Netanyahu ally calls for protests to be outlawed amid pandemic

Coalition chairman Miki Zohar says it is ‘absurd’ to allow demonstrations while businesses are closed even if they adhere to virus guidelines

House Committee Chairman MK Miki Zohar leads a discussion on canceling the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
House Committee Chairman MK Miki Zohar leads a discussion on canceling the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for demonstrations to be outlawed during the coronavirus pandemic. He spoke out after thousands of people took part Saturday evening in a fresh round of anti-government protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Likud MK Miki Zohar also said that the protests were “sponsored,” without further elaborating on the claim.

“To approve mass demonstrations that pose a health hazard to all Israeli citizens, while closing many businesses that adhere to the guidelines on the other, is absurd,” Zohar, the coalition whip, tweeted. “The government must decide: Open the whole economy including mass demonstrations full of unjustified hatred or immediately stop these sponsored demonstrations in the same way they decided to close the businesses.”

As national infection rates rise, the latest government regulations announced late Thursday severely limited public gatherings until further notice, ordered the closing of restaurants for in-house seating for the foreseeable future (though that move has been delayed to Tuesday after massive backlash by restaurateurs) and ordered multiple closures on weekends going forward, including of beaches, parks and other recreational activities.

Police use water cannons on demonstrators against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on July 18, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Amid growing public unrest and demonstrations by various groups, some have called for restricting protests, citing public health concerns. This has led protest activists to warn of a threat to democratic freedoms should the right to demonstrate be impinged upon.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn vowed Friday that there will be no limits on demonstrations or on the courts, even if a full lockdown is enacted down the road.

“Even under limitations, we will ensure civil rights,” Nissenkorn said in a Facebook post. “The fundamentals of democracy are important during regulars times, and even more important during emergencies.”

New Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaks during a ceremony at the Justice Ministry on May 18, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Zohar’s statement came hours after a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening focusing on the government’s economic policies amid the resurgent coronavirus pandemic, and a concurrent one in Jerusalem calling on Netanyahu to resign over his corruption trial, which was set to resume Sunday morning.

In both cities, protests began in areas designated by police but later spilled over into the streets, with demonstrators marching and sometimes clashing with officers.

In the capital, thousands protested near the prime minister’s official residence. Large crowds then marched though a series of roadblocks meant to contain them and blocked roads as they paraded for hours through the streets around the area, largely peacefully, waving anti-Netanyahu banners to the beats of drums and loud vuvuzelas.

Little to no social distancing was being observed between participants, though most were wearing masks. Police later clashed with some of the protesters and used water cannons in an attempt to disperse the crowds.

Demonstrators protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on July 18, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Officers were filmed violently removing anti-Netanyahu protesters blocking the road near Jerusalem’s Sacher Park. A number of the demonstrators were heard shouting “Nazis” at the officers.

Fifteen protesters were arrested in Jerusalem.

Earlier, protesters demanding the premier’s resignation also rallied on dozens of bridges over roads throughout the country.

Thousands also demonstrated at Tel Aviv’s Charles Clore Park, while generally maintaining social distancing. Late on Saturday night, police said they arrested 13 protesters in Tel Aviv after a police officer was pepper-sprayed and demonstrators hurled objects.

Anti-government protesters, clad in masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, gather with Israeli flags and signs during a demonstration in Charles Clore Park in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020 (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

The demonstrations come with unemployment in Israel at some 21 percent — or 850,000 people — and rising, and as restrictions imposed amid record daily coronavirus infections further batter the economy. Virus cases are currently rising at some 1,800-1,900 per day. The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 401 on Saturday night.

Unlike previous economic protests in Tel Aviv last week, this week’s rallies also included members of the “black flag” movement that has warned that Netanyahu is eroding Israeli democracy through his attacks on the justice system and police amid his corruption trial.

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 claimed the charges are part of an effort by political opponents, the media, law enforcement and prosecutors to remove him from office.

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