Thousands of Israelis held protested against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday for the 12th straight week, with anti-corruption demonstrators being joined by business owners raging against the potential damage of a looming country-wide lockdown.
Restaurateurs and owners of gyms and event halls were protesting in Jerusalem outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, alongside the crowds insisting the premier must resign over his trial in three criminal cases.
Media reports put the crowd size in Jerusalem at around 10,000.
The protest ended after midnight as police forcibly cleared out the remaining protesters who refused to leave. Nine people were arrested for disturbing public order or attacking officers, police said. A police spokesperson described the demonstration as “mostly peaceful.”
The demonstration began with a march to the prime minister’s official residence in the capital’s Balfour Street from the Chords Bridge at the entrance to the city, as they have done on three previous occasions.
There were no reported scuffles between police and protesters or any interruptions to the march.
During the march, protesters could be seen waving Israeli flags and chanting “You take from the poor and give to the rich, what a corrupt government!”
Sagi Golan, 36, from Sderot, said he was at the rally to protest against a prime minister whose every act is “driven by his desire to escape his legal judgement.” Golan said he has been unemployed for six months and has been a regular at the anti-Netanyahu protests this summer.
Lawyer Wajdi Haj Yehia, part of a group of protesters from the Arab city of Tayibe, said they had shown up every week to demonstrate “against corruption, against racism and against the policy of this government at whose head stands Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“We will come every Saturday until we replace the government. Because it is time to replace this government because democracy here is really in danger…People need to wake up and understand that there is a historic moment here of change,” he said.
Saturday’s protest was expected to be the last before new national lockdown measures are enacted next week. It is not yet clear how protests will be treated under the new restrictions, though they could be limited. Saturday is Rosh Hashanah, and demonstrations are not planned, regardless of the closure.
While the focus of the demonstration remained opposition to Netanyahu and alleged government corruption, many of the protesters chanted against the planned lockdown. One protester chained himself to a traffic pole in a statement against the planned measures, which are intended to help bring steadily rising coronavirus infection numbers under control.
Surrounded by dozens of demonstrators, a woman called out: “Israel, Israel won’t shut down” into a megaphone.
Yoav Marks-Hazani, whose wife runs a restaurant in Jaffa, held a sign reading “Thou shalt not close.” Marks-Hazani said it was his second time attending the protests.
“Our income has dropped around 40 percent due to the crisis… We’re digging into our savings, asking our parents. It’s a mess,” he said. “This lockdown is politically motivated and won’t solve anything. Even if it slows the spread the virus, it won’t stop it.”
Others protested what they said was the detachment from the public’s travails shown by the prime minister, who was set to leave for Washington Sunday to celebrate normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain as the rest of the country prepared to go under lockdown. The premier’s original plans to take a private jet for him and his family — to protect them from the press and the rest of his entourage — had kicked up enough public anger before the weekend that he shelved the idea on Friday.
“Peace with Bahrain and peace with the emirates really doesn’t interest anyone here. We are busy dealing with everyday life and this is what interests us — not all kinds of nonsense outside,” said 62-year-old Jerusalem resident Boaz Tamir.
Tamir held up a sign with a picture of a man rummaging through a garbage can and text reading “Peace with Bahrain? Wait, I found schnitzel in the garbage!”
Protest organizers at Balfour called for demonstrations at the airport to “detain” Netanyahu’s flight Sunday.
Also at the protest was performance artist Ze’ev Engelmayer, who made headlines last week after being arrested for wearing a body suit of a naked female, a character known as “Shoshke.” Others also dressed in mock Shoshke costumes to show support for him.
“A lot of people are identifying themselves with me. It is really fun. I feel that I am setting out on a struggle and there are people by my side,” Engelmayer dressed up as Shoshke told The Times of Israel.
Police said Engelmayer’s suit, a fixture at protests in past weeks, could be a form of “sexual harassment against the public,” a charge that does not appear to exist in Israeli law books.
Engelmayer claimed that police had yet to dismiss the case, despite releasing him hours after his arrest.
“Our police opened a case for me for something that does not exist in the law. It is absurd. I want them to close it tomorrow. It really makes me mad,” he said.
Earlier Saturday, protests were held in major intersections and on highway overpasses across the country, as they have been in previous weeks.
In the seaside town of Caesarea, some 500 people joined a weekly anti-Netanyahu protest outside his private home.
Police said ahead of the Jerusalem protest that in accordance with court decisions, use of horns, drums and other noise-making instruments would be banned after 9:30 p.m. to minimize disruption to local residents. At 11 p.m. use of loudspeakers and bullhorns would also be restricted.
Shortly after midnight, Police began forcible moving protesters out of the street and quickly reopened traffic in the normally crowded intersection.
“We won’t disperse until Bibi resigns,” demonstrators chanted as they were dragged out.
Jerusalem Police Operations Commander Alon Khalfon said the protests were largely peaceful, but some demonstrators “clashed with police” and attacked them.
Overall, the protest was “exemplary,” Khalfon said.
He blamed violent incidents during the three months of demonstrations on a “handful” of protesters “who come each week.”
Demonstrators have held regular protests this summer against Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other locations across the country, with the main protest site being the Prime Minister’s Residence in the capital.
On Friday, thousands of Israelis marched in central Jerusalem and then rallied outside Netanyahu’s residence to protest against the premier over his indictment on corruption charges and handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the Friday “Kabbalat Shabbat” protests have become a weekly event drawing several thousand people, including young families and children, this week was the first time protesters were permitted by police to march in Jerusalem.
The Friday demonstration was attended by a number of high-profile former figures from the military, as well as academia and the arts, among them former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, former Shin Bet head Carmi Gillon and prize-winning biochemist Ruth Arnon.
“We will march not far to Democracy Square, formerly known as Paris Square,” Amir Haskel, leader of the Ein Matzav (No Way) group, told The Times of Israel. He was referring to demonstrators’ hanging of a large banner at the square last week, unofficially renaming the site.
“We hope that this is another small step towards the end goal, which is a separation from Netanyahu,” Haskel added.
He said what made this particular protest unique was the presence of many people “who dedicated many years of their lives to the country” in various fields, who had all gathered together for the sole purpose of ousting Netanyahu.
According to event organizers, who handed out bracelets to keep count of attendance, over 6,000 people attended Friday’s protest.
“Democracies do not die in one day… we are in the process and it’s time to wake up,” Haskel told the crowd from the center stage to loud cheers. “Israeli democracy is dying and connected to a ventilator.”