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Knesset set to ban mass rallies as anti-Netanyahu protesters decry move

Law limiting protests to a kilometer from home up for vote Tuesday; Likud removes demand that ban remain after lockdown ends; demonstrators claim PM ‘trying to crush democracy’

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, September 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, September 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A bill that would curtail public protests due to coronavirus regulations was approved by a Knesset committee Tuesday and was widely expected to pass in the plenum later in the day, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party dropped reservations it had filed against the legislation.

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

The proposed legislation would allow citizens to protest only within a kilometer of their home.

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.

As the committee approved the bill for second and third readings in the Knesset plenum later in the day — its final hurdle before it is signed into law — 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.”

Lawmakers last week failed to pass the law, which would severely restrict both demonstrations and public worship.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, anti-Netanyahu protesters gathered in vehicles outside the Knesset and clashed with police. They had earlier led a long convoy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

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.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Friday that he was proposing emergency regulations to bypass the Knesset and to limit public gatherings, but Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit swiftly voiced their opposition to the move, with the former saying his Blue and White party would not support it.

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 Avi Nissenkorn were organized by the Black Flags movement.

Edelstein tweeted against the protesters on Saturday, calling them virus spreaders and saying their activities would soon be curtailed.

“Don’t follow the protesters’ example tonight. They took advantage of the foot-dragging at the Knesset to endanger their health and the health of those around them,” he wrote. “On Tuesday we will finish legislating and the protests will be limited.”

On Saturday, thousands of people took part in protests against Netanyahu throughout the country, as well as online, with the largest events held in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Caesarea.

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