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Mass anti-Netanyahu rallies planned as government ends lockdown curb on protests

Mass gatherings, including anti-government protests, to be allowed from Wednesday, after Health Ministry tells court it has ‘no intention’ of requesting extension

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on September 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on September 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The government informed the High Court of Justice on Monday evening that it will not extend controversial special emergency measures that have barred mass gatherings of anti-Netanyahu protesters.

The emergency powers are set to expire Tuesday at midnight, which would allow mass protests to resume Wednesday.

Numerous groups who have for months been organizing protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to resign amid his corruption trial and castigating the government’s handling of the pandemic, are planning a major rally outside his Balfour Street residence on Saturday night.

A much larger rally is planned for the following Saturday, October 24, Channel 12 news reported.

Police have yet to decide how to handle such rallies, which before the lockdown drew tens of thousands of protesters. Since the curbs on protests were introduced, limiting numbers and barring participants from traveling more than a kilometer from home to take part, organizers have arranged hundreds of small rallies nationwide, with Saturday’s protests claimed by organizers to draw a record nationwide total of some 200,000 participants.

Israel imposed a nationwide lockdown ahead of the High Holidays last month to rein in a surging coronavirus outbreak, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases. The government has since declared the state of emergency, limiting all public gatherings, including protests and prayer, to within a kilometer (half a mile) of a person’s home.

The state’s decision came in response to petitions by several anti-government groups against the limitations.

The state said that the decision, which comes despite there not being any other immediate relaxation of coronavirus-induced restrictions, was delivered to the court after the Health Ministry informed the Justice Ministry earlier Monday that it had “no intention” of requesting an extension to limitations on mass gatherings.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, on July 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi)

Netanyahu has said the restrictions were driven by safety concerns as the country battled a runaway pandemic, but critics and protesters have accused him of tightening the lockdown to muzzle dissent.

The protest ban appeared to have only further motivated demonstrators, with tens of thousands rallying throughout the country last week.

Groups leading the ongoing protests against Netanyahu — over his corruption trial and alleged mishandling of the pandemic response — welcomed the news that the government will not extend the emergency powers.

The “Black Flag” movement said its activists will return to protesting outside the Prime Minister Residence in Jerusalem, which had been the center of the demonstrations before the restrictions were imposed.

The Crime Minister group also said its activists will rally at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Saturday evening.

“The state’s response is a harbinger of the end of the political lockdown and the end of the dictatorial regulations,” it said.

Speaking to ministers in closed meetings on 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking a 15-minute coronavirus test, October 6, 2020. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Defending the lockdown, which included the ban on protests, Netanyahu said on Sunday that it had “saved us from a geometric rise in morbidity, mortality, and seriously sick people,” but warned that 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.”

According to Health Ministry figures Monday, there have been 291,828 people infected since the start of the pandemic, of which 51,698 remain active cases, a drop of nearly 10,000 since the day earlier.

Ministry figures showed 1,553 people are hospitalized with the virus, 823 of them in serious condition and 224 on ventilators.

The death toll Monday morning was 1,983, three more than the night before.

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