Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly said he will not block efforts to allow anti-government protests to resume without coronavirus restrictions that have prevented mass demonstrations from taking place in recent weeks.
Speaking to ministers in closed meetings Sunday, Netanyahu said that he would not push for the emergency measures to be extended, and would allow the protests to resume, Hebrew media reported.
Shortly before those reports broke, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that his Blue and White party would not approve the extension of the government’s emergency powers when they expire Wednesday, allowing the mass protests against Netanyahu to take place unhindered.
“All this is on the condition that the morbidity trends continue to decline,” he said in a video statement, insisting that the restrictions must be lifted so that small businesses that are not customer-facing be allowed to open this week.
While welcoming the decline in new coronavirus cases, Gantz acknowledged the “high price” paid by Israelis during the current lockdown, which includes sweeping restrictions on business, gatherings, movement, and the education system.
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.
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.
Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu said that while there are signs the restrictions are bringing down infection rates, “we need a few more days to consider” easing the closure.
Defending the lockdown, Netanyahu said it “saved us from a geometric rise in morbidity, mortality, and seriously sick people,” but warned it was too early to believe the fight against COVID-19 is over.
When the restrictions are lifted, Netanyahu said, “we’ll open businesses with up to 10 employees that don’t receive customers [in person], we’ll open preschools.” He stressed, however, that “we’ll gradually do this in different stages, with caution and with clear measurements for moving from stage to stage.”
Netanyahu called on Israelis to continue adhering to the virus restrictions.
“If we act correctly, we’ll defeat the disease,” he declared.