Around 300 supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated outside his official residence in Jerusalem on Thursday night, the same location where regular demonstrations against him have been attracting thousands. Organizers had anticipated a higher turnout, having sought and received permission for 3,000 to rally.
Supporters of the prime minister rallied with signs saying “Netanyahu forever” and “With you all the way.”
At one point, rally organizers screened a video of alleged incitement by anti-Netanyahu protesters, including screenshots of alleged death threats and posters from recent demonstrations to dramatic music. The crowd responded with strong boos and calls of “shame.” According to Haaretz, some participants started shouting “Death to the leftists.”
At the organizers’ request, police had approved a rally of up to 3,000 people. Earlier in the day they forcibly cleared a sit-in of anti-Netanyahu protesters outside the residence in preparation for the right-wing event.
Likud MK May Golan addressed the demonstrators, saying that it is “a critical time for the people of Israel.”
“They are trying to overthrow a prime minister, which is against justice, against the law and against democracy. We can’t let that happen,” May said.
“I think he is the messenger of God,” said Eliya, a 62-year-old Netanyahu supporter who called the protests against the premier a depraved attempt at a “coup.”
“The whole world appreciates Benjamin Netanyahu. Here in Israel the left is uninterested in recognizing him,” said Arye Lev, a 58-year-old Jerusalem resident who carried a sign reading “MandelGate” — referring to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who indicted the prime minister for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust earlier this year.
Netanyahu is on trial for a series of criminal cases for allegedly receiving lavish gifts from billionaire friends and trading regulatory favors with media moguls for more favorable coverage of himself and his family. The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, accusing the media and law enforcement of a witch hunt to oust him from office.
“If we don’t have this prime minister, this country will collapse,” said Yitzhak Zarka, 49, from the settlement of Ma’ale Efrayim, who said he has been active in the Likud party for 40 years. Like many others there, Zarka commended the prime minister’s long experience and strategic thinking which he hoped would help the country weather the coronavirus crisis.
Eli Kripor, 67 from Carmiel. carried a sign that read “Trump Will Make Israel Great Again.” Six years ago, Kripor returned to Israel after spending 35 years in New York. He saw strong similarities between the way the left in Israel and the left in the United States treat the heads of their respective governments.
“I am here to support Bibi because I see [that] what the left [does] to Bibi is exactly what the mainstream media, and the left and the Democrats are doing to Trump,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “They are copying the extreme left Antifa and Black Lives Matter in the United States,” he added.
Police said they arrested four people from a counter demonstration on suspicion of disturbing public order after they refused to listen to police instructions to stop making noise after 9:30 p.m. in accordance with court orders.
According to the Ynet news site, one of those briefly detained at the counter-protest was with his 11-year-old daughter. Uzi Anter said his daughter boarded the bus and argued with officers until they agreed that he wouldn’t be taken into custody but instead report to the police station for questioning on Sunday.
“They put me on the bus and my girl fought for me. They allowed her to get on after she did not give up,” Anter said.
Among those removed by police earlier in the day were former Shin Bet chief Carmi Gillon and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel.
“We tried to speak to police, we listened to each other, but there was no progress,” Gillon told The Times of Israel. “I’m willing to be arrested to protect my right to protest, which is a sacred right in my eyes.”
Haskel said that police had previously told them they would not have to leave so that the pro-Netanyahu protest could take place. Haskel said it was a double standard for the anti-Netanyahu protesters to be removed when a similar pro-Netanyahu protest encampment there had never been asked to do so, during demonstrations against the prime minister.
“This is a clash of their right to protest versus our right to protest. It’s their right, just like ours,” Haskel said. “We’ve been protesting here for more than two months. Have we ever asked the [pro-Netanyahu protesters] to remove their tent here?”
Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzanu was forcibly removed from the area by police officers despite him and onlookers telling them that he was a legislator with immunity. Police claimed in a statement that Lahav-Hertzanu had refused to identify himself and was released after a senior officer identified him as a Knesset member.
“Police took me with both hands even though I identified myself as a Knesset member. I asked for the opportunity to identify myself as a Knesset member and I was forcibly dragged,” Lahav-Hertzanu told Channel 12 news.
“But I’m not the story here, the protesters are, and their right to demonstrate and what they believe in. We need to find out who gave the order from above to evacuate this encampment in Balfour,” the MK said, referring to the street on which the Prime Minister’s Residence is located.
The removal of Lahav-Hertzanu was condemned by a number of lawmakers, including by Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, a Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s.
Levin wrote on Facebook that he spoke with Lahav-Hertzanu to express his “shock.”
“This is an incident that undermines the basic ability of a Knesset member to fulfil his role, something that must not be accepted in a democratic system,” Levin said.
In a statement, Jerusalem police said they had not evacuated the anti-Netanyahu protest tent, but instead moved it “several meters away so that the other protest could take place.”
According to Avi Ofer, a longtime activist involved in the anti-Netanyahu protests, after anti-government demonstrators returned to the encampment site later in the night, they discovered that it had been vandalized by the police.
“The police are acting in a political manner,” he said. “It is hard to believe. What we saw today has crossed all lines.”
Protesters have been holding regular rallies for several months outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, as well as in Tel Aviv and other areas, calling on the premier to resign due to his indictment on corruption charges.
They have been joined by people protesting the government’s economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic, with crowds in the thousands and rising.
Hundreds of anti-Netanyahu protesters gathered in the northern city of Haifa on Thursday evening. Liat, a resident of Haifa, told Haaretz that she had come to the protest for the sake of her two daughters serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
Netanyahu “has failed. Both with himself and with the situation,” Liat said.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.