For the third week in a row, thousands of protesters gathered Saturday across the country to demonstrate against the government’s intention to bypass anti-trust regulations in order to approve a controversial gas deal with US energy giant Noble Energy.
According to Channel 10, some 5,000 people took part in the protest in Tel Aviv alone, at Habima Square, and several main roads in the city were blocked off for traffic by police.
Hundreds more protesters attended similar demonstrations in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and Ashdod.
Under the terms of the proposed deal, the government plans to give an international consortium led by the Delek and Noble Energy companies the rights to the largest gas reserve yet found in Israeli territorial waters, the Leviathan field, in exchange for scaling back their involvement in the currently operational Tamar field and the smaller Tanin and Karish fields.
Currently, the Tamar gas field’s single pipeline to the Israeli coast is the country’s only source of natural gas, and development of the remaining fields has stalled over regulatory troubles.
The Leviathan find, thought to contain 18.9 trillion cubic feet (535 billion cubic meters) of gas, is considered a gold mine for the state, turning it into a potential major natural gas supplier and providing hundreds of billions of shekels for state coffers, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Critics of the deal, including former anti-trust commissioner David Gilo, have expressed concern that it creates a de facto monopoly that would lead to high gas prices for Israelis. They have accused the government of capitulating to gas companies’ demands.
Gilo had called for opening Israel’s natural gas market to increased competition. He tendered his resignation in May over the dispute.
Earlier this month, former economy minister Aryeh Deri, who had long refused to sign off on bypassing anti-trust regulations, resigned from his post. This paved the way for the government to green-light the multibillion dollar deal. Netanyahu then took over the post and vowed to okay the agreement.
Deri had balked at giving the okay, but had also said he did not want to stand in the way of the energy deal.
Itamar Sharon and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.