'Siege of Balfour' demo is week's second at PM's residence

Hundreds demonstrate against Netanyahu near his official residence, again

In calmer gathering than Tuesday’s, ‘Black Flag’ protesters urge PM to resign over corruption allegations; police warn participants they can’t hold planned sleepover at site

Demonstrators protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, on July 16, 2020. Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Demonstrators protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, on July 16, 2020. Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Hundreds of people demonstrated outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem on Thursday, demanding that he resign over his indictment on corruption charges.

It was the second such demonstration this week at the junction of Gaza Street and Balfour Street, the road where the Prime Minister’s Residence is located. The previous protest, attended by several thousand people on Tuesday, turned violent and dozens were arrested during clashes with police.

Although organizers had called for protesters to spend Thursday night sleeping on the sidewalk, police warned that the demonstration must end on time at 11 p.m. and that participants would not be permitted to sleep on the street.

Some protesters blocked the capital’s Gaza Street, disrupting traffic.

Organizers called the rally a “Siege of Balfour” and said the event was also to protest the government’s reported plans to introduce weekend lockdowns and ban public gatherings as part of the efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

“Preventing public gatherings and applying a lockdown is only intended to free Netanyahu from the siege,” organizers said in a statement reported by the Walla website.

While Thursday’s protest was relatively calm, and ended without any reports of violent incidents, the memory of Tuesday’s clashes with police remained vivid in the minds of some protesters.

“Tuesday was insane, huge, historic. We can’t recreate it, even if we wanted to. It was unreal. It was important to experience it to understand what happened,” said Sasha, a 19-year-old Jerusalem resident.

“At one point I needed to hide behind an announcement board with a bunch of other people to avoid being attacked by cops on horseback. It was terrifying,” Sasha said.

Thursday’s protest, by contrast, had an almost carnival-esque atmosphere. Young people intending to sleep at the protest, wearing pajamas and clutching teddy bears, sat in meditation circles on the ground. A handful of circus performers entertained the crowd by spewing fire from their mouths. An activist at the protest told The Times of Israel that she was planning a dawn yoga session for the sit-in.

Demonstrators protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, July 16, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Police came here today prepared for a violent protest. There were almost 20 police cars on the street by the afternoon, which was something that didn’t happen earlier, and they’ve erected those barricades on either side. But they’ve found instead a protest with very strong, positive energy,” Shimon, 59, told The Times of Israel.

Shimon, who said that he has been attending the protests at Balfour for months, said he welcomed the new participation from young people.

“It’s about time. What began as a protest of old folks has now taken a turn to encompass the young generation,” Shimon said, laughing.

Asked to explain the difference between the relatively calm atmosphere on Thursday and the violent, angry clashes on Tuesday, protestors offered differing explanations. Tamar, a Jerusalem resident, echoed the explanation given by protest organizer Tamir Hefetz, claiming there were provocateurs at the previous rally.

Shimon noted that the two protests differed in size as well, with Tuesday’s protesters numbering in the thousands rather than the hundreds.

“With the larger protest, the police lost control,” Shimon said.

Ofra, 54, said this was her second time attending the protests, which have been ongoing for several weeks. “There’s a sense as a country that we’ve totally lost our way, and that the people at the top are out for themselves, not for us,” she said.

Amit, 26, came from central Israel to attend the protests for the first time. A student, he said the economic impact of coronavirus forced him to move back in with his parents.

“I think this isn’t a right-wing or left-wing rally. I’m not really anywhere on the political spectrum. I have right-wing friends here and left-wing friends here,” Amit said.

Avi Ofer, who said he was one of the protest’s organizers, told The Times of Israel that between 150 and 200 people had signed up to spend the night sleeping in a protest tent at the scene. It was not clear whether they would attempt to defy police orders to clear out.

Demonstrators protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Tuesday night police used water cannons and officers mounted on horses to disperse several hundred people who blocked the Jerusalem light rail after midnight, following a large protest outside the official residence.

Several thousand people had gathered Tuesday evening calling on Netanyahu to quit over his indictment on corruption charges, as several separate social protests took place at the same time across the country.

Some of the demonstrators attempted to break through security barriers at the scene and clashed with police. As the protest ended, hundreds moved downtown, where they blocked the light rail system, chanting “shame, shame” and “Bibi, go home.”

Police then turned water canons on the demonstrators and mounted police charged up and down the light rail tracks on Jaffa Street, sending protesters scattering to the side of the streets before regrouping.

Many then marched down Keren HaYesod Street, with some pushing garbage dumpsters and chain-link fences into the streets as makeshift barricades. Several dumpsters were set on fire.

A protester slips as Israeli police use water cannons during clashes at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Police said one officer was lightly wounded and 50 protesters were arrested.

On Sunday the Jerusalem municipality cleared away gazebos, tents, and other equipment protesters had brought to the site, which was manned all day and night.

City Hall said in a statement that the site, which grew in the aftermath of an authorized rally weeks ago, had taken on elements of a permanent “outpost,” which was proving a disturbance to local residents and hotels.

The Jerusalem demonstration was part of the ongoing “black flag” anti-corruption protests against Netanyahu, who is standing trial in a series of graft cases.

Demonstrations have been held regularly around the country, with protesters waving signs reading “crime minister” and calling for Netanyahu to resign.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, as well as bribery in one of them.

He has denied wrongdoing and claimed the charges are part of an effort by political opponents, the media, law enforcement and prosecutors to remove him from office.

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