Reporter's notebook

In Caesarea, protests outside Netanyahu’s home burst bucolic calm of plush beach town

Rallies outside the prime minister’s private residence are again drawing hundreds of people weekly, with some locals annoyed at the intrusion and others joining the fray

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Anti-Netanyahu protesters throng Rothchild Boulevard in Caesarea on March 30, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Anti-Netanyahu protesters throng Rothchild Boulevard in Caesarea on March 30, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

CAESAREA — As the sun slipped toward the sea one day late last month, Shahar Bek hastened his steps while pushing a baby stroller past a crowd carrying flags and megaphones.

Bek, a sports therapist, wasn’t interested in a workout, but was hurrying home with his daughter to beat the rush of anti-government protesters who have been gathering here by the hundreds on Saturday nights to demonstrate near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s home.

“This is awful,” he said, citing the disruption the protest caused in his neighborhood. “I want it to stop.”

Protests outside Netanyahu’s private residences – both his home in Jerusalem and a large mansion in the ritzy seaside golf community of Caesarea, north of Netanya — are back, following a hiatus of several months following Hamas’s October 7 massacre, as anti-government protests ramp up again in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

Most of the attention has been focused on Jerusalem, where last week protesters appeared to catch police and Shin Bet security agents off guard, breaking through hastily erected barricades and clashing with cops.

Weekly Saturday night protests outside the prime minister’s Caesarea residence have been tame in comparison, but as the demonstrations have grown in recent weeks, tensions have increased with some locals in the generally placid town.

Recent demonstrations have seen around 700 protesters show up to Caesarea’s main thoroughfare — more than the scattered dozens who had been protesters there until now, though only a fraction of the thousands who rallied there weekly at the height of the judicial overhaul protests last year.

Gal Bek and his daughter return home on Rothchild Boulevard in Caesarea on March 30, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Their shouts in our ears; blocking the road on our only free day, putting us under curfew, essentially — and for what? Netanyahu isn’t even here,” Bek, 40, told The Times of Israel.

On Saturday night, protesters in Caesarea flanked a main barricade and came within 250 meters (820 feet) of Netanyahu’s residence on Hadar Street, significantly closer than the 800-meter (0.5-mile) distance usually maintained between the demonstration and the premier’s abode, according to the Moked Caesarea protest group.

Two protesters were arrested for alleged violence against police.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near his private home in the coastal town of Caesarea on August 1, 2020. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Most protesters come from outside the well-heeled town of some 6,000, home to one of the country’s only golf courses, where houses regularly sell for NIS 10 million ($2.6 million) and often more.

Protests are generally centered around Rothschild Boulevard, a traffic artery that also functions as a popular promenade, stretching along the natural dune park in the heart of Caesarea. Out-of-towners park their cars along Rothchild Boulevard’s shoulders, thronging it for many yards. Locals tend to show up by bike, or walking their dogs.

Hanna Bendor, a real estate agent in her 50s, is one of the dozens of locals who demonstrate against Netanyahu weekly.

“I also find it inconvenient,” she said of the protests. “But I find it more inconvenient to live in a country run by a crook and a failure who, together with a band of radicals and opportunists, is driving us over a cliff,” she added.

Families of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza protest outside the prime minister’s house in Caesarea, January 20, 2024. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

About 25% of Caesareans voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party in the 2022 elections, but 63% cast their vote for opposition parties, including 38% for Yair Lapid’s liberal Yesh Atid party and another 10% for the left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties.

One Caesarean, Limor Ben Hur, greeted protesters with jeers as she neared them on her evening powerwalk on March 30. Wearing a workout suit and holding small dumbbells, she shouted at the crowd: “Go home, you bored, aimless people! We see through you!”

Her opposition, she said, was ideological. “It’s not that they cramp my style — which they do — but they’re rude and dishonest. These harassers have been trying to bring down the right wing for the past year and a half, and now they’re doing it under the mantle and pretext of the war,” she said, adding: “They’re getting more dangerous.”

Serious physical violence is rare at anti-Netanyahu protests, which feature mostly road blockages, leading to the detention of a handful of demonstrators each week. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, some protests have seen water cannons and horse-mounted units deployed by police to disperse road blockages, and there have been charges of excessive use of force.

Police use water cannons on protesters blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2024. (Adar Eyal/Israeli Pro-Democracy Protest Movement)

Last week police presented evidence against several protesters they said had planned to reach Netanyahu’s Caesarea home and had maps showing how to get there.

Netanyahu’s villa, for which he had paid about $1 million in 2002 (and whose worth has since quadrupled), is on the sinuous Hadar Street, which runs parallel to Rothchild.

The residence is usually guarded by two agents. Their force is bolstered on days when protests are held in Caesarea.

Israeli security forces guard outside the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Caesarea on January 20, 2024. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

While even road blockages are rare in Caesarea, tensions do appear to be rising as the war and continued captivity of hostages cause society to increasingly polarize. Hostilities broke out on October 7 after Hamas terrorists stormed into southern Israel, murdering some 1,200 people in Israel and abducting 253 others.

Protesters and many families of hostages want the government to change course or step down and call early elections, seeing the political leadership as largely responsible for problems with the war effort, the lack of a hostage deal and plummeting ties with Western allies, including the US.

Online, the rhetoric against Netanyahu has escalated, with some comparing him to Nicolae Ceauşescu, the deposed and executed Romanian ruler.

“No alternative. Unlike the Germans, we have no one to finish our destructive Fuhrer for us. We’ll have to go it alone like Romanians did when they got rid of Ceauşescu,” Jonathan Ariel Schwartz, a former journalist and strategic consultant from Rosh Ha’ayin, wrote on Facebook on March 27.

Amos Malka, former head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Caesarea on March 30, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Liraz Rimon, a marketing professional from Pardes Hanah who regularly attends the rallies in Caesarea, wrote on Saturday about Netanyahu on Facebook that the premier is “a loathsome man who, together with his deranged wife, are placing Israel on her knees and pointing a loaded gun at her head.”

In person, though, demonstrations near Netanyahu’s private residence have remained relatively restrained. On Saturday, marchers, some of them carrying posters of hostages in Gaza, went from the initial gathering place to a police barricade, but avoided going any further.

Illustrative: Aerial view of the city of Caesarea, June 16, 2012. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Restrained, but by no means quiet.

The government is “crushing Israel’s people,” Guy Tzur, a reserves major general in the Israel Defense Forces, charged on Saturday.

Another speaker from Moked Caesarea, who did not identify herself, called Netanyahu “the only guilty party for the massacre” of October 7. He should, she added, be “tried for murder.”

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