Hundreds of Israelis marched through the streets of Tel Aviv on Wednesday against new legislation aimed at limiting protests during the current coronavirus lockdown.
Police arrested four demonstrators for allegedly assaulting officers and interfering with them while performing their duty. Police said the protesters, who set out from Habima Square and looped around major roads of the coastal city for several hours, did not coordinate the march beforehand and lacked the necessary permits.
The protest, which was dubbed a spontaneous demonstration with no specific groups claiming responsibility for organizing it, came hours after the government approved new emergency regulations banning Israelis from traveling over one kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes to attend a protest, and limiting outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 20 people per group.
The law effectively stifles the large weekly demonstrations at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem and is slated to enter into effect on Thursday.
Dozens also demonstrated on Wednesday evening outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, which has been the center of recent protests against Netanyahu over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the pandemic.
Two protesters were detained there for blocking the road, according to the Haaretz daily.
The new regulations were approved as part of legislation passed by the Knesset early Wednesday morning. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit later informed the government that the legislation is not valid until appropriate changes are made to relevant regulations.
Ministers Asaf Zamir, Izhar Shay and Orit Farkash-Hacohen of the Blue and White party all voted against the regulations, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
The emergency measures restricting protests are set to come before the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Thursday for final approval.
Hours after the law was passed, it was challenged in the High Court of Justice by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a watchdog group, in the hope that the court would freeze the legislation pending judicial oversight, and eventually strike it down.
The court ruled that the government had until October 7 to respond to the petition, but declined to issue a stay on the law.
In the petition, the organization argued that the new law hamstrings “one of the fundamental rights in a democracy” and insists that “health concerns do not form the basis of the amendment to the law,” according to the network.
The bill limiting protests passed on second and third readings by a vote of 46-38 just after 4:30 a.m., following days of delays.
In the final version of the law, under a government-declared “special coronavirus emergency,” the cabinet can restrict protests, prayers, and religious ceremonies for a week, with the possibility of extending restrictions another two weeks, should the emergency continue.
Officials have said that under the rules, protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence would be kept to 2,000 total, with the Paris Square protest zone able to accommodate 100 capsules, or pods, of 20 people. Only those who live within a kilometer would be able to attend.
The number is far below the 10,000 to 20,000 people who have shown up weekly outside the Prime Minister’s Residence to demonstrate against Netanyahu, who is on trial in three graft cases.
Backers of the law argue that the protests are a major health hazard and cracking down on them is necessary given Israel’s skyrocketing infection rate.
But the measure has faced vociferous opposition from critics, who say it undermines Israel’s democratic character and serves Netanyahu’s political interests, using the virus as a cover.
A three-week lockdown, the second since the coronavirus pandemic began, was started on September 18 and then further tightened last Friday as virus infection cases continued to climb rapidly. Government officials, including Netanyahu, have already warned the lockdown could be extended well beyond its initial end date and on Wednesday ministers approved extending it by three days until October 14.