarian regime.”
Ze’evi was not the only opposition member to be critical of police behavior at demonstrations.
Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau accused police officers of not wearing identity tags so they could beat protesters without being identified.
He added that the purpose of the police is to protect the right of the demonstrators to express their views.
Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party asked the Knesset’s Legislative Committee to address the legality of the methods used by police to disperse a Zo Artzeinu demonstration last week.
Levy said he had pictures and testimony showing that a number of police officers had either covered their name tags with tape or had identified themselves with false names.
Similar charges surfaced after Israeli police arrested seven Jewish settlers Wednesday as part of a clampdown on anti-government protesters allegedly causing disorder and harassing local Arab residents.
Police officials converged on the West Bank settlement of Yizhar, located near Nablus, early Wednesday morning to arrest four residents accused of setting fire to nearby Arab school and of firing shots into a neighboring Arab village about a month ago.
The police also arrested three other settlers suspected of trying to prevent the initial arrests.
All but two of the settlers were later released from detention.
The residents of Yizhar called the arrests politically motivated.
They also charged that the police had entered houses without warrants, threatened people with their weapons and hit residents.
Yizhar resident Rivka Bernstein told Israel Radio that some police were “without name tags or even uniforms,” adding that they were the ones who beat up settlers.
“They refused to give their names. They punched without cause,” she added.
But the police denied the reports of brutality at Yizhar.
An official from the West Bank district police station told Army Radio that the settlers had tried to prevent the arrests by lying in front of police cars and throwing rocks.
Two police officers were lightly injured by stones, the official added.