At first glance, Amir Haskel is an unlikely leader of the protest movement against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: a retired general who has spent much of the past two decades researching the Holocaust.
But he leaped into the public eye last month when he was arrested by police at a protest and detained for over a day.
On Tuesday, the general was back.
Haskel stood among several thousand Israelis massed outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, calling for his resignation while facing corruption charges, in the latest expression of mass discontent with the prime minister.
The massive gathering came just a few days after Israeli police and Jerusalem municipal officials swept through the protest camp and confiscated the demonstrators’ tents, chairs, banners and other equipment.
Protesters claimed the police used excessive force, while city authorities contended the sit-in “was placed without a permit and harms public order.”
Many participants wore T-shirts and protective face masks bearing the words “crime minister.”
With a touch of the biblical, dozens wore T-shirts with a quote from Isaiah 1 that has become one of the protest’s slogans: “Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt…Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts.”
Netanyahu is under indictment in three separate cases involving accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu’s criminal trial began last month, and since then the “Black Flag” protesters calling for him to step down have set up a protest camp outside his residence in Jerusalem.
The accusations against Netanyahu include accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends, and orchestrating positive media coverage from media barons in exchange for favorable legislation. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, accusing law enforcement and the media of a witch hunt and “attempted coup” to depose him from office. As prime minister, he is not legally required to resign from office while facing criminal indictments.
In spite of Israel’s struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic and address its crippling economic impact, demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street have gathered steam.
On June 26, Haskel and others held a Friday afternoon rally outside Netanyahu’s Balfour Street residence. The demonstration had been cleared with the police. But shortly after the crowds started massing and spilling into the street, an officer arrested Haskel on the grounds of violating the conditions of the protest.
Haskel and seven others were detained and questioned by police, and conditioned their release on posting 5,000 shekels ($1440) in bail and assenting to a ban from entering Jerusalem for 15 days.
Haskel and two others refused. Because Shabbat was beginning and they couldn’t be brought before a judge, the protesters were put in jail. That Saturday evening a judge ordered their immediate release without condition.
Following his release from custody, Haskel assembled a press conference and said that “a line was crossed that must not be crossed.”
“The reason for my arrest was a desire to silence the protest against the person accused of a crime, Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said. “If my arrest, and the arrest of two of my friends, lit the flame, the price was worth it.”
Indeed, Haskel’s arrest sparked public outcry and has galvanized Netanyahu’s opponents, who have taken to the streets in even greater numbers. Over the unceasing din of horns and whistles and chants audible for blocks around on Tuesday, a woman who identified only as Sisi wore a shirt with the words “We’re all Amir Haskel.”
“Since they arrested him the protests have grown even more,” she said, noting she had traveled to Jerusalem from her hometown of Shlomi near the border with Lebanon. “Yesterday they came and brutally broke up everything here, so that’s why even more people came.”
Haskel is a straight-talking career soldier who served 32 years in the Israeli Air Force, first as a pilot, then as a squad commander, until ultimately rising to the rank of brigadier general. Since his retirement from the military in 2003, he has devoted his time to studying and researching the Holocaust and has published three books on the subject.
“The greatest insight that I have learned is that the inclination of most people is to stand on the sideline, and I grasped just how dangerous standing aside is,” Haskel said in a telephone interview.
Now the Balfour Street sit-in is his new command post. Since mid-June, he spends most days of the week entrenched there, wearing a black T-shirt and hat emblazoned with the anti-Netanyahu slogan “No way.”
Haskel said three main motivators propelled him to participate in protests against the Netanyahu government starting in October 2016: the fading prospects of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, which he called “foremost an Israeli necessity;” Netanyahu’s “brutal attacks on the left and the identification of the left as enemies of the state” and sowing of deep divisions in Israeli society; and the prime minister’s “ongoing undermining of the foundations of Israeli democracy.”
“A country whose society is laid waste and torn asunder has no future,” Haskel said.
“I don’t remember a period like this in the history of Israel: a time of an absence of trust in the leadership, a situation in which the Knesset effectively doesn’t function, a wasteful government and a lack of faith in politicians,” Haskel said.
Netanyahu’s refusal to step down in the face of criminal indictments is anathema to Haskel. “I don’t know an enlightened country among those that we aspire to emulate, in which a prime minister remains in office when facing a criminal trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust at the same time. This cannot be, this is not correct.”
Like many other participants in the growing protests, he hopes public pressure will bring about change. But unlike many other former generals — among them Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and opposition lawmakers Yair Golan and Moshe Yaalon — Haskel said he is “not suited” for Israeli politics and isn’t considering a run for public office.
“Israel prides itself on the fact that it has the most moral military in the world,” Haskel said. “I want the state of Israel to be proud of the fact that it has the most moral politicians, government and prime minister in the world. And if you ask me, I want a prime minister who is foremost trustworthy, who leads by example with his behavior, who looks citizens in the eye.”