Organizers said some 2,000 demonstrators gathered Thursday evening at Habima Square in Tel Aviv to protest what they describe as the erosion of Israeli democracy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The demonstrators, who said they were keeping two meters’ distance between one another in accordance with social distancing rules, waved black flags, as they have done on previous occasions over the past month.
“The citizens of Israel are proving today that Israeli democracy refuses to be subjected to a coup under the pretext of the coronavirus,” an organizer said.
“We won’t back a government whose prime minister is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. We cannot permit a situation in which that same accused man has a role in appointing investigators, prosecutors and judges in the State of Israel.”
Among the demonstrators was Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz, who tweeted a photo of himself among the socially distanced crowd wearing a face mask.
Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, raised eyebrows by responding to Horowitz’s tweet with an apparent wish for left-wingers to die of COVID-19.
“I hope the elderly who die following this protest will only be from your camp,” he wrote, eliciting a torrent of criticism.
But he refused to back down, writing in a follow-up comment that “for two months it has been thoroughly explained to everyone in the country that mass gatherings will lead to mass infections and necessarily the death of vulnerable infected people. So statistically, there is a good chance that the left-wing protesters tonight caused the future deaths of elderly people. I prefer them not to be ours.”
The younger Netanyahu ended up deleting both tweets after the prime minister himself condemned the posts. A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said he “roundly rejects the remarks” and that “there are no [political] camps in the struggle against the coronavirus, and there shouldn’t be.”
The “black flag” movement’s name has come from demonstrators pinning black flags to their vehicles to symbolize what they believe is a danger to Israel’s democracy posed by Netanyahu’s continued rule.
The demonstrators have often kept to their cars in order to uphold social distancing directives aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
On Monday, dozens of black flag protesters demonstrated next to the home of Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi, due to party leader Benny Gantz’s willingness to form a unity government and serve under Netanyahu. The protest leaders said police handed five of them fines for refusing to disperse the “banned gathering.”
They said the fines ranged from NIS 475 to 5,000 ($133-1,400) and vowed not to pay them, accusing police of trying to “suppress the protest with huge fines.”
Ashkenazi himself later urged authorities to consider canceling the police fines.
“Even during these days, we must guarantee freedom of speech and the right to protest, provided that the protesters adhere to the Health Ministry guidelines,” he said in a tweet.