Hundreds of people took part in demonstrations calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation around the country Thursday, as protest leaders vowed to continue to rally within the confines of a tightened national lockdown which will controversially introduce limitations on protests as part of an effort to bring the coronavirus outbreak under control.
Some rallied at highway overpasses, while the largest gathering took place near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.
In a nod to restrictions already in effect, demonstrators in Jerusalem spread out chairs at the scene to maintain social distancing, unlike previous events where protesters were more tightly grouped together, drawing criticism that they were liable to spread the coronavirus.
Under restrictions set to go into effect at 2 p.m. on Friday, people will be prevented from venturing more than one kilometer from their home in order to protest and rallies will be limited to groups of 20.
Protests outside Netanyahu’s residence will be allowed to continue with up to 2,000 participants at a time, as long as they are divided into 20-person “capsules.”
Critics have accused the prime minister of pushing through overbearing restrictions on movement and economic activity in order to also clamp down on the protests.
One by one Thursday, former senior members in Israel’s defense establishment spoke from a central podium at Paris Square. Many compared the current government’s failure to contain a raging coronavirus outbreak to the failures which preceded the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Former Air Force brigadier general Amir Haskel, a veteran activist whose brief arrest in late June sparked the current protest wave, said that the restrictions on demonstrations were about politics, not public health.
“I think that the prime minister’s decision yesterday is a flagrant conflict of interest. He simply cannot place restrictions on protests against him,” Haskel told The Times of Israel. “The decision is based solely on his desire to silence us.”
Haskel said that the organizers were planning on petitioning the High Court of Justice to overturn the restrictions. In the meantime, he said, demonstrations would continue across the country in accordance with the restrictions.
“I stood for four years at intersections by myself, or with small groups, and protested. If necessary, we can return to the intersections,” Haskel said. “Maybe he will manage to [silence] us for a week, or two weeks. But this is Netanyahu’s swan song.”
Yuval Carminovich, a lawyer from Tel Aviv, regularly attends the protests in Jerusalem. He told The Times of Israel that he intended to follow the new restrictions — even though he considered them “scandalous.”
“I intend to abide by the law. If they say it’s illegal for me to demonstrate here, then I won’t. But this is a slippery slope which doesn’t have a clear end,” Carminovich said.
Just outside the demonstration, video showed Channel 12 news correspondent Moshe Nussbaum and cameraman Hanan Shroitman heckled aggressively by a small group of protesters shouting right-wing and pro-Netanyahu slogans at them. The hecklers, some of whom got nose to nose with Nussbaum, called him “disgusting,” “a stinking journalist,” and a “leftist traitor,” among other insults.
The two eventually managed to leave the area after a police officer got between them and the hecklers. According to the channel, one heckler was detained.
כתב הפלילים של חדשות 12 משה נוסבאום הותקף על ידי עשרת המפגינים בהפגנת הימין. "בוגד זבל".
חוץ מללוות אותו השוטרים לא עשו כלום pic.twitter.com/gE2S2txIw9
— אהרן רבינוביץ (@AronRabino1) September 24, 2020
There was also a demonstration outside the home of Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, of the Blue and White party, over the cabinet’s approval of restrictions on anti-government rallies.
The Black Flag movement, an anti-Netanyahu protest group, vowed to continue demonstrating over the weekend despite the lockdown.
“Israel does not have a functioning prime minister, it has a criminal defendant who is destroying any good the country has,” the movement said in a statement. “Today, it is already clear to every citizen that the problem with the country is not the synagogues, not the demonstrations, it is the number one defendant Benjamin Netanyahu.”
The head of the Crime Minister protest group, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, has also vowed to continue demonstrating, but was not seen at the Paris Square demonstration.
The protests are aimed mainly against Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and against the government’s handling of the virus outbreak.
Dozens of protesters also rallied outside the Knesset building. Several threw bags of cow dung in the direction of the parliament building, Channel 12 news reported.
Cyber and National Digital Matters Minister David Amsalem, who is also the liaison between the Knesset and government, was heckled by the protesters as he walked past them from the Knesset to the nearby Finance Ministry, the network reported. As the crowd became increasingly vocal, Amsalem’s security detail hurried him into the Finance Ministry premises.
Amsalem, who later introduced the lockdown proposal for a Knesset vote at the plenum, accused opposition lawmakers of “leading anarchy” through the anti-government protests.
Apparently referring his earlier clash with protesters, lamented their lack of respect for a government minister, telling the plenum that some had shouted at him “thief, swindler, I paid you NIS 10,000, go to prison” as well as calling him “fat” and “stinking.”
The lockdown proposal, which requires Knesset approval, passed its first reading in parliament on Thursday evening by 36 votes in favor to 32 against.
If approved, nearly all public transportation will be closed, as will the last educational institutions still open — mainly special education programs and private preschools.
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.
There were acrimonious debates in the cabinet this week over whether to allow the anti-government protests during the lockdown, with the Blue and White party insisting a government could not order protests against it to disband. Ministers also argued over the degree to which prayer gatherings should be restricted, with ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism pushing to leave synagogues open, even if new limits on the number of worshipers are imposed.
Under a final compromise reached late Wednesday, synagogues will close beginning Friday, open in a limited capacity for the 25 hours of the Yom Kippur holiday, then close again on Monday night.