Hundreds of protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were taking place throughout Israel Thursday evening in adherence to new legislation aimed at limiting demonstrations during the coronavirus lockdown.
In a statement announcing the protests earlier in the day, the Black Flag movement said that protesters would stand within a kilometer of their homes, wear masks and maintain social distancing protocols. According to the Black Flag, over 1,000 demonstrations were held across the country.
A map publicized by the organization, which announced its withdrawal from the large weekly protests at the start of the lockdown, appeared to show hundreds of locations around the country for the so-called “neighborhood protests” at 6 p.m. on Thursday, including gatherings outside the homes of ministers and coalition members.
Additionally, protesters were gathering on overpasses and at intersections.
The organization said the local events would be repeated on Saturday evening.
Meanwhile, the Crime Minister organization announced the start of a march to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem from the northern town of Kiryat Tivon, although it was unclear how this would continue with the new regulations in place.
Yishai Hadas, a leading activist in the anti-Netanyahu Crime Minister protest group, told The Times of Israel that demonstrators could return to Balfour Street in Jerusalem, outside Netanyahu’s residence, whatever the regulations, for another round of protest on Saturday night.
Hadas accused the government of a “political lockdown,” saying that the new coronavirus restrictions on demonstrations were motivated by a desire to quash the anti-Netanyahu protest movement, not public health.
“Why are they screwing around? Let them just come out and say it: We don’t want protests at Balfour. And by the way, does this look like a lockdown to you? Most of the economy is open, there’s no enforcement anywhere you go,” Hadas said. “They’re trolling the public. It’s absurd.״
Nir Smali, a pensioner from central Israel, gathered with other protesters on Highway 4 to demonstrate against Netanyahu. Between 80 to 100 demonstrators from Sde Warburg, Smali’s town, and neighboring Batzra assembled to raise signs and chant slogans calling for Netanyahu to resign.
“We’re heading toward a disastrous situation, both economically and in terms of public health. But the one thing that makes me optimistic is that it’s getting so bad he’ll have no choice but to go,” Smali said. “I’m no longer young, I’m retired. But I’m very worried about my children, my grandchildren, and my country.”
The protests came after the government approved new emergency regulations banning Israelis from traveling over one kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes to attend a protest, and limiting outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 20 people per group.
The law effectively stifles the large weekly demonstrations at Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem and is slated to enter into effect on Thursday.
The new regulations were approved as part of legislation passed by the Knesset early Wednesday morning. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit later informed the government that the legislation was not valid until appropriate changes were made to relevant regulations.
The emergency measures restricting protests received final approval by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Thursday evening.
Hours after the law was passed, it was challenged in the High Court of Justice by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a watchdog group, in the hope that the court would freeze the legislation pending judicial oversight, and eventually strike it down. The court ruled that the government had until October 7 to respond to the petition, but declined to issue a stay on the law.
In the petition, the organization argued that the new law hamstrings “one of the fundamental rights in a democracy” and insisted that “health concerns do not form the basis of the amendment to the law.”
In the final version of the law, under a government-declared “special coronavirus emergency,” the cabinet can restrict protests, prayers, and religious ceremonies for a week, with the possibility of extending restrictions another two weeks, should the emergency continue.
Officials have said that under the rules, protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence would be kept to 2,000 total, with the Paris Square protest zone able to accommodate 100 capsules, or pods, of 20 people. Only those who live within a kilometer would be able to attend.
The number is far below the 10,000 to 20,000 people who have shown up weekly outside the Prime Minister’s Residence to demonstrate against Netanyahu, who is on trial in three graft cases.
Backers of the law argue that the protests are a major health hazard and cracking down on them is necessary given Israel’s skyrocketing infection rate.
But the measure has faced vociferous opposition from critics, who say it undermines Israel’s democratic character and serves Netanyahu’s political interests, using the virus as a cover.
Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber on Thursday rejected a plea by activists that Netanyahu not be involved in the legislation, ruling that the same claim could be made against the entire government, which inevitably must be allowed to act.
Zilber was responding to the so-called “Fortress Democracy” activism group, which filed a petition with the High Court of Justice asking that Netanyahu be prevented from dealing with the protest restrictions.
In a letter to attorney Daphna Holtz-Lechner, who filed the court petition, Zilber conceded that all members of the cabinet, including the prime minister, could stand to benefit from limitations on demonstrations, but said that factor was not enough to prevent them from ruling on the issue.
“Indeed, there is some difficulty in the engagement of elected officials on the issue, but given the fact that the cabinet is in any case composed of elected officials, there is no escaping the conclusion that under certain circumstances its involvement in the issue is inevitable,” Zilber wrote.
“For this reason, we do not believe that it is possible to determine that there is an inherent conflict of interest that restricts the involvement of the ministerial echelon in such a decision, or in a legislative procedure as alleged in your application,” she added.
In response to Zilber, Holtz-Lechner said in a statement that the attorney general was disregarding a clear conflict of interest for Netanyahu.
On Tuesday Channel 12 aired recordings of Mandelblit, the attorney general, saying that Netanyahu may need to be suspended as premier if he seeks to use his prime ministerial authority to try to influence the criminal proceedings he is facing in court.
Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.