Thousands of Israelis around the country demonstrated against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in small groups and within a one-kilometer range of their homes on Tuesday evening, in accordance with lockdown rules.
Several hundred people gathered at Habima Square in Tel Aviv. A Times of Israel reporter at the scene estimated some 700 people were gathered in the square, with many more streaming in. Social distancing among protesters was inconsistent.
Police were mostly staying away, avoiding confrontations seen at the square during Saturday protests. Officials had warned earlier that any mass gathering in the city would constitute a breach of health regulations.
“Unfortunately, we have encountered calls by some organizers to turn the protest spots into ‘one huge march in the streets of Tel Aviv,'” police said, adding that this would represent a violation of the law.
Some small scale scuffles were reported as police hemmed in protesters who attempted to march down Rothschild Boulevard, though calm was being maintained for the most part, if not social distancing.
In a change from the typical police announcement that the gathering is illegal, an officer announced through a megaphone: “We’re not against you, but you are all putting your health in danger.”
The rallies at hundreds of sites came three days after the last protests across the country, when tens of thousands participated in small, socially distanced rallies throughout Israel. This in the wake of the passage of highly contentious legislation last week that banned mass demonstrations as part of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
In response, localized rallies have mushroomed along with mobile phone apps giving users locations of demonstrations near their homes.
On Saturday, orderly conduct at rallies at times gave way to more chaotic scenes of scuffles between protesters and police. Police said 38 people were arrested in Tel Aviv alone for “violating public order and attacking police officers.” All but one were released the following day.
There were reports of protesters being assaulted by opposing activists, with several requiring hospitalization and one person suffering a broken arm.
Facing accusations of heavy-handed policing against protesters, Acting Police Chief Motti Cohen on Sunday defended the force’s actions and said police would continue to enforce the law.
His remarks drew condemnation from protest movement leaders, who accused the police of surrendering to the political leadership they believe seeks to stamp out the protests.
Demonstrators, who are demanding Netanyahu resign over the corruption charges against him, alleged that police used excessive force, and footage showed protesters being shoved or punched on Saturday.
“We will continue to enforce the law and regulations impartially and maintain public peace, security and health,” Cohen said at a police situation assessment meeting.
He said he supports the force’s commanders and officers who are facing a “complicated challenge and many tasks in the face of ongoing lack of appreciation.”
Describing the county as being in an “emergency situation” due to the coronavirus outbreak, Cohen called on the populace to abide by instructions and listen to officers who are enforcing the law.
On Sunday the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court extended the remand of Pini Luzon, 35, who is suspected of ramming his car into protesters in Tel Aviv during a Thursday night rally. Luzon claims he became afraid when he was surrounded by demonstrators and accelerated away.
משטרת תל אביב מבצעת בשעה זו סריקות לאיתור הנהג שדרס את המפגינות. הוא ייעצר ברגע שיימצא. למי שלא בטוח שמדובר בניסיון דריסה, ראיתי בעיניי כיצד הוא מתעצבן שנאלץ להמתין שהצעידה תעבור, לוחץ על דוושת הגז ודוהר לכיוון המפגינים שבדרכו, לא מאט גם כשפוגע, ולאחר מכן טס ברמזור אדום ונמלט pic.twitter.com/XvLHFpbfzU
— עמרי מניב omri maniv (@omrimaniv) October 1, 2020
The Black Flag movement has estimated that over 100,000 people protested throughout the country on Saturday. The figure, if accurate, would make the demonstrations collectively the largest yet held since protests gathered steam over the summer, fueled by anger at Netanyahu — who has refused to step down despite being on trial for alleged graft — and at his government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
New measures passed last week bar Israelis from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes to protest and limit demonstrations to socially distanced groups of 20, although they apparently also allow for multiple groups of 20 in “capsules” in areas with sufficient space for social-distancing between the capsules.
The approval of the restrictions was seen as a blow to the weekly demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. However, Saturday’s mass turnout throughout the country indicated it may have only served to further galvanize opposition to Netanyahu.
AFP contributed to this report.