Israeli court releases anti-Netanyahu activist after arrest

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JERUSALEM (AP) – A Jerusalem court early on Sunday ordered the release of a former Air Force general and leading activist opposed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule whose arrest prompted hundreds to protest outside the Israeli leader’s residence.

Retired Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel has been a leader of the protest movement against Netanyahu, demanding that the long-time leader step down while facing charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. Haskel and several others were detained on Friday in what police said was an “illegal” demonstration because the protesters blocked roads.

Haskel, a former top Israeli Air Force general, has become a symbol of the protest movement that opposes Netanyahu’s continued rule. Demonstrations have been held regularly around the country, with protesters waving signs reading “crime minister” and calling for Netanyahu to resign.

“No one will prevent us from protesting anywhere,” Haskel said upon his release, adding a barb toward Netanyahu about his own brief experience in jail. “We were in Hadarim prison for 15 hours. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t terrible.”

The arrests drew angry denunciations from prominent Israelis and sent hundreds out to protest outside Netanyahu’s residence on Saturday, with many slamming the police for making what they viewed as politically-motivated arrests.

Police said they offered to release Haskel and others if they agreed to refrain from returning to the scene of the protests. Haskel and two others refused the conditions and remained in detention.

Gabi Lasky, the lawyer representing Haskel, told Israeli Army Radio that the court eventually released him without conditions, saying protesting was the foundation of democracy.

The country’s acting police chief said the force would learn a lesson from the incident.

“The role of the police is to allow freedom of expression and demonstration to every person and to keep the public peace and security, this regardless of the protest’s subject, the identity of the protesters or their opinions,” acting commissioner Motti Cohen said.

Netanyahu is on trial for a series of scandals in which he allegedly received lavish gifts from billionaire friends and traded regulatory favors with media moguls for more palatable coverage of himself and his family. The trial is set to resume next month.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing, calling the charges a witch-hunt against him by a hostile media and a biased law enforcement system.

The scandals, and Netanyahu’s indictment, featured prominently in three Israeli election campaigns over the course of a year. The political stalemate finally ended last month when Netanyahu reached a power-sharing agreement with his chief challenger, retired military chief Benny Gantz.

But tensions were still evident at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting when Gantz, the defense minister and alternate prime minister, noted Haskel’s arrest and said the right to protest was a “sacred right.”

Netanyahu, seated alongside him, retorted that the right to protest was never in question and that Israel allowed it even amid the most restrictive of times during the recent coronavirus outbreak.

“The argument that are looking to limit it is absurd and has no place,” he said. “ At the same time, the laws and regulations of the state of Israel must be maintained. It is not the prerogative of one side to say they support the rule of law and then to trample it.”

Protesters against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave flags and banners outside his residence in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 24, 2020. Hundreds of protesters calling him the “crime minister” demonstrated outside his official residence, while hundreds of supporters, including leading members of his Likud party, rallied in support of him at the courthouse. Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases. The signs say “Netanyahu resign,” and “Justice shall you pursue.” (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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