Tel Aviv mayor to boycott event over lack of Shabbat trains

Major traffic blockages expected in Tel Aviv as Netanyahu tours new light rail

Disruptions to continue throughout the day; anti-government protest leaders appeal to High Court, alleging police closing off roads to limit demonstrations against the PM

A test drive of the new Light Rail in Jaffa-Tel Aviv on August 16, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
A test drive of the new Light Rail in Jaffa-Tel Aviv on August 16, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Heavy traffic was expected in Tel Aviv and its surroundings Thursday morning as police began closing off roads ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking part in launch events for central Israel’s new light rail system, a day before it opens to the public.

Netanyahu and his wife were expected to tour the rail’s Red Line, which stretches from Petah Tikva to Bat Yam, before attending an official ceremony in Petah Tikva around 3 p.m.

Road blockages started in stages at 7 a.m. and were expected to end at 4 p.m.

Leaders of the protest movement against the government asserted that the extensive road closures were due to police’s efforts to prevent demonstrators from disrupting the tour.

They petitioned police Wednesday to prevent “the paralysis of all of Tel Aviv for the benefit of the dictator taking a ride on the light rail,” saying the closures were “unreasonable” and “deranged,” and on Thursday morning they appealed to the High Court of Justice against the move.

The petition asked the court to prevent “paralyzing the center of the country to allow the public relations procession” of Netanyahu and called on the court to issue a temporary injunction against road closures until they could hear the petition.

Protests were expected throughout the day’s events.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 30, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

The ceremony in Petah Tikva was to be attended by a number of ministers, including Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

On Wednesday Regev was booed by anti-government protesters and met with cries of “shame” during a ceremonial launch event. The event in Jaffa was attended by Regev and executives involved in the ongoing project, which has been under construction since 2015.

The government’s plans to dramatically reshape the judiciary have been met with months of mass protests. Opponents have also hounded government ministers, holding demonstrations at locations where they make public appearances. Earlier this week protesters demonstrated outside Moshav Ramot near the Sea of Galilee where Netanyahu arrived for a family vacation. Last week, Netanyahu’s previous vacation in the Golan community of Neve Ativ was also accompanied by protests.

The Red Line, which stretches over 34 stations from Bat Yam to Petah Tikva, will officially open to the public on Friday. The government mass transit agency NTA oversaw the construction of the 24-kilometer (15-mile) line.

Beyond the protests against Netanyahu and cabinet members, a growing chorus of opponents have taken aim at the light rail itself, with calls to boycott the line over the government’s refusal to operate it on Shabbat.

Though most public transport is inactive during the Jewish day of rest, the opening of the years-in-the-making project has refocused attention on the lack of transportation options for secular Israelis who do not own vehicles, as secular anger over religious limitations in the public sphere grows amid the larger protests.

People protest against Transportation Minister Miri Regev during a test drive of the new Light Rail in Jaffa-Tel Aviv on August 16, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Former transportation minister Merav Michaeli had sought to have the line operate on Shabbat, but this promise — questionable from the start because the line runs through the Haredi town of Bnei Brak — fell through when the new government came to power.

“We will maintain our status quo as a Jewish state even on the light rail,” Regev vowed Wednesday.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announced he would boycott Thursday’s ceremony in Petah Tikva, which he said Regev had invited him to, citing his support for public transportation on Shabbat.

“This is my protest,” he said in a video statement. “The light rail must also operate and serve the public on weekends, as is fitting in a liberal and democratic country.”

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