Not clear there'll be enough space for huge anti-PM rallies

‘Clusters of 20’: Police announce new rules for protests during 3-week lockdown

Protestors will be divided into groups of 20 with ‘reasonable distance’ between clusters; numbers not being capped; police say they will expand area allocated for demonstrations

Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel police announced new regulations governing protests during the three-week lockdown that began earlier Friday, with demonstrators to be divided into “clusters” of 20, with social-distance within and between the clusters.

The police said they would expand the area in which demonstrators will be allowed to congregate when the new limitations necessitate this — a stance of particular relevance for the large demonstrations routinely held against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his residence, which have sometimes drawn crowds of tens of thousands on Saturday nights. It was not immediately clear whether it will be feasible to expand the area around Balfour Street for those demonstrations sufficiently to accommodate gatherings of that size.

“The size of the demonstration site will likely limit the number of groups that can enter within the distancing criteria,” the police guidelines acknowledge. “Therefore, the police will take steps to enable protesters to keep to the rules, by enlarging the area allocated for demonstrations, among other means.”

The new restrictions were drafted in coordination with the Health Ministry and Justice Ministry and received the approval of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on September 17, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The rules also state that “in order to reduce the potential for the virus to spread at mass demonstrations, the organizers of such protests will be asked to appoint ushers whose job it will be to remind participants of the guidelines and to help divide groups [of 20] with a reasonable distance between them.”

Their release follows days of outcry from mainly ultra-Orthodox leaders who objected to the free pass given to protests in the lockdown guidelines, while numbers for prayer services both indoors and outdoors are limited.

The Movement for Quality Government lauded the fact that no move was made to ban protests, saying the “right to protest and the freedom to demonstrate are fundamental rights in a democratic society.” The group also praised Mandelblit for not capping protest numbers.

Anti-corruption protesters and those critical of the government’s coronavirus policies have been gathering outside the Prime Minister’s Residence every week for the past three months. However, the Black Flag group, which is among the protest organizers, announced earlier this week that it would cease its demonstrations outside the premier’s Jerusalem home for the duration of the lockdown.

According to a Friday Channel 12 report, police have received numerous requests in recent days to approve supposed ultra-Orthodox demonstrations at the end of the Rosh Hashanah holiday on Sunday evening, in what officials believe to be an attempt to evade coronavirus lockdown orders forbidding travel.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators block a road during a protest against army conscription in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018. (AFP/Ahmad GHARABLI)

Multiple requests had been filed for protests in Haredi towns just as the holiday ends — including for some 400 buses coming to Jerusalem, the network said.

It is traditional to spend the Rosh Hashanah holiday with family, and for religious Jews this means returning home only when allowed to drive at the end of the two-day holiday. But this year will see the new lockdown begin on Rosh Hashanah eve precisely to prevent family gatherings that could spread infections.

Authorities have warned Israelis against traveling to their relatives ahead of the beginning of the lockdown, saying they could be forced to remain there for the duration of the closure, currently set to last at least three weeks.

Police also told the network they could not prevent the mass travel from taking place, as they had no proof the requests were illegitimate.

Separately Friday evening, the Health Ministry published updated coronavirus information revealing that 3,825 cases had been confirmed over the last 24 hours — a significant drop from previous days.

People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on September 18, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Most worryingly though, the numbers showed a spike of 27 new deaths since Friday morning, bringing the total number to 1,196. Asked if there had been a mistake in the figures, as the Health Ministry website only said there had been five new deaths since midnight, ministry spokesman Eyal Basson said, “those are the numbers,” without elaborating further.

The country’s total coronavirus tally stood at 179,071, of which 47,851 were active cases. The previous day’s case count stood at 5,238, continuing the trend of around 5,000 cases per day over the past week.

Patients included 581 in serious condition — 158 of whom were on ventilators — and 245 in moderate condition.

Of the 57,971 tests analyzed Thursday, 9.3 percent came back positive.

Israel’s new national coronavirus lockdown, the country’s second this year, entered into effect Friday at 2 p.m., marking the first time in the world an advanced country has imposed a repeat closure to curb the pandemic.

Policemen set up barriers to traffic at a checkpoint in Jerusalem on September 18, 2020, to enforce a new lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

The three-week shutdown, requiring the closure of many businesses and setting strict limits on movement and public gatherings, started just hours before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and will extend through other key religious holidays, including Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Some 7,000 policemen and soldiers, backed up by local municipality personnel, deployed throughout the country to enforce the closure using roadblocks and patrols, amid concerns that an exhausted and exasperated Israeli public will be far less cooperative with the new sweeping restrictions than during the initial wave of the pandemic.

Fines for individuals who break rules are set at NIS 500 ($145) and for businesses at NIS 5,000 ($1,450).

The new lockdown is simultaneously more permissive and more complex than the weeks-long closure imposed earlier this year, with numerous directives and exceptions to those directives seeming to cause public confusion as to what is and isn’t in fact allowed.

Under the new lockdown, nearly all businesses open to the public will be closed. People must remain within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of home, but there are numerous exceptions, including shopping for food or medicine, going to work, attending protests and even seeking essential pet care. The public is also allowed to attend funerals or circumcision ceremonies, to exercise and more — all under strict limitations.

The lockdown is the first element of the government’s three-part strategy — it is expected to last three weeks at least, dependent on situational assessments, and to be followed by several weeks of somewhat eased restrictions (including freer travel within cities but not between them, allowance of gatherings of up to 50 people, grater numbers allowed at workplaces) and finally a return to the so-called “traffic light” model in which cities will be dealt with based on infection rates.

Most Popular
read more: