Why did Tel Aviv’s popular police chief quit?

Ami Eshed has blamed pressure from far-right minister Ben-Gvir to use force against protestors for his decision.

Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the freeway during protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday,
Protesters took to the streets in support of Tel Aviv's police chief, who announced his resignation on Wednesday [Oded Balilty/AP]

Hundreds of protesters flocked to the streets of Tel Aviv on Wednesday night to protest against the forced resignation of the Israeli city’s police chief.

Carrying Israeli flags and chanting “democracy!”, the crowds blocked a major highway and lit fires, angered over the ouster of Tel Aviv District Commander Ami Eshed. Police, some mounted on horseback, pushed back the crowds with water cannons. So why was Eshed forced to quit on Wednesday, and why did so many people come out in his support?

No to ‘unreasonable force’

Eshed’s critics have accused him of being too soft on protestors who for months have been demonstrating against proposed changes to Israel’s judicial system.

On Wednesday, he said that members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s far-right cabinet had wanted him to use excessive force against the protesters.

“I could have easily met these expectations by using unreasonable force that would have filled up the emergency room of Ichilov [a hospital in Tel Aviv] at the end of every protest,” Eshed said in a televised statement in which he announced his resignation.

Eshed’s refusal to comply with orders demanding a tougher crackdown has brought him support from protesters. The weekly protests have seen hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets of the country’s cities.

Netanyahu’s government says the proposed judicial changes are vital to rebalancing powers between legislators and the judiciary, but critics say they will grant the government unrestrained power and upend the country’s system of checks and balances.

Why was Eshed forced to quit?

Continued pressure from the Israeli cabinet to use excessive force against protestors forced the commander to resign, who cited political intervention as the reason for his decision.

Eshed said he couldn’t live up to the expectations of “the ministerial echelon”, who he accused of breaking rules and interfering in professional decision-making.

“For the first time in three decades of service, I encountered an absurd reality in which ensuring calm and order was not what was required of me but precisely the opposite,” he said. “I am paying an intolerably heavy personal price for my choice to avert a civil war.”

Eshed did not name him in his resignation announcement, but the bulk of the pressure to wield an iron fist against the anti-government protests came from far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The hardline official, who holds past convictions for support for terrorism and incitement, has had rocky relations with Eshed ever since he was appointed to serve as the police force’s overseeing minister.

Ben-Gvir vs Eshed: What’s going on?

In March, Ben-Gvir demoted Eshed to the head of the police training department after blasting his handling of the judicial reform protests. The minister had at first wanted to dismiss Eshed entirely.

That demotion was subsequently frozen by Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said the transfer was politically motivated, the Times of Israel reported.

But the move deepened the rift between the two officials, with Ben-Gvir accusing Eshed of siding with protestors and succumbing to the demands of “the left”.

Upon Eshed’s announcement to resign, Ben-Gvir said in a televised statement that the former police chief had crossed a dangerous line.

“Politics has seeped into the most senior ranks in Israel and a uniformed officer has caved to senior politicians on the left,” he said.

Ben-Gvir followed up with a tweet mocking Eshed: “The words of Ami Eshed tonight prove that a political superintendent served in uniform in the Israel police. I wish him great success in his future as a candidate in the next elections in the left party.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies