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Watching DC strife, armed Knesset Guards say they’ve long readied for unrest

Officials in Israel’s Knesset watched in horror Wednesday night, as scenes of chaos, bloodshed and insurrection unfolded at the US Capitol, as a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump ransacked the seat of power of the strongest nation in the world.

Armed with bats, batons, hockey sticks, tear gas and other low-level means of violence, the swarm overwhelmed the Capitol’s police force and rampaged through the building, wrecking congressional offices and running riot through the halls of power, as America’s duly elected lawmakers huddled for cover. Some of the rioters carried zip-ties, sparking suspicions that they may have planned to take hostages.

The event, in which five people died, has indelibly scarred America, but it has also sparked questions in Israel, of not only whether such a thing could happen here, but how ready are we if it did?

Israel is a fairly young democracy and widely considered to be much less stable than the US, with political friction and social rifts able to upend governments. The inside of the Knesset can be much more raucous than Congress, with shouting matches and even the rare physical altercation in place of decorous US lawmaking.

Outside as well, angry political demonstrations are not unheard of, and terror is a constant concern, though one would need to go back nearly 70 years to find a scene that came close to what was witnessed in Washington last week.

The Knesset is guarded by a special force known as the Knesset Guard, which has jurisdiction over the actual legislature and the grounds surrounding the building, as well as personal security for members of the Knesset.

The Guard does not answer to the police or the military, but is considered its own branch of the security forces, under the direct authority of the Knesset speaker, currently, Likud politician Yariv Levin.

The force is made up of hundreds of armed guards, formally called ushers, headed by Sergeant-at-Arms Shmuel Zubari.

(The ushers who work inside the Knesset and occasionally remove disruptive or recalcitrant MKs are part of a separate unit.)

According to a Knesset source, the Guards cooperate closely with the police and Shin Bet security agency. Guards receive weapons training and some come from special forces units.

Even before the riots in Washington, the Guard was training for how to deal with riots and the possible kidnapping of lawmakers either from inside the building or somewhere in the grounds, the source said.

The source spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing the possibility of the conversation around guarding the Knesset becoming politicized.

In July, the Guard came under fire when protesters demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marched on the area. While protesters did not try to break in, some did climb on a sculpture of a menorah and a Star of David in a traffic circle just outside the Knesset that is within the Guards’ grounds, including a young female social worker who took off her shirt while atop it.

Some accused the woman of desecrating a national symbol and the incident underscored the thin line the Guards must walk between granting free speech and protecting state symbols.

The gardens surrounding the Knesset serve as a regular spot for large demonstrations. On a regular week, the sidewalks between the Finance Ministry and Wohl Rose Park, which is adjacent to the Knesset, hold hundreds and sometimes thousands of people carrying signs, flags and placards. Protests range from calls for reforms or public attention for issues like workers’ rights, stipends for the disabled, or unequal budget allocations to Arab and Druze towns.

A (short) history of violence

The Knesset building, a squat square structure built in the international style, sits on a hill overlooking Jerusalem surrounded by acres of parkland, making it one of the few government buildings in Israel not on the street or built into the fabric of the neighborhood, such as the Prime Minister’s and President’s Residences.

But before 1966, the Israeli parliament sat at Frumin House, in a nondescript building on a busy corner of downtown Jerusalem, and it was there that it saw two of the most violent episodes of its history.

On January 7, 1952, thousands of people gathered outside the building to protest the government’s decision to enter a reparations agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany, seven years after the end of the Holocaust.

As lawmakers debated the agreement, a rally by opponents, led by future prime minister Menachem Begin, grew increasingly agitated. Police set up roadblocks and wire fencing, but protesters began throwing stones at the building, including one which shattered a window and hit MK Hannan Rubin in his head.

It took five hours before the police were able to disperse the angry crowd and hundreds were arrested.

In 1958, Frumin House was again the scene of an attack on lawmakers, when Moshe Duek, a mentally disturbed man, threw a grenade into the building.

Justice Minister Moshe Shapira was severely wounded in the attack. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir also suffered minor injuries.

Following the event, lawmakers voted to create the Knesset Guard, first as a division of the police and later as an independent command with its own designated mandate enshrined by law.

Most protests recently have been centered around Jerusalem’s Paris Square, outside Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street in central Jerusalem, and surrounding streets. While protests have seen some clashes between police and demonstrators, they have remained largely peaceful.

However, since the Capitol riot, some Netanyahu allies have been accused of trying to compare the protesters to pro-Trump backers in Washington who stormed the capital, even though there has never been a concerted effort to breach the police barricade in front of the residence. (Protesters have managed to breach barricades in other directions to hold unauthorized marches through the city.)

On January 2, some protesters who arrived earlier than expected for a regular Saturday protest managed to bypass one police barricade and hold a rally near the rear of the residence, leading the Netanyahus’ security detail to relocate them to a safer position inside the house.

The incident was kept under wraps, but after the Washington riots, it was leaked to all three of Israel’s main news channels on Friday night, in what some saw as a coordinated effort to draw a parallel between the two sets of protesters.

The Shin Bet unit charged with protecting the Prime Minister maintained that there was “no drama,” as claimed in the reports.

However, the police, led by Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist, released a statement saying the officers on the ground were concerned the event could have “spiraled out of control.”

Source: TOI