Police on Thursday strongly rejected claims by political rivals of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the interception of a convoy of vehicles and the arrests of protesters at a demonstration in Jerusalem against the closure of the Knesset were politically motivated.
“We reject in disgust all the futile attempts to drag the police into the political discourse or attribute to it political motivates,” a statement from police said. “No one is above the law or above the public health orders issued by the Health Ministry, regardless of his or her political views.”
Police said they expected to adhere to the law and Health Ministry guidelines amid the “national emergency” of the coronavirus outbreak.
“The Israel Police are on the frontline,” it said, emphasizing the “risk” to officers enforcing quarantines or preventing gatherings.
The pushback came after police came under heavy criticism for trying to block and break up a convoy of vehicles carrying demonstrators to Jerusalem. There were also scuffles between protesters and police outside the Knesset, leading to five arrests.
Protest organizers stressed the convoy met Health Ministry directives aimed at maintaining social distancing in order to stop the spread of the virus, such as refraining from having more than two people in a car.
They also said drivers were instructed to remain inside their cars — though later scenes outside the Knesset showed some protesters demonstrating on foot and confronting police.
Starting near Tel Aviv, the vehicles snaked their way up Route 1 toward Jerusalem with black and Israeli flags waving from their cars.
Police stopped the convoy near Latrun about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Jerusalem, telling the drivers they were not permitted to go any further. The vehicles were later allowed to proceed.
Opposition leaders excoriated police for trying to stifle the protests, accusing the force of engaging in undemocratic actions in service of an unelected government.
“The hindering of drivers traveling in a convoy to Jerusalem today is unreasonable in a proper democracy,” tweeted Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz, who is currently tasked with forming a government. “We won’t be silent against those who threaten democracy and we’ll continue to back every proper action on the matter of the coronavirus.”
Gantz, however, called for protesters to adhere to Health Ministry guidelines, which include a ban on gatherings of over 10 people, and said it was better to hold “digital” protests.
Gantz lauded citizens’ concern over “actions to crush democracy led by Netanyahu and [Knesset Speaker Yuli] Edelstein” and stressed that holding up the convoy was “unreasonable in a democratic country.”
His No. 2 Yair Lapid tweeted that he “salutes” the drivers. Another top Blue and White MK, Ofer Shelah, claimed police had come with “a mission to abuse the drivers.”
Said Shelah: “They gave out reports to people for disrupting them. This is what a democracy looks like when the government stops traffic on an open road, they held up intersections to arrest those who joined has decided to wreck it.”
Labor-Meretz leader Amir Peretz called police actions an “indecent assault” on democracy and “acts we cannot accept.”
As the demonstration took place outside the Knesset, the Blue and White party filed a petition nearby at the High Court of Justice against Edelstein’s decision to prevent the Knesset from convening.
Netanyahu and Edelstein “are not only trying to destroy Israeli democracy, but also to cause the election results to be ignored,” said Shelah, who is also one of Blue and White’s coalition negotiators and had filed the petition.
Edelstein, a Likud member, has refused to allow the Knesset to vote on setting up parliamentary oversight of the government’s far-reaching measures to tackle the virus, citing the need for unity talks with Blue and White and regulations restricting lawmakers from convening, but has been accused of using the crisis as cover to cling to power illegally.
Edelstein made the shock announcement earlier on Wednesday that he was locking the plenary, at least until next week, after the Blue and White party refused his proposal of having equal representation with Likud in the Knesset’s so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the formation and operation of the parliament. He cited the need for unity talks between Likud and Blue and White, and expressed concerns about the coronavirus. Israel has banned gatherings of over 10 people to stem the spread.
The Knesset speaker has faced criticism for his clamp-down, with the Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon telling him the same day he cannot continue the closure of the plenary into next week.
Among other things, the Arrangements Committee oversees the creation of the Knesset’s other committees, including those that would provide parliamentary oversight of the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic. The committee could also allow the Blue and White party to call for a vote on the Knesset speakership, which would likely result in Edelstein’s ouster from the position that he has held since 2013, leading critics to accuse him of subverting the will of the majority of the country.
In an extraordinary intervention underlining concerns over Israeli democracy functioning properly during the coronavirus outbreak, President Reuven Rivlin phoned Edelstein earlier Wednesday and told him to reopen parliament.
The Knesset closure comes in the wake of elections earlier this month and after Rivlin on Monday tasked Gantz with forming a coalition. If successful, Gantz will replace Netanyahu as prime minister and remove his Likud party from power.
Israel has introduced a series of sweeping restrictions since the coronavirus outbreak began, requiring all Israelis returning to the country to self-quarantine for 14 days and barring foreigners. It also shut schools, cafes, malls, gyms and more.
On Tuesday, widening the restrictions, the Health Ministry told Israelis not to leave their homes or visit parks and beaches, with exceptions made for essential needs, like food shopping, medicine shopping, medical care and work.
Ministers early on Tuesday approved a highly controversial measure to allow the government to track Israelis’ phones to locate where carriers of the virus had been. The Health Ministry announced Wednesday it had begun using the mass surveillance tools to retrace the movements of coronavirus carriers and had already informed 400 people in contact with them that they must enter quarantine. With the Knesset closed, and committees unstaffed, the digital surveillance is being utilized without parliamentary oversight.
The electronic tracking program, which is being conducted by the Shin Bet security service for the ministry, has faced harsh criticism, including by members of the government, and its legality is currently being challenged in the High Court of Justice. The tracking aims to alert and order into quarantine people who, in the previous two weeks, were within two meters for 10 minutes or more of someone who turns out to have the virus.
As of Thursday morning, there have been 529 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Israel, six of them in serious condition.