Opposition MK: 'We've become a dictatorship'

Israel passes law drastically limiting demonstrations during COVID lockdown

MKs ban travel of over 1 km to reach protests and prayers, cut attendance to 20; anti-Netanyahu rallies to be limited to 2,000 in clusters of 20; opposition slams harm to democracy

People protest against the government outside the headquarters of the Tel Aviv District Israel Police, on September 29, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
People protest against the government outside the headquarters of the Tel Aviv District Israel Police, on September 29, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Knesset passed a controversial measure to curtail public protests due to coronavirus regulations early Wednesday morning, following an all-night legislative session in which the opposition slammed the government for harming democracy.

The measure amends existing legislation to give the government the power to ban traveling over one kilometer (0.6 miles) from home to attend a protest, and limit outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 20 people, drastically cutting back large weekly demonstrations outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

The bill passed on second and third readings by a vote of 46-38 just after 4:30 a.m., following days of delays. On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s Likud party dropped reservations it had filed against the legislation, allowing it to move forward.

The ruling party had previously demanded that the ban on mass protests — most notably regular anti-Netanyahu and anti-government protests held in recent months throughout the country — remain in effect even after the current nationwide lockdown is lifted.

The understandings were reached in negotiations between Likud and the Blue and White party, after previous disagreements between them prevented the law from being advanced by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Under the final version of the law, under a government-declared “special coronavirus emergency,” the cabinet can curtail protests, prayers and religious ceremonies for a week, with the possibility of extending the restrictions for another two weeks should the emergency remain in place.

The measure also removes a clause that had exempted protests and prayers from rules limiting gatherings. Under the new version, the government can keep outdoor gatherings to 20 people each, and indoor gatherings to 10.

Officials have said that under the rules, protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence would be kept to 2,000 in total, with the Paris Square protest zone able to accommodate 100 capsules of 20 people. Only those who live within a kilometer would be able to attend.

The number is far below the 10,000 to 20,000 people who have shown up weekly outside the Prime Minister’s Residence to demonstrate against Netanyahu, who is standing trial in three graft cases.

Backers say the protests pose a major health danger and cracking down on them was necessary given Israel’s skyrocketing infection rate.

But the measure has faced vociferous opposition from critics who say it undermines Israel’s democratic character and serve Netanyahu’s political interests, using the virus as a cover.

People protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 26, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I came to see if I can still speak in the plenum, because that’s the next step,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said in the Knesset Tuesday night.

Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid speaks in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

“They’ll say that because of the coronavirus I can’t stand here and speak in the name of the opposition.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar called the law an “attack on the citizens of Israel.”

“When the law passes, nobody can call us the only democracy in the Middle East. We’ve become a dictatorship.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar at the Knesset on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

An earlier version of the bill had met opposition from Blue and White, Likud’s senior partner in the government.

As the committee approved the bill for second and third readings in the Knesset plenum earlier Tuesday, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White said that Likud had “failed” in its efforts to impose limits on protests after the lockdown ends.

“Likud’s dangerous attempt to ban the right to protest throughout the crisis has failed,” he told the committee. “Restrictions on demonstrations will apply only during a full closure. Once the restrictions on the economy are eased, restrictions on demonstrations and prayers will be lifted immediately.”

Two Blue and White MKs — Miki Haimovich and Ram Shefa — crossed the aisle and voted against the law. “This is a moment of truth for everything to do with democracy, freedom of speech, personal liberty and freedom of movement,” Haimovich said.

Lawmakers last week failed to pass the law ahead of Yom Kippur, amid mutual recriminations over the delay.

Israel has been under a full lockdown since last week but earlier legislation hamstrung government attempts to limit travel for protests and prayer. The country has one of the highest per-capita daily caseloads in the world, and officials have warned hospitals may soon be overwhelmed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he arrives at the West Wing of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

As of Tuesday evening, there were over 67,000 active cases nationwide. Health Ministry data showed 797 patients in serious condition. The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 1,528, with over 500 deaths in the last month alone.

During a Tuesday committee meeting ahead of the vote, anti-Netanyahu protesters gathered in vehicles outside the Knesset and clashed with police.

One protester was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer, while the demonstrators said cops used excessive force and removed one of the signs they put up.

The Black Flags movement, one of several groups behind the protest, said in a statement that “the Netanyahu police continues with its relentless violence against anyone who doesn’t support the Netanyahu regime. Blue and White needs to watch these images and understand the enormity of this moment. Netanyahu is trying to violently crush democracy. This is the time to stop him.”

Demonstrations against the prime minister over his alleged corruption and his attacks on the justice system have become a regular occurrence in recent months, with rallies held several times a week, and major events every Saturday night.

But the protests have become a contentious issue as virus cases have grown, with the premier and others disparaging the mass gatherings amid fears of infection.

Dozens of demonstrators staged protests outside the residences of key Israeli ministers on Monday evening ahead of the attempt to advance the legislation banning large demonstrations.

The protests outside the homes of Gantz, Edelstein, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Justice Minister Nissenkorn were organized by the Black Flags movement.

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