Hundreds block roads, clash with police in Tel Aviv after economic protests

Cops arrest 19 demonstrators, use riders on horseback and pepper spray to disperse crowds as traffic stalls on a number of major roads

Protesters scuffle with police after a demonstration calling for financial support from the government amid the coronavirus crisis in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Protesters scuffle with police after a demonstration calling for financial support from the government amid the coronavirus crisis in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hundreds of people blocked roads and clashed with police in Tel Aviv Saturday evening at the end of a mass protest that saw some 10,000 demonstrate against the government’s economic policies during the coronavirus crisis.

After the end of the main demonstration at Rabin Square, several hundred people blocked traffic and clashed with police at several locations, including the city’s Ibn Gabirol Street, Rothschild Boulevard and the Azrieli intersection.

Videos on social media showed scuffles between cops and protesters as some chanted “Bibi go home,” using the prime minister’s nickname.

According to the Ynet news site, police were in some cases using riders on horseback and pepper spray to disperse crowds. Reports indicated that 19 people had been arrested.

Protesters scuffle with police after a demonstration calling for financial support from the government amid the coronavirus crisis in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Earlier thousands took part in the economic protests at Rabin Square, railing against the government for failing to address the economic woes brought on by the pandemic.

Participants included self-employed Israelis and small business owners, some of which have been forced to remain closed as much of the economy has reopened, as well as wage workers who have lost their jobs or been furloughed due to the economic crisis.

With unemployment in the country at some 21 percent, or 850,000 people, many people say they are fearful for their future, with numerous businesses facing collapse.

Meanwhile, 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.

Tel Aviv resident Ruti Arenfeld told the Times of Israel she was attending Saturday’s protest to show solidarity with many of her friends who have lost their jobs as a result of the government’s crippling restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

“I’m here to call on the government to do what it has promised. To transfer the money to the wage workers and small businesses,” Arenfeld said. “You told them to close and they did that. Now it’s your turn to help them before it’s too late.”

Israel imposed a broad lockdown starting in mid-March, allowing only staff deemed essential to go to work and banning public assembly. With virus numbers dropping in May and facing public and economic pressure, the government eased restrictions, but reimposed some of them in recent weeks as infection rates climbed to new highs of over 1,000 a day. Israel’s virus death toll was 354 as of Saturday.

While salaried workers sent on furlough received unemployment benefits, the self-employed said that most had been waiting months for promised government aid to reach them.

“There is a very grave crisis of confidence between us and the government,” Shai Berman, one of the protest organizers, told Kan public radio earlier Saturday.

“We are part of a very large [group of people] which is feeling growing distress and wants to demonstrate, and simply does not believe the [government’s] promises,” he added.

As Israel contends with the alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

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.

On Friday, representatives for self-employed Israelis and small business owners hurt by the pandemic met with Netanyahu to discuss their grievances. Netanyahu’s office described the three-hour meeting as “positive,” while a lawyer with the business owners called it “charged.”

Netanyahu told the representatives the government would keep its latest promises on immediate financial aid packages for independents and small businesses.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Israel Katz said businesses’ pain and concern were understandable and promised to swiftly move forward with legislation to allow economic support to be deployed.

Finance Minister Israel Katz on June 17, 2020 (Kan news screenshot)

Attorney Roee Cohen, president of Lahav, the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses, told the Ynet news site that the Friday meeting was “charged” and that he and other representatives had raised many issues with the economic support plans — those set to be implemented and those provided thus far.

Netanyahu said Thursday that the government had ordered the acceleration of previous payouts, which many have said hadn’t arrived.

And he said a new stipend for self-employed Israelis would be paid out immediately, as early as next week, “without any conditions or bureaucracy, even without Knesset legislation.” He said there had been significant bureaucratic difficulties in approving those payments.

Small businesses will receive up to NIS 6,000 once every two months, he announced. Big businesses will receive aid totaling up to NIS 500,000, depending on how much the business was harmed due to the crisis.

Other parts of the aid package included a “safety net” for salaried employees and for businesses, as well as expanding the eligibility for unemployment benefits.

In an interview with Channel 13 news Saturday evening, Katz asserted that “the demonstrators don’t have a reason to protest,” adding that “we haven’t lost control over what’s happening in the economy.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Finance Minister Israel Katz (right) meet with representatives of self-employed Israelis and small business owners at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 10, 2020 (PMO)

Concerning complaints that previously promised government aid has been slow to arrive, Katz said the former plan prior to his taking over the ministry “was imprecise, that’s why not all the money arrived.”

He promised that the latest government stipend for independents and small businesses of up to NIS 7,500 “will reach the bank on Tuesday and you’ll see this in your account on Wednesday.”

The last few weeks have seen the reversal of many of the gains made in the fight against the coronavirus in recent months. New daily virus cases, which had dropped to low double digits through most of May, have soared, with a daily record of over 1,600 on Thursday, and the number of active cases reached an all-time high of 18,296 on Saturday night.

The current increase in weekly infections in Israel is one of the highest in the world, according to a chart published Monday afternoon by the Health Ministry.

The government this week passed a raft of new restrictions to limit the spread of the virus. The restrictions limited the number of people allowed in restaurants and synagogues, reduced the number of passengers permitted on public transportation, hiked fines for not wearing face masks, and shut down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.

Jacob Magid and AFP contributed to this report.

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