Anti-Netanyahu protesters appear split on holding rally amid tightened lockdown

After initial announcement that mass demonstration outside PM’s residence in Jerusalem would not be held as normal, some organizers say it’ll go ahead in socially distanced format

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the PM's official residence in Jerusalem on September 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the PM's official residence in Jerusalem on September 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Anti-Netanyahu activists appeared to split Friday over whether to hold their weekly protest outside the premier’s official residence in Jerusalem, as tightened lockdown measures went into force amid a continued surge in new coronavirus cases.

While the protesters lack a centralized leadership, several of the groups announced earlier Friday they would not hold a protest this Saturday evening. Shortly after, however, eight different groups issued a joint statement declaring that they were organizing a mass convoy to the capital that would reach the Prime Minister’s Residence, “where we will demonstrate in line with the Health Ministry’s guidelines and while maintaining social distance between one another.

“All the citizens of Israel know that the real and only reason Netanyahu is pushing so hard for a lockdown, which will limit prayers on Yom Kippur and wreak havoc on the self-employed and businesses across the country, is because of the demonstrations in Balfour, thereby revealing his failure and the government’s failure to manage the crisis,” the protest organizers said in the statement.

Additional protests are also expected to be held across the country, including in the form of a convoy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea.

Other anti-Netanyahu activists, who have been protesting against the premier over his indictment on corruption charges and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, also organized protest conveys. The “Black Flag” group organized a convoy of vehicles that drove from the Galilee in the north to the southern city of Beersheba.

Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu use chairs to stake out social distancing as they rally outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Most of the new lockdown measures went into effect at 2 p.m. on Friday, but controversial plans to limit demonstrations and prayers were not included as they fall outside the cabinet’s authority and had not yet received Knesset approval.

The proposed restrictions on protests include only allowing them to be held in socially distanced capsules of 20 people each, up to a maximum of 2,000 people. In addition, traveling more than a kilometer to reach a protest would be prohibited.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he was proposing emergency regulations to bypass the Knesset and to limit public gatherings, including the protest set to take place near Netanyahu’s residence on Saturday evening, until lawmakers could pass the legislation next week.

“I see public health, first and foremost,” Edelstein said. “I will not allow a risk to human life at any gatherings — not at demonstrations or at synagogues.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit have voiced their opposition to the move, with the Blue and White chief saying his party would not support it.

Shortly after 2 p.m., the Health Ministry publicized a legal opinion from director-general Chezy Levy, which maintained that the government must “do everything possible to prevent uncapped gatherings.” Edelstein appeared to be relying on Levy’s letter as justification for his push to impose the emergency protocols.

During a press conference Thursday, Netanyahu said it was “absurd” to say that he was pushing for a nationwide lockdown to stop ongoing protests against him over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the pandemic, before railing at length against the demonstrations.

He rejected the notion that he had sought the full lockdown to halt politically damaging protests, arguing that “these anarchist and ludicrous protests” actually help him politically, but “the public is sick of them.”

He said the demonstrations were “incubators” for both the virus and for anarchy, and said they’d been held in Israel on “a scale seen nowhere else in the world.”

There has been no data to show protests have been the cause of infection spread. The virus is thought to mostly spread in indoor spaces rather than in the open air, and most protesters wear masks.

Illustrative: A convoy of cars belonging to the ‘black flags’ protest movement arrives at Kibbutz Givat Haim to protest near the home of Israeli Resilience MK Ram Shefa, March 28, 2020 (video screenshot)

The Health Ministry said Friday afternoon that a record-high 8,178 new virus cases were diagnosed a day earlier. The record number of diagnoses came after two consecutive days where the number of new infections neared 7,000.

The ministry said 11 more people died since midnight Thursday, bringing the national toll to 1,412.

The total number of cases in Israel since the start of the pandemic stood at 217,899.

Of the 62,913 active cases, 708 were in serious condition, 178 of them on ventilators, the ministry said. Another 253 were in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.

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