Convoys of vehicles were making their way along Israeli highways to Jerusalem Saturday afternoon, as protesters headed to the capital for weekly demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite tightened lockdown measures that entered into effect Friday.
Cars sporting Israeli flags honked as they crawled along roads, with demonstrators by the roadside and on overpasses calling out encouragements.
Convoys were also headed to Caesarea, where Netanyahu’s private home is located.
Police were preparing in increased forces, and said they would closely enforce social distancing and mask-wearing regulations. Police officials said officers had been instructed not to block protesters from reaching rallying points.
Plans by the government to severely limit the rallies, as well as public prayers, fell through Friday after lawmakers failed to agree on the legislation before the start of Shabbat. The legislation would have limited protests to within a kilometer of an individual’s home, and in groups of no more than 20 people.
אלפי רכבים pic.twitter.com/54ImLCc032
— Eran Etzion ערן עציון (@eranetzion) September 26, 2020
Despite its failure to pass, there were some sporadic reports of police telling civilians they could not reach Jerusalem to demonstrate, citing the supposed one-kilometer rule. However, this did not appear to be a widespread issue.
Protest organizers said they expected thousands of vehicles to take part in the convoys.
Eight different protest groups organized Saturday’s convoys and planned protests, vowing to reach the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour street, “where we will demonstrate in line with the Health Ministry’s guidelines and while maintaining social distance between one another.”
A joint statement from different protest groups said ahead of the events that the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic “is bringing down upon Israel a catastrophe on the social, health and economic levels. Only Netanyahu is to blame, and he is now trying to destroy democracy. He is possessively concerning himself with the protests… because they reveal the lies he is trying to hide, and the fact that he has forsaken the citizens of Israel.”
They added: “The coronavirus is dangerous, but dictatorship is more dangerous. We will continue to demonstrate, in accordance with restrictions. We will not give up.”
מאות רכבים משיירת אזור המרכז עושים את דרכם כעת להפגין בירושלים. טור הרכבים לא נגמר. הנה שתי דק ממנו. לאחר הדיווחים הסותרים אתמול הודיעו חלק ניכר מארגוני המחאה כי הם יפגינו בבלפור היום וכי כיוון של מחאה אין הנהגה כל אחד רשאי להפגין היכן ואיך שירצה. מי ברגל מי ברכב ומי במרפסת pic.twitter.com/uuf6DwEci6
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) September 26, 2020
Some protest groups, including the large “Black Flags” movement, said they would not travel to Jerusalem this week and respect the national lockdown. However, they were planning other events, including protests at bridges, squares and intersections across the country. They also launched an initiative for Israelis at home to go to their windows or balconies at 8 p.m. and boo the prime minister.
The Black Flags said protests were held at 315 locations throughout the country.
In addition, the organization Darkenu said it would hold a virtual, online protest.
Meanwhile, the Walla news site reported that Netanyahu had continued to push over the weekend to make use of national emergency regulations to bypass the Knesset and prevent the demonstrations against him from going forward.
According to Hebrew media reports, the proposed emergency regulations would remain in effect until Tuesday, after the Jewish Sabbath and Yom Kippur, when it is expected the Knesset could pass the legislation to limit protests and prayers.
However, the Blue and White party was said to be strongly opposed to such a move, and prepared to take steps to stymie it should Netanyahu attempt to pass it. Walla said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and the Health Ministry’s legal adviser also warned Netanyahu against such action, which they said would be unconstitutional.
Channel 13 reported Friday that Likud was also seeking to block demonstrations after the period of tight lockdown ends in a few weeks’ time. It said the opposition’s Yamina party, led by Naftali Bennett, had agreed to support such legislation. There was no outside confirmation of the report.
During a press conference Thursday, Netanyahu said it was “absurd” to say that he was pushing for a nationwide lockdown to stop ongoing protests against him over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the pandemic, before railing at length against the demonstrations.
He rejected the notion that he had sought the full lockdown to halt politically damaging protests, arguing that “these anarchist and ludicrous protests” actually help him politically, but “the public is sick of them.”
He said the demonstrations were “incubators” for both the virus and for anarchy, and said they’d been held in Israel on “a scale seen nowhere else in the world.”
There has been no data to show protests have been the cause of infection spread. The virus is thought to mostly spread in indoor spaces rather than in the open air, and most protesters wear masks.
A report on Channel 13 claimed that the government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu had privately said Netanyahu was pushing for harsher restrictions specifically to curb the protests against him, calling the move “disgusting” and saying he had felt the need to take nausea pills.