Ahead of major protest planned Saturday night in Tel Aviv

Opposition chief warns protests over virus economic fallout could turn violent

Israelis becoming more desperate, angry as government reimposes restrictions seen as crippling to host of industries, Yair Lapid says

MK Yair Lapid (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Yair Lapid (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Knesset opposition chairman Yair Lapid warned Thursday that the ongoing protests against the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic could turn violent, as Israelis lose hope amid the spiraling economic situation.

“We are talking to people who are becoming more and more desperate and angry, who feel, and rightly so, that the country has deserted them in their hardest hour,” Lapid told the Reuters news agency.

“We are trying to be responsible… to calm things down, telling people, ‘You know violence is not the answer,’” he added.

“But it’s getting harder by the day… I sympathize with the anger and I also worry about the possibility of violence as a result of this anger. What I am trying to do is not to encourage it but to raise a red flag as to what might happen.”

As Israel contends with an alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a tide of anger and criticism over the government’s handling of the economic fallout of the pandemic, with polls indicating growing disapproval of his stewardship of the economy.

Unemployment at its height reached over 25 percent, with over a million Israelis out of work; now, over 800,000 are still unemployed, with that figure expected to climb in light of renewed restrictions put in place to combat the spike in infections.

There has been widespread anger from various sectors of the economy that say the government is not doing enough to help them weather the crisis, accompanied by outrage over the alleged misdirection of financial aid and the bureaucratic complexities of obtaining assistance.

Amid the growing anger, a mass demonstration has been called for Saturday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest the lack of government aid for workers hit by the virus restrictions and the delays in receiving the promised funds.

There have been no reports so far of violence during protests, but when Lapid was asked Thursday how far Israel was from that scenario, he answered: “Not that far. Not far enough.”

Social workers block the Azrieli Junction in Tel Aviv in protest of their work conditions, on July 2, 2020. (Union of Social Workers)

The government on Monday passed a raft of new restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.

The restrictions limited the number of people allowed in restaurants and synagogues, reduced the number of passengers permitted on public transportation, hiked fines for not wearing face masks, and shut down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.

Adding to the country’s economic woes, the government on Wednesday delayed the release of a highly touted aid package for Israeli workers and businesses hurt by the tightening restrictions, amid reported disagreements over the method for distributing the funds to those in need.

Amid the economic downturn, some business owners are rebelling against the government restrictions, including fitness centers that remained open on Wednesday despite the new restrictions.

An Israeli singer on Wednesday said he would stop paying taxes until the government provided more support to the self-employed, many of whom have lost their income due to the pandemic.

Hemi Rudner called on other Israelis to follow his lead and cease payments to the government in a video statement broadcast by Channel 13.

“Myself, and millions of other citizens in the State of Israel, are stuck in a horrible situation, where in addition to fears about our health, we don’t have any way to make a living and support our families,” he said. “In other Western countries independent workers get an economic safety net as an integral part of their rights. In Israel, the tyrannical government toys with us as if we’re invisible, like there are no faces behind the masks.

“I want to say that as long as we don’t receive our rights as citizens, without the terrible and discouraging bureaucracy, I’m declaring that I’m not paying taxes to the State of Israel,” Rudner said. “I call on all Israelis to do the same. Maybe then, at the end of the day, something will change here.”

Hemi Rudner delivers a monologue to Channel 13 news, on July 8, 2020. (Screenshot/Channel 13)

The culture industry has been hit particularly hard by the virus, and government regulations meant to stem its spread, with events heavily restricted since the outbreak began. Many of those who work in the industry are self-employed and have less access to social benefits than salaried employees.

The last few weeks have seen the reversal of many of the gains made in the fight against the coronavirus in recent months. New daily virus cases, which had dropped to low double digits through most of May, have soared to over a thousand a day, and the number of active cases has reached an all-time high.

The country had been placed on a nationwide lockdown for about two months at the start of the outbreak, but removed most of its restrictions by May to reopen the economy.

The current increase in weekly infections in Israel is one of the highest in the world, according to a chart published Monday afternoon by the Health Ministry.

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