Tens of thousands of Israelis protested against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in over 1,000 socially distanced gatherings throughout the country Saturday, the fourth such event since the government instituted a ban on mass protests as part of the national coronavirus lockdown.
Clashes were reported in Tel Aviv between demonstrators and police as authorities tried to stop activists marching through the streets. Police said they had detained eight protesters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
After months of protests calling for Netanyahu to resign over his corruption charges and handling of the pandemic, Saturday evening’s rallies have drawn the largest crowds. Since the restriction was approved last month, tens of thousands of Israelis have staged protests on street corners and public squares near their homes.
Channel 12 and Channel 13 both reported that Saturday’s protests appeared to be the largest yet. The “Black Flags” movement, one of the groups leading the demonstrations, said it believed over 200,000 people were participating in rallies, though its claims could not be independently verified.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered in both Tel Aviv’s Habima Square and Rabin Square on Saturday evening. While many appeared to make an effort to keep their distance from one another, others crowded together in large groups. Dozens of demonstrators fanned out into the neighboring streets, clutching signs saying “Let us go,” “Bibi, you’re destroying my future,” or, simply “Go.”
“We want a government that cares about the public,” said Itay Flicker, a Tel Aviv resident. “We are demonstrating because people are really suffering — in terms of health, the economy, and so on. But the government is totally detached from all that.”
In addition to the two gatherings in Habima and Rabin Square, dozens of other small clusters of demonstrators sprung up in various parts of Tel Aviv. Protesters milled about on central streets and stood on the porches of their apartment, waving flags and signs.
“I can’t stand how this man is destroying my country. For three years, I held a gun and served the country in a secret unit…I still do more than 25 days of reserve duty in a year. Now I find myself with a flag and a horn, and it gives me the same sense of service as when I took up arms,” said doctoral student Adam Eshel.
Asked by The Times of Israel how he felt about Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, who has risen sharply in opinion polls in the past few days, potentially replacing Netanyahu, Eshel said that his fundamental objections to Netanyahu continuing as Prime Minster did not apply to the other right-wing politician.
“Aside from his horrific statements on the LGBT community and so on, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be elected, as long as he hasn’t lost his sense of patriotic duty the way Netanyahu has,” Eshel said.
As the evening wore on, thousands of demonstrators began marching through the city streets. Protesters streamed out of HaBima by the hundreds towards Dizengoff Street, blocking the major Tel Aviv thoroughfare. Hundreds of other demonstrators marched from Rabin Square towards Arlozorov Street, where they were hemmed in by police as they attempted to reach a highway.
For hours, the protesters blocked major street after major street — Dizengoff, Ben Yehuda, Ibn Gavirol — with various marches snaking in and out of one another’s path.
Police have said such marches are illegal without prior coordination with law enforcement. When Tel Aviv police allowed a march to take place last week despite what they deemed to be its illegality, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana publicly criticized them on Twitter.
הפגנה בשכונת הנפת הדגל בנס ציונה pic.twitter.com/wLzFcvrCg3
— RSW (@RSW01917560) October 10, 2020
The following Saturday night saw violent clashes between police and protesters in central Tel Aviv as they marched through the city streets; Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai was lightly wounded during the skirmishes. A smaller group of anti-Netanyahu marchers on Tuesday night found themselves hemmed in by police on all sides.
But this Saturday saw relatively few clashes between police and protesters, even as the demonstrators shut down major roads. Cars waited behind police vans and motorbikes acting as makeshift roadblocks while thousands of demonstrators chanted. Police occasionally blocked demonstrators from entering some streets, leading thousands to quickly charge in the opposite direction.
Israel Police did not publicly comment on whether there had been a change in policy, although they did condemn what they said were “many grave violations of public order and of the coronavirus guidelines” in a statement following the demonstration.
“Many demonstrators violated public order, blocked intersections, ignored police commands, and in some places resorted to physical and verbal violence. Most of them blatantly violated corona guidelines when they gathered without keeping distances, did not wear masks and endangered public health,” the police said.
Around midnight, several of the marches converged again at HaBima Square. Protest organizers affiliated with the anti-Netanyahu Kumi Yisrael group called over megaphones for the crowd to disperse peacefully and go home; the majority did, leaving a few dozen demonstrators scattered across the square.
Netanyahu’s Likud party said in a statement that the protests “cannot cover the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu is successfully leading the lockdown that is bringing down morbidity,” saying many European nations appeared headed for a new closure as well.
“The left can continue protesting, and Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to save the lives of Israel’s citizens.”
On Saturday afternoon police stopped a protest cycling convoy of some 130 riders from approaching Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea, Kan news reported.
The cyclists carried Israeli and black flags as part of the Black Flags movement against the premier. Several were fined by officers for breaking lockdown restrictions.
Saturday saw a double challenge for police seeking to enforce social distancing restrictions, facing both mass country-wide protests as well as expected gatherings in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities to celebrate the Simchat Torah holiday.
Previous nights of protests have seen some clashes between protesters and police, as well as cases of physical violence by counter-protesters.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Friday called for more police officers to be stationed at anti-government demonstrations due to a series of assaults on protesters, warning the violence could end in “murder.”
גם גילה השרה להפצת הסביבה קיבלה הערב הפגנה משלה ????
— לירי בורק (@lirishavit) October 10, 2020
Late Tuesday night, the Prime Minister’s Office said cabinet ministers approved by a telephone vote the extension of lockdown measures, including the limits on protests. They will remain in place at least until Tuesday.
Israel imposed a nationwide lockdown ahead of the High Holidays last month to rein in a surging coronavirus outbreak. The Knesset passed a law last week allowing the government to declare a special week-long state of emergency to limit participation in assemblies because of the pandemic. The government then declared the state of emergency, limiting all public gatherings to within a kilometer (half a mile) of a person’s home.
Netanyahu has said the restrictions are driven by safety concerns as the country battles a runaway pandemic, but critics and protesters accuse him of tightening the lockdown to muzzle dissent.
However, the protest ban appears to have only further motivated demonstrators, with tens of thousands rallying throughout the country last week.
Israel was initially praised for its swift imposition of restrictions in February to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But after reopening the economy and schools in May, new cases increased quickly, and have skyrocketed to one of the highest per capita in the world.
After nearly three weeks of lockdown, the number of daily new cases is gradually decreasing, but infections are still spreading, particularly among the hard-hit ultra-Orthodox community.