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At Jerusalem protest, water cannons everywhere, but not a place to go

Jerusalem police shot torrents of water at protesters following an anti-government demonstration early Friday, hitting activists who were trying to obey orders and disperse and blocking those trying to leave from being able to exit, in what one witness described as an “absurdity.”

The use of water cannons has become almost de rigueur for police after almost two weeks of angry protests calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation, with thousands packing Paris Square outside his official residence on Balfour Street on several occasions.

Jerusalem police have fired water to clear protesters at Balfour refusing orders to disperse at least three times since last week.

However, some said the police’s use of the cannons just after midnight early Friday morning marked a ratcheting up of the police tactic, as water trucks appeared to chase off protesters no matter which way they turned to leave.

The night also saw 55 people arrested or detained, more than in previous protests that have rocked the capital on a nearly nightly basis since earlier this month.

The Thursday night protest, which drew an estimated 4,000 people, started off the same as others, with demonstrators blowing noisemakers and chanting against Netanyahu, who is on trial in three criminal cases. Early in the night, water cannons were stationed behind police barricades on Keren Hayesod Street, a main thoroughfare that runs through the square, in preparation for their seemingly inevitable use.

By midnight many of the demonstrators had already left, though several hundred remained in the square, which is essentially a large intersection with a fountain on one side. After the protesters ignored calls by police to disperse, police declared the demonstration illegal.

When protesters still refused to leave the square, the water cannons spun into action. Around 12:30 a.m., as the remaining demonstrators swarmed around two water cannon trucks positioned around Paris Square, the order to disperse finally arrived. Police fired water cannons in an attempt to clear the square, at which point many of the demonstrators began to disperse, or at least attempt to.

Dozens of officers formed a chain and began ordering protesters to leave by way of Agron Street, which runs from the square toward the Mamilla mall. Protesters slowly filed through a police barricade and left the scene.

But as the demonstrators walked down Agron Street, some chanting slogans and singing, the water cannons began firing again — this time at the protesters’ backs.

“We left the protest quietly, without violence…they told us we couldn’t disperse on the sidewalk, nor in the park. We headed down the street, but apparently not fast enough for them. They started spraying us from behind,” Dekel, a demonstrator, told The Times of Israel. (Demonstrators declined to provide their last names for publication out of fear of police reprisal.)

In an attempt to escape the water, some demonstrators entered Independence Park, where others had set up a protest tent and were intending to spend the night. Mounted police stationed in the area charged them in an attempt to make them stay in the road.

Protesters who remained on the road, however, were drenched by the water cannons roaming up and down Agron Street, sending blasts of water along the sidewalks and into the park.

“The police wouldn’t let us stay and they wouldn’t let us go, either,” said Aharon, a 32-year-old Tel Aviv resident.

Water cannons were deployed not only at the top of Paris Square, where they blasted water to push protesters away from the protest site, but from the bottom of the street as well, leaving protesters effectively trapped from both sides.

“Most of the time not only were they spraying us on the way home as we were told to do, but we physically had nowhere to go. We were blocked off,” said Emanuel, a 21-year-old. He said he was hit around six times by water cannons during the police action.

“We do have to be thankful that we are not Hasidim, we are not Palestinians,” he added, referring to heavy-handed dispersal methods sometimes used against Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews at protests.

Some protesters crouched behind trees and cars for shelter, while others were forced to brave being pummeled by water as they attempted to leave.

Dozens of officers eventually marched into Gan HaAtzmaut, dragging out individual protesters and arresting them before allowing the last clusters of huddling demonstrators to leave the scene.

One woman said she was simply trying to get home, but was instead trapped by the police’s water wars.

“I live here, and they won’t let me to get to my home,” said Miel, 23.

She was told to take a roundabout way home and was hit by the water cannons anyway as she tried to do so. She has been to previous protests, but told The Times of Israel that she did not remember such an extensive use of water cannons at those.

“It’s an absurdity to look at,” said demonstrator Ziv Kessel.

Kessel said he was shocked by what he called the “level of cruelty” demonstrated by police. “I’ve seen maybe 3 or 4 people who [were] just pushed down to the ground where there was a stair and they were crushed by the mob.”

An Israel Police spokesperson could not be reached for comment about the dispersal strategy.

In a statement, a police spokesperson said “Despite the legitimate protest by many participants, who dispersed on their own, protesters were left who refused to disperse after police declared several times that the demonstration had ended and asked protesters to leave on their own, and so police were forced to act to disperse them and restore public order.”

This is not the first time Israeli police’s use of water cannons as a riot dispersal method has drawn attention. In 2017, a woman attempting to walk by protesters was hit by a cannon, send her flying down the street, in an incident caught on video that made headlines around the globe.

A picture by AP photographer Oded Balilty of a protester holding an Israeli flag up as he is hit by water earlier this week has become an iconic representation of the current demonstrations.

On Thursday night and Friday morning, the water cannons were unable to dampen protesters’ resolve to return to Paris Square.

“We’ll return again and again,” said Dekel. “We say to the police: we won’t be just 5,000 on Saturday, we’ll be 10,000.”

Header: A protester holds flowers and sits on a traffic signal during a demonstration against the Israeli prime minister in Jerusalem, on July 23, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Source: Aaron Boxerman and Anat Peled – TOI