Demonstrators protest Knesset closure, fly black flags over threats to democracy
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Protest calls 'to save Israel's democracy' from PM, Speaker

Demonstrators protest Knesset closure, fly black flags over threats to democracy

Police try to block convoy of cars from reaching capital, later detain 5 outside parliament building; opposition leaders decry law enforcement’s actions as undemocratic

Protesters wave a black flag, an Israeli flag and an Israeli flag with the colors inverted, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 19, 2020. The protest was against the recent decision by the Knesset speaker to shut it down for several days, and against what they described as "damage to Israel's democracy". (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
Protesters wave a black flag, an Israeli flag and an Israeli flag with the colors inverted, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 19, 2020. The protest was against the recent decision by the Knesset speaker to shut it down for several days, and against what they described as "damage to Israel's democracy". (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Over 100 vehicles carrying demonstrators protesting against the closure of the Knesset made their way to the capital on Thursday, and ran into police efforts to block and break up the convoy. Some protesters later demonstrated outside the parliament and scuffled with police, leading to five arrests.

Opposition leaders excoriated police for trying to stifle the protests, accusing the force of engaging in undemocratic actions in service of an unelected government. Police rejected the accusations outright, saying they were maintaining the law and public order.

Protest organizers said the demonstration was “to save Israel’s democracy” under threat from government actions taken under the cover of a campaign against the spread of the coronavirus.

Likud Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has refused to allow the Knesset to vote on setting up parliamentary oversight of the government’s far-reaching measures to tackle the virus, citing the need for unity talks with Blue and White and regulations restricting lawmakers from convening, but has been accused of using the crisis as cover to cling to power illegally.

Israeli police officers scuffle with a man during a protest to “save democracy” outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky)

Protest organizers said the convoy complied with Health Ministry directives aimed at maintaining social distancing in order to stop the spread of the virus, as drivers were instructed to remain inside their cars. Later, outside the Knesset, some protesters demonstrated on foot and confronted police.

A convoy of cars is seen driving through Jerusalem to protest the closure of the Knesset and the lack of oversight over government actions during the coronavirus crisis, March 19, 2020 (Facebook photo)

Starting near Tel Aviv, the vehicles snaked their way up Route 1 toward Jerusalem with black and Israeli flags waving from their cars.

Police stopped the convoy near Latrun about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Jerusalem, telling the drivers they were not permitted to go any further.

Protesters scuffle with police during a demonstration against the closure of the Knesset and the lack of oversight over government actions during the coronavirus crisis, March 19, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a statement police said the cars were driving slowly in “an unauthorized illegal protest” and that as a result there was a disruption to traffic between the Ben Shemen Interchange and Latrun.

Video shared on social media showed police preventing the cars from driving to the capital, with an officer telling one driver that those were his orders from the district commander.

Protest organizers advised drivers to take down their flags until they could reach the capital. Police eventually allowed the convoy to continue after facing criticism from opposition lawmakers, among them former Jerusalem District police commander and now Blue and White lawmaker MK Mickey Levy.

Dozens of drivers were eventually able to get to the capital and approach the parliament area, where police blocked access roads to the Knesset itself. The sound of the drivers honking their horns could be heard across a wide swath of the capital.

Protesters scuffle with police during a demonstration in Jerusalem on March 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police said five protesters were arrested after they “behaved in a disorderly manner, blocked a road and violated [Health Ministry] health guidelines.”

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Shanya Ben Haim‎‏ ב- יום חמישי, 19 במרץ 2020

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz called to follow Health Ministry instructions and avoid gatherings, but lauded citizens’ concern over “actions to crush democracy led by Netanyahu and Edelstein” and stressed that the action of police in holding up the convoy was “unreasonable in a democratic country.”

His no. 2 Yair Lapid tweeted that he “salutes” the drivers. Another top Blue and White MK, Ofer Shelah, claimed police had come with “a mission to abuse the drivers.”

Said Shelah: “They gave out reports to people for disrupting traffic on an open road, they held up intersections to arrest those who joined them. This is what a democracy looks like when the government has decided to wreck it.”

Police look on as convoy of cars drives through Jerusalem to protest the closure of the Knesset and the lack of oversight over government actions during the coronavirus crisis, March 19, 2020 (Facebook photo)

Labor-Meretz leader Amir Peretz called police actions an “indecent assault” on democracy and “acts we cannot accept.”

Police rejected any accusations of political motives for their actions, calling them “unfounded” claims.

“No one is above the law or above Health Ministry edicts, regardless of their opinions or political positions,” police said in a statement. “We expect the entirety of the public to follow the law.”

Edelstein made the shock announcement earlier on Wednesday that he was locking the plenary, at least until next week, after the Blue and White party refused his proposal of having equal representation with Likud in the Knesset’s so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the formation and operation of the parliament. He cited the need for unity talks between Likud and Blue and White, and expressed concerns about the coronavirus. Israel has banned gatherings of over 10 people to stem the spread.

People wave Israeli flags and banners during a “save democracy” protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky)

Edelstein has faced criticism for his clamp-down, with the Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon telling him the same day he cannot continue the closure of the plenary into next week.

Among other things, the Arrangements Committee oversees the creation of the Knesset’s other committees, including those that would provide parliamentary oversight of the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic. The committee could also allow the Blue and White party to call for a vote on the Knesset speakership, which would likely result in Edelstein’s ouster from the position that he has held since 2013, leading critics to accuse him of subverting the will of the majority of the country.

In an extraordinary intervention underlining concerns over Israeli democracy functioning properly during the coronavirus outbreak, President Reuven Rivlin phoned Edelstein earlier Wednesday and told him to reopen parliament.

Rivlin “implored” Edelstein “to ensure ongoing parliamentary activity, even during the coronavirus crisis,” a statement from the President’s Office said.

President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The Knesset closure comes in the wake of elections earlier this month and after Rivlin on Monday tasked Blue and White leader MK Gantz with forming a coalition. If successful, Gantz will replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and remove his Likud party from power.

Israel has introduced a series of sweeping restrictions since the coronavirus outbreak began, requiring all Israelis returning to the country to self-quarantine for 14 days and barring foreigners. It also shut schools, cafes, malls, gyms and more.

On Tuesday, widening the restrictions, the Health Ministry told Israelis not to leave their homes or visit parks and beaches, with exceptions made for essential needs, like food shopping, medicine shopping, medical care and work.

Ministers early on Tuesday approved a highly controversial measure to allow the government to track Israelis’ phones to locate where carriers of the virus had been. The Health Ministry announced Wednesday it had begun using the mass surveillance tools to retrace the movements of coronavirus carriers and had already informed 400 people in contact with them that they must enter quarantine. With the Knesset closed, and committees unstaffed, the digital surveillance is being utilized without parliamentary oversight.

The electronic tracking program, which is being conducted by the Shin Bet security service for the ministry, has faced harsh criticism, including by members of the government, and its legality is currently being challenged in the High Court of Justice. The tracking aims to alert and order into quarantine people who, in the previous two weeks, were within two meters for 10 minutes or more of someone who turns out to have the virus.

As of Thursday morning, there have been 529 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Israel, six of them in serious condition.

Two ministers and two Knesset members have been placed in quarantine after being in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

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