The majority of the protesters detained at a demonstration outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence were freed by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday.
Two individuals were released outright, three more were released on condition they stay away from the premier’s residence for two weeks, and a further three were placed under house arrest until Sunday. Most of the 50 people that police said they had arrested were freed overnight after the protest.
Several thousand people gathered Tuesday evening in Jerusalem, calling on Netanyahu to quit over his indictment on corruption charges. Some of the demonstrators attempted to break through security barriers at the scene and clashed with police. As the protest ended, hundreds moved downtown, where they blocked the light rail system.
Police then turned water cannons on the demonstrators and mounted officers charged up and down the light rail tracks on Jaffa Street, sending protesters scattering to the sides before regrouping. Some protesters pushed garbage dumpsters and chain-link fences into the streets as makeshift barricades, and several dumpsters were set on fire.
Police said one officer was lightly wounded.
Some of the demonstrators were brought to court on Wednesday with their hands and feet shackled, against procedure.
One of those arrested, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a former Shin Bet official who became a prominent anti-Netanyahu campaigner, said that police were “are doing something inappropriate — trying to tell a story that did not happen.”
“On what basis do they talk about assaulting a police officer in the course of his duty?” he said. “There is a matter of principle here. If you think I did something [illegal] that’s okay. But if it’s just an attempt to keep us away to prevent further demonstrations — I do not think it is appropriate,” he said.
“I was stuck between police and a vehicle with a water cannon. I lay on the floor, put my hands on my head and tried to avoid the current. At no point did I hear the district commander declare the demonstration illegal — it did not happen. People were thrown into the air and were injured, also by the police. I saw it with my own eyes,” Ben Yitzhak said.
Lawyer Lea Tsemel, who was supposed to represent some of those arrested, was reportedly detained at the entrance to the court when police said she was supposed to be quarantined due to the coronavirus. Tsemel was allowed to leave after about an hour.
The Jerusalem demonstration was part of the ongoing “black flag” anti-corruption protests against Netanyahu.
Numerous such protests have been held in recent weeks and months, but Tuesday night’s was unprecedentedly large, with an unusually high participation of young people.
Tamir Hefetz, one of the organizers, stressed in a Wednesday Channel 12 interview that the organizers are firmly opposed to violence and confrontation.
Protesting what he said was the media’s obsession in the wake of the demonstration with “whether there was violence… whether an anarchist threw a chair,” however, he said the real issue was that “there is an entire generation of young people who are growing up to a dictatorial state, with no future, whose prime minister spends his day only seeking to evade justice… who passes anti-democratic laws, who harms the judicial system. These [young] people are crying out. I cry out with them… The protest is a protest to preserve democracy.”
Hefetz also said those responsible for initiating the violence were largely “provocateurs” who infiltrated the demonstration.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He has denied wrongdoing and claims the charges are part of an effort by political opponents, the media, law enforcement and prosecutors to remove him from office.
Protest organizers said they plan to hold another protest in Tel Aviv’s Charles Clore Park on Saturday night.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, police were opposed to a second mass protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square against the government’s economic policies, which organizers also want to hold on Saturday.
The report said police are concerned about the possible spread of the coronavirus at a large rally, but have proposed it be held at the Ganei Yehoshua Park instead.
However, organizers told the outlet that they will take the matter to the High Court of Justice and petition to be allowed to demonstrate in the iconic square.
“We will not be silenced. Police will not tell us where we can protest,” organizers said in a statement.
Under current rules, gatherings of 20 people or more in closed spaces are forbidden except in some circumstances. The rule does not apply to open spaces and protests have generally been exempted from virus rules, provided that social distancing is maintained.
After an attendee of the most recent protest tested positive for the virus, Prof. Ran Belcer, a public health expert who is advising the government on the virus, told Army Radio Wednesday that statistically, it was likely that there were several coronavirus carriers at the rally.
“I hope he made sure to wear a mask and keep distance. If so, one may hope that this will not end with a large number of infected. Time will tell,” he said.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.