Thousands gather for weekly anti-Netanyahu rally, amid new restrictions

Organizer calls for participants to follow health guidelines at protest in Jerusalem; Jaffa cafe owner defies closure of eateries: ‘We won’t allow anyone to take our basic rights’

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)

Participants gathered late Sunday for a weekly protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, in the first such demonstration since the start of a renewed nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic and after fresh restrictions were announced on those taking part.

By late evening, thousands were attending the protests.

While protests were exempt from the new restrictions on movement and gatherings, which came into force Friday before Rosh Hashanah with the start of the three-week closure, police announced new social distancing regulations for demonstrations and one anti-Netanyahu group said it would suspend the rallies during the lockdown.

“I remind you that also during the lockdown it is permitted to protest,” retired air force Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel, one of the Sunday night protest organizers, said in a video urging demonstrators to take part in the evening’s rally.

Israeli protesters hold signs and chant slogans during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Speaking outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, Haskel called for demonstrators to wear masks and maintain the social distancing guidelines. He also later shared photos showing protesters marking the street with chalk drawings to ensure distance between the demonstrators.

“The demonstration this evening is a test for the continuation of our struggle. I call on you to come,” he said.

The weekly protests in Jerusalem and elsewhere across Israel are usually held on Saturday evenings after Shabbat, but this week they were pushed off until Sunday night, when the Jewish New Year holiday ends.

The Prime Minister’s Residence has become the center of ongoing demonstrations against the premier over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the pandemic, with weekly protests there sometimes drawing tens of thousands of people.

On Saturday, a police source told the Haaretz daily the force would not enforce new regulations governing protests, which call for demonstrators to be divided into “capsules” of 20, saying they were recommendations and not restrictions approved by the government.

The source said police on Sunday would expand the permitted area to protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence’s, so as to allow demonstrators to socially distance. Police were also expected to call on demonstrators to maintain groups of no more than 20 people.

Netanyahu and his supporters have claimed the protests are a major vector of infections, though health officials have said no cases have been traced back to the rallies so far.

Protesters demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Besides the new measures regarding movement and gatherings, the lockdown also includes far-reaching restrictions on business activity, including limiting restaurants and other eateries to offering delivery.

On Sunday, police hit the Nisso Cafe in Jaffa with an NIS 5,000 fine for serving some 50 patrons in defiance of the lockdown.

Yoni Salomon, the cafe’s owner, said he had “no choice” but to open.

“There’s no logic to this lockdown,” he told the Kan public broadcaster. “When you got here you saw the whole place was full. People voted with their feet.”

Solomon added: “We won’t allow anyone to take our basic rights of liberty, work and livelihood… I’m ready to absorb the fine.”

He also dismissed concerns that in-person dining could be a source of transmission as “bullshit,” saying rising infections weren’t linked to restaurants and cafes.

According to the Ynet news site, other eateries are planning to defy the ban on offering storefront takeout.

“I can understand why seating at the restaurant isn’t allowed, but not to allow takeaway is an injustice. It took us a while to get up from the first wave and again they’re imposing restrictions without logic,” an unnamed restaurant owner was quoted saying, referring to the initial lockdown earlier this year.

The news site also said restaurants and cafes were taking advantage of being licensed as bakeries or stores that sell food to offer takeout, as the ban only applies to establishments listed as restaurants.

Earlier Sunday, police said they had handed out 2,802 fines over the past day for various infractions of the lockdown rules and other coronavirus regulations, the vast majority of them to people who ventured out over a kilometer from their homes without valid reason.

Police have said the public has so far largely adhered to restrictions that came into effect Friday afternoon, in the government’s latest effort to curb the surging pandemic. The closure will remain in effect for at least three weeks. Israel, which has one of the highest daily infection rates per capita in the world, became the first developed country to order a second lockdown to fight the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry reported three new coronavirus deaths since Saturday afternoon, with the national toll now at 1,229. It said Saturday saw 3,406 cases diagnosed — a drop from previous days, but one that was attributable to less testing over the Rosh Hashanah holiday. Positive rates remained high, with 8.9 percent of tests returning positive out of 38,110 conducted.

As of Sunday, Israel had confirmed a total of 185,490 cases since the start of the pandemic, of which 50,749 were active. Of those active cases, 607 were in serious condition (153 of them on ventilators) and 257 were in moderate condition. The rest had mild or no symptoms.

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