Anger over a nearing nationwide lockdown set to go back into effect in the coming days colored protests outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem Saturday.
Protesters have been gathering at the capital’s Paris Square outside the residence every week for three months, and while criticism of the government’s coronavirus policy has been always been present, it has mostly been overshadowed by denunciations of alleged corruption and dirty politics. But on Saturday, the lockdown loomed large.
“Israel, Israel won’t shut down,” one woman yelled repeatedly into a megaphone, rallying the crowd to chant after her.
On Thursday, Netanyahu’s office announced plans to impose a new lockdown, which will go into effect sometime before Rosh Hashanah next week and is expected to last several weeks.
Israel’s high infection rate, after appearing to defeat the virus in early May, is seen by many as a symptom of the government’s failed, slapdash attempts at bringing the pandemic under control. Israel is among the only industrialized countries to require a second shutdown, after fully reopening the economy and allowing morbidity rates to skyrocket over the summer.
The new lockdown must still be approved by the full cabinet on Sunday, and several ministers have said they will oppose at least some parts of it.
Some business owners, who will be forced to shut down for the second time in a year, have also protested and some threatened to disobey guidelines and open anyway, citing the high financial toll of the measure.
“I have friends who have small businesses that have been hurt. People lost their employment,” said lawyer Wajdi Haj Yehia, one of a group of Arab protesters from Tayibe who have attended the protests on a regular basis.
“Today people are in a financial hardship that is so difficult that no one has asked what the repercussions of it will be financially, socially and mentally. Now they are talking in the government about another lockdown, which is an unnecessary lockdown in my opinion. They [the government] need to sober up and make a proper plan in order to get out of this crisis.”
Elsewhere in Paris Square, performance artist Ariel Barnoz chained himself to a traffic pole — while only wearing underwear — in a statement against the planned measures.
Firefighters were eventually called in to unshackle him from the pole before police detained him.
Several protesters brought up the fact that during the last round of lockdowns, over the spring, several senior government officials, including the prime minister and President Reuven Rivlin, were caught breaking the rules.
“I’d follow the restrictions if I saw the government following it, or if I saw the Prime Minster following it,” said Noga, a demonstrator from Tel Aviv.
Saturday’s demonstration came a day after Israel announced an agreement to establish diplomatic relations with Bahrain, the second Arab country to normalize ties with Israel in under a month and just the fourth overall.
But the surprise announcement had little effect on the thousands of demonstrators, who were also incensed by the fact that Netanyahu would be jetting off to Washington for a signing ceremony with the United Arab Emirates as the rest of the country was preparing to be locked down.
56-year-old Noam Bloch from Bat Shlomo held up a plane shaped balloon with pictures of Netanyahu and his wife in protest.
He claimed the cost of flying Netanyahu and his family around was “incomprehensible” given “how many people who are unemployed today could live off that.”
Protesters said Saturday that they were planning to converge on Ben-Gurion airport on Sunday to stop Netanyahu’s plane.
This coming Saturday will be the first in months without a protest, not because of the lockdown, during which protests will be protected, but because of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Protesters insisted they would be back after the holiday.
“No lockdown can stop the protests…Every citizen should understand that they have the right to protest and they should not be afraid of anything,” said Sadi Ben-Shitrit, one of the leaders of Crime Minister protest group.
“This is an illegitimate government…They are killing our country. We do not interest them…We need to kick them out.”
One woman named Maya spent much of the protest dressed as Superwoman, while decrying the government from atop a traffic light.
““We are staying here. We are not moving anywhere, even if there is a lockdown,” said the 22-year-old Jerusalemite. “It is a lockdown that we are unwilling to accept, not now.”