Eighteen people were arrested on Saturday during clashes with police after hundreds of protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marched down a major highway in the center of the country.
Police said they set up a number of roadblocks along the route in an attempt to stop the march, which they said was held without permission, and to allow traffic to flow along Highway 1 which links Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Police said the protesters were arrested for disturbing public order and “not obeying instructions.”
Footage appeared to show demonstrators taking up one lane of the road.
Demonstrators rejected the police’s account, saying they had received permission to march. They claimed it was police that had caused road blockages while clashing with the activists.
The demonstrators were carrying large inflatable submarines, a reference to a graft scandal that has ensnared confidants of Netanyahu, though not the premier himself.
According to Hebrew media reports, four MKs marched with the demonstrators — Moshe Ya’alon and Ofer Shelah from Yesh Atid-Telem, Eli Avidar from Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz’s Yair Golan.
The “Crime Minister” organization, one of the groups leading the protests, responded to the arrests, saying they were politically motivated.
Jerusalem District police chief Doron Yadid “has made the Jerusalem police Netanyahu’s last line of defense. A violent political police service working for an accused criminal who is doing everything to sabotage the protests,” the organization said. “We support the law-abiding demonstrators who demand the obvious: an investigation into Netanyahu and the serious submarine affair.”
The scuffles came hours ahead of the main weekly protests set to take place at a number of locations around the country with the focus point being Jerusalem, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.
The protesters oppose Netanyahu serving as prime minister while under indictment on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving billionaire associates and media moguls. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.
Many also criticize the prime minister for what they say is his bungling of the coronavirus outbreak and its economic fallout.
The protests have gone on for months and kept a spotlight on Netanyahu at a time when the long-serving leader’s popularity has declined because of his handling of the virus outbreak.
The country is emerging in gradual stages from a monthlong lockdown that the government imposed in September to tamp down infections. Restrictions still in place have kept event halls, culture venues, hotels and restaurants closed while the economy continues to take a hit.