Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch on Sunday condemned a mass protest in Tel Aviv against the government’s economic policies during the COVID-19 pandemic as a “health terror attack,” while an opposition lawmaker accused the police minister of “siccing” officers on demonstrators during clashes following the rally.
Some 10,000 people took part in a demonstration Saturday evening in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, railing against what they say is insufficient financial support to Israelis hurt economically by government lockdown measures to contain the virus.
The protest, the largest demonstration in Israel since the start of the pandemic, was held as the country copes with a surge in new coronavirus infections, leading the government to reintroduce tight restrictions on gatherings and economic activity.
Kisch, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, said he recognized “the extent of the economic crisis,” but said he was committed to preventing gatherings to curb the spread of the virus.
“We’re doing everything to prevent gatherings and are paying a high price (socially and economically) in order to stop the virus and then [we] see images from the square yesterday. A mega health terror attack,” he wrote on Twitter.
Finance Minister Israel Katz, however, defended the protest, after saying Saturday that there was no reason to demonstrate as the government had not lost control of the economy.
“Demonstrations are part of democracy… to express protest is legitimate. I think it is mainly aimed at the previous months in which people felt that the [financial] assistance wasn’t adequate,” he said Sunday in an interview with Radio 103FM.
Katz, who along with Netanyahu met with protest organizers Friday in an apparent bid to convince them to call off the rally, was asked whether he believed the demonstration was put together by political opponents of the premier.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “Later on, apparently, I heard about some very harsh comments.”
Katz seemed to be referring to demonstrators who after the rally blocked roads and clashed with police at several locations. Videos on social media showed scuffles between cops and protesters as some chanted “Bibi go home,” using the prime minister’s nickname.
Police in some cases used officers on horseback and pepper spray to disperse crowds. Twenty people were arrested.
Yesh Atid-Telem MK Moshe Ya’alon lashed out Sunday at Public Security Amir Ohana, another Likud party ally of Netanyahu, over the police response.
“The minister for Netanyahu’s security is siccing police against anti-regime protesters. This is what a dictatorship looks like,” he wrote on Twitter.
Ya’alon was previously a Likud lawmaker and served as defense minister under Netanyahu, but has become a vocal critical of the prime minister in recent years.
On Sunday, some of the organizers of the Rabin Square rally distanced themselves from the protests that took place afterwards, during which some trash cans were set ablaze and a rock was thrown through the window of a bank.
“We’re against violence. The demonstration was exemplary until the end,” Shai Birman, who heads an organization of restaurant and bar owners, told Channel 12 news.
He also said, however, that “the writing was on the wall.”
“The Israeli government has been ignoring the public in Israel for over half a year already. It reached a breaking point and a crisis of confidence between the nation and its leader. This crisis of confidence is unrelated to the rally. It has been incubating for a long time and yesterday it erupted,” he said.
— ליה ספילקין | Lia Spilkin (@LiaSpilkin) July 11, 2020
Saturday’s protest came as Israel faces unemployment of some 21 percent, or 850,000 people, with many saying they are fearful for their future and with numerous businesses facing collapse.
There has been widespread anger from various sectors of the economy whose members say the government is not doing enough to help them weather the crisis, accompanied by outrage over the alleged misdirection of financial aid and the bureaucratic complexities of obtaining assistance.
Jobless Israelis say government promises of financial support in recent months through grants, unemployment stipends and various other aid mechanisms have in some cases failed to come through and in others proven woefully inadequate in addressing their plight.
As Israel contends with the alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Netanyahu has faced a tide of criticism over the government’s handling of the economic fallout of the pandemic, with polls indicating growing disapproval of his stewardship of the economy.