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Doubts whether protest, prayer limits will pass on Friday as MKs bicker over law

Saturday night demonstrations could go ahead unchanged if lawmakers can’t agree; committee meeting descends into name-calling between coalition whip, Yisrael Beytenu MK

Following social-distancing regulations, protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Following social-distancing regulations, protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With hours to go until the start of a lockdown, lawmakers on Friday continued to haggle over a controversial legal amendment, casting doubt over whether it would pass in time to limit protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set to take place on Saturday night as well as to restrict Sabbath prayers.

Ministers on Thursday decided to drastically tighten the national lockdown already in place, shutting down nearly all non-essential businesses and clamping down on protests and prayer gatherings.

The new guidelines place controversial limits on protests, which are only allowed in socially distanced capsules of 20 people each, up to a maximum of 2,000 people. In addition, traveling more than a kilometer to reach a protest will be prohibited.

Those limitations go beyond what the cabinet is authorized to impose by legislation passed earlier this year, and thus must be accompanied by Knesset approval of an amendment to the existing law governing coronavirus restrictions.

Constitution, Law and Justice committee debates changes to coronavirus law, September 25, 2020 (Screen grab/Knesset channel)

Lawmakers rushed the measure through its first reading late Thursday and sent the measure to the Constitution, Law and Justice committee, where it was still languishing as of 11:00 a.m. as members haggled over various clauses.

Even without a Knesset okay, most other measures relating to the stricter lockdown will be implemented.

Joint List MK Ofer Cassif in the Knesset, on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Opposition MK Ofer Cassif submitted 3,900 reservations over the amendment on Friday morning, which would all need to be debated by the Constitution, Law and Justice committee before the law can be approved by the Knesset.

If it doesn’t pass, the weekly Saturday night protest could go ahead under current regulations.

The committee meeting also saw a number of stormy exchanges between lawmakers, including a spat of name-calling between coalition whip Miki Zohar and opposition MK Eli Avidar of the Yisrael Beytenu party.

“I have argued in recent days that there are those who want these demonstrations to continue because they want there to be morbidity,” Zohar said.

Eli Avidar attends the Constitution, Law and Justice committee, September 25, 2020 (Screen grab/Knesset channel)

“You are mentally ill!” responded Avidar.

“You’re one of the most idiotic people I’ve seen,” said Zohar.

According to the Kan broadcaster, lawmakers may also discard plans for an amendment that would allow for the closure of synagogues, which had been slated to be shut over the lockdown. This excludes Yom Kippur, when groups of 10 will be allowed inside. Outdoor prayers will be limited to 20 people each for the duration of the lockdown.

Under the new rules, nearly all businesses will be closed, with the exception of specific companies and factories designated as “essential” by the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority. The decision exempts supermarkets and pharmacies from the closure, and allows restaurants to work on a home-delivery basis only.

People shop for groceries at the Rami Levy supermarket in Modi’in on September 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israelis won’t be allowed to travel more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes. Police will be deployed on highways and at the entrances to cities and towns to ensure Israelis don’t attempt to travel during the lockdown.

Reports have indicated that the final approved lockdown may also include closing Ben-Gurion airport, though an explanation of the guidelines sent out by the Prime Minister’s Office include travel to the airport as an accepted exemption from the rules.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, lawmakers were considering allowing Israelis to travel abroad if they had purchased the tickets before the lockdown.

Passengers pictured at Ben Gurion Airport on September 24, 2020, during the Coronavirus pandemic. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

The lockdown is slated to last two weeks, including the holiday of Sukkot. It may be extended if infection rates do not slow considerably.

Government officials say a tightened lockdown is necessary after a closure imposed a week ago failed to keep people at home, but critics accuse Netanyahu of including an unnecessary draconian shutdown of the economy to justify limiting protests against him.

Ministers have run up against vociferous ultra-Orthodox opposition to a crackdown on mass prayer gatherings. Experts say indoor prayers are a major incubator for the virus, with ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods experiencing some of the highest infection rates in the country.

However, community leaders have warned that worshipers will rebel if synagogues are closed while protests or trips to the beach are allowed, even though outdoor activities are considered less risky.

The decision to clamp down on both protests and prayers was reportedly the result of a compromise between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose party has opposed limits on protests.

Netanyahu on Thursday rejected the notion that he had sought the full lockdown to halt politically damaging protests, arguing that “these anarchist and ludicrous protests” actually help him politically, but “the public is sick of them.”

Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu use chairs to stake out social distancing as they rally outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to Haaretz, one of the ministers who attended the cabinet meeting early Thursday morning that decided on further restrictions said: “It was clear that [Netanyahu’s] personal desire to cancel the demonstrations was in the background [of his decision-making process]. Every time someone said the word ‘demonstration,’ he jumped.”

The Health Ministry said Friday morning that a record high 7,527 new virus cases were diagnosed a day earlier, as Knesset lawmakers continued to debate the sweeping new restrictions aimed at curbing the outbreak.

The high number of diagnoses came after two consecutive days where the number of new infections neared 7,000. The ministry said that a notably high 12.8 percent of the tests that came back Thursday were positive. There were 60,524 tests carried out.

The total number of cases since the start of the pandemic stood at 214,458 with 1,378 deaths.

Of the 60,786 active cases, 669 are in serious condition, 167 of them on ventilators, the ministry said. Another 246 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.

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