Thousands of people demonstrated on Saturday evening outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, a day after several protesters were arrested there during a protest against the premier.
Among the protesters on Saturday were Yesh Atid-Telem MK Moshe Ya’alon and Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy.
The demonstrators held up signs calling Netanyahu a “crime minister” in reference to his indictment on corruption charges and also called for the release of Amir Haskel, a former Israeli Air Force brigadier general who was among those arrested on Friday outside the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem residence.
Haskel and two other protesters remained in custody on Saturday after refusing to be released under restrictive conditions, including a commitment not to appear at Saturday’s demonstration.
A small group of Netanyahu’s supporters held a counter-protest across from the residence.
Defense minister and alternate prime minister Benny Gantz, who heads the Blue and White party, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, also from Blue and White, called on Saturday for the police to immediately release those arrested.
“The right to demonstrate is a sacred right in the State of Israel and it is strictly forbidden to harm [this right] except in extreme cases,” Gantz wrote on Facebook.
Ashkenazi took to Twitter to say that Haskel “earned the right and the duty to speak his mind, to protest and to demonstrate.”
“I appreciate his work and position…and call for his immediate release without any restrictive conditions,” wrote Ashkenazi.
Haskel, 66, had a 32-year career in the Air Force, including as a pilot in the 1973 war, a squadron commander, and head of IAF personnel.
Police earlier Saturday defended Friday’s arrests, with Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, denying they were politically motivated. Police said the demonstration was an “illegal protest.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party responded to the arrests, lashing out at the media’s coverage of the detention and accusing it of bias against him.
“The media didn’t say anything about the shocking arrest of right-wing activist Sheffi Paz or the arrest of many other right-wing activists at right-wing protests,” the Likud said in a statement. Paz, an anti-African migrant protester in south Tel Aviv, has been arrested several times, and Likud did not specify which of her arrests it was referring to.
Likud also claimed without evidence that the protest was organized by former prime minister Ehud Barak, a vocal critic of Netanyahu.
“The press is turning this into a media festival to support the protests against Likud and Netanyahu’s leadership. It’s unsurprising [that] all this is happening [while] Likud is at peak support in every poll,” the party said.
Haskel was brought before a judge at the Magistrate’s Court in Jerusalem on Saturday evening with police requesting he be barred from Jerusalem for 15 days. Police accused Haskel of refusing a legal order, gathering illegally, and disorderly conduct.
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“Hundreds of protesters blocked a main road and prevented cars from passing for a continued period while disturbing the public order,” a police statement said Saturday.
“Therefore, a number of the rioters were detained, among them a man who was identified as the leader and organizer of the illegal protest,” the statement added in reference to Haskel.
Police said Haskel refused to be released under certain conditions, including staying away from the Prime Minister’s Residence, and therefore remained in custody. According to the Haaretz daily, two of the other six protesters arrested also refused to abide by the conditions and remained under arrest.
“The Israel Police will continue to allow every person the freedom of expression and protest, but won’t allow anyone to so blatantly violate the law and obstruct public order in violation of the law,” the police statement said.
Haskel has been leading a series of protests outside Netanyahu’s official residence. On Friday, in interviews before his arrest, he said the public found it unacceptable that Israel is being led “by a prime minister who is on trial for corruption.”
Ohana, a close Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s, backed police over the arrests.
“Lieutenant general, brigadier general or a private, there will be no tolerance for blocking roads,” he wrote on Facebook, referring to Haskel. “Blocking roads is an application of violence toward innocent and peaceful civilians who use the road on their way to their daily routines.”
His comments came amid condemnations of the arrests by opposition figures.
“The public security minister tweeted ‘zero tolerance for blocking roads.’ What about zero tolerance for bribery? Zero tolerance for fraud?” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid tweeted, referring to the criminal charges against Netanyahu.
He added: “I call for the immediate release of Brig. Gen. Haskel. Israel isn’t a dictatorship and every citizen is allowed to express their opinion, including, yes, about the prime minister.”
While backing the protests against Netanyahu, the head of the left-wing Meretz party criticized the focus on Haskel’s arrest.
“What does it matter if Amir Haskel is a brigadier general, pilot, commander, etc.,” MK Nitzan Horowitz wrote on Twitter. “Our test now is solidarity with all the protesters and linking-up the struggles.”
Haskel’s wife, Aliza, said in a video shared on social media she hoped he would be freed soon and that more people would join the protests calling for Netanyahu to step down over his indictment on corruption charges.
Opponents and supporters of Netanyahu have held a number of recent demonstrations outside his official residence, including dueling rallies in May, on the day his corruption trial began.
Netanyahu has been charged with 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.