Thousands of people descended on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening to protest against the Israeli government’s handling of the economic crisis caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and what they say is insufficient aid offered to small business owners and professionals in the hard-hit entertainment and hospitality industries.
Organizers said some 10,000 people were at the noisy but peaceful demonstration Saturday evening. Police initially said it would restrict the number of participants but ended up widening the area to allow for a bigger crowd.
As the protest dispersed later Saturday, scuffles were reported near Azrieli junction between police and demonstrators who attempted to block traffic. Some three to five people were reported arrested during the confrontations.
While the organizers said the demonstration would be non-partisan, with no party politicians addressing the rally, a number of posters calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a corrupt leader were spotted in the crowd. Earlier in the evening, protesters wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “crime minister,” were asked by organizers to leave, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Addressing the crowd at the protest, Ahinoam Nehmad, the owner of a domestic tourism company, said: “The fight began with the lockdown and continued with not receiving fair compensation. We fight for the present, for our livelihood, for our dignity as human beings — and that is no ‘bullshit,'” said Nehmad in what appeared to be a dig at Likud Minister without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi, who last week dismissed as “bullshit” claims that some Israelis don’t have enough money for food amid the economic crisis. Hanegbi later apologized for the comments.
A number of politicians took to social media to express their support for the protesters, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, who wrote on Facebook Saturday that the demonstrators were expressing “real, justified distress.”
“We, as a government, have a responsibility to listen and provide solutions,” wrote Gantz.
Tel Aviv resident Ruti Arenfeld told the Times of Israel she was attending the protest to show solidarity with many of her friends who have lost their jobs as a result of the government’s crippling restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
“I’m not here to make a political statement. There are some who are trying to make this about Bibi’s corruption, but I think that’s a mistake,” she said as a man walked by her with a poster reading “corrupt ones go home,” next to a picture of Netanyahu.
“I’m here to call on the government to do what it has promised. To transfer the money to the wage workers and small businesses,” continued Arenfeld. “You told them to close and they did that. Now it’s your turn to help them before it’s too late.”
Ahead of the protest, hundreds of police deployed to the area, calling on protesters to adhere to social distancing rules and wear masks.
Large numbers of police officers were deployed in and around Rabin Square, with some of them playing a pre-recorded message reminding protesters to abide by the guidelines.
In an interview with Channel 13 news Saturday evening, Finance Minister Israel Katz asserted that “the demonstrators don’t have a reason to protest,” adding that “we haven’t lost control over what’s happening in the economy.”
Concerning complaints that previously promised government aid has been slow to arrive, Katz said the former plan prior to his taking over the ministry “was imprecise, that’s why not all the money arrived.”
He promised that the latest government stipend for the self-employed and small businesses “will reach the bank on Tuesday and you’ll see this in your account on Wednesday.”
At the rally, Ra’anana resident Tali Agnes told the Times of Israel that “this is not another Tel Aviv protest.”
“I have never been to one of those protests against Netanyahu. I’m not even sure he needs to ‘go home,’ but his government has neglected so many Israelis and expected us to remain silent,” she explained. “My brother has been furloughed twice, my cousin is a social worker fighting for the right to make more than NIS 1,500 ($430) a month. They can’t go on like this.”
Agnes, 54, acknowledged that the pandemic places the government in “an almost impossible situation,” but she argued that there was no long-term plan formulated when things got better.
“They worry about annexation, tax benefits, and who knows what. Everything but us,” Agnes said in reference to the recent annexation plans for some West Bank lands advanced by Netanyahu and the recent approval for retroactive tax benefits worth hundreds of thousands of shekels for Netanyahu himself.
Some protesters did take direct issue with the prime minister’s leadership and his coalition government.
Ramat Gan resident Ron Amar said he decided to attend the protest to call for the current government’s replacement. “The only way to fix the economy is to remove the people in power,” he asserted.
“A corrupt government will never be able to adequately address the needs of Israelis, especially now,” said Amar.
Yarin Katz, a recent high school graduate, told the Times of Israel that he was not used to attending such protests, but decided to participate because he is worried about his future.
“I was hoping to use this time to travel or hang out with friends, but I’ve started working [as a] Wolt [food delivery man] to help the family after my dad’s event venue was forced to shut down,” Katz said.
“My dad works so hard. Harder than anyone I know. If he can’t make it through this, how will I be able to?” he asked.
Unemployment in Israel is at some 21 percent — or 850,000 people — and is rising, as restrictions imposed amid record daily coronavirus infections further batter the economy. Unemployment at the height of the pandemic reached over 25 percent, with over a million Israelis out of work.
People of varied economic backgrounds and sectors were at the demonstration on Saturday, including owners of hard-hit small businesses, freelancers and self-employed, members of the entertainment industry and of the restaurant and hospitality sector, as well as university students. Student unions said they would take part in the event to show their concern at the large numbers of young people made jobless by closures.
Israel imposed a broad lockdown starting in mid-March, allowing only staff deemed essential to go to work and banning public assembly. Places of entertainment were closed, hitting the leisure industry hard.
Facing public and economic pressure, the government eased restrictions in late May. Some restrictions have been gradually reimposed this month, as the number of new COVID-19 cases has reached new highs of over 1,000 a day. Israel’s virus death toll was 354 as of Saturday.
While salaried workers sent on furlough received unemployment benefits, the self-employed said that most had been waiting months for promised government aid to reach them.
“There is a very grave crisis of confidence between us and the government,” Shai Berman, one of the protest organizers, told Israeli public radio earlier Saturday.
“We are part of a very large [group of people] which is feeling growing distress and wants to demonstrate, and simply does not believe the [government’s] promises,” he added.
As Israel contends with the alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Netanyahu has faced a tide of criticism over the government’s handling of the economic fallout of the pandemic, with polls indicating growing disapproval of his stewardship of the economy.
There has been widespread anger from various sectors of the economy whose members 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.
On Friday, representatives for self-employed Israelis and small business owners hurt by the pandemic met with Netanyahu to discuss their grievances. Netanyahu’s office described the three-hour meeting as “positive,” while a lawyer with the business owners called it “charged.”
Netanyahu told the representatives the government would keep its promises on immediate financial aid packages for the self-employed and small businesses.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Israel Katz said businesses’ pain and concern were understandable and promised to swiftly move forward with legislation to allow economic support to be deployed.
Attorney Roee Cohen, president of Lahav, the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses, told the Ynet news site that the Friday meeting was “charged” and that he and other representatives had raised many issues with the economic support plans — those set to be implemented and those provided thus far.
Netanyahu said Thursday that the government had ordered the acceleration of previous payouts, which many have said hadn’t arrived.
The premier said a new stipend for self-employed Israelis would be paid out immediately, as early as next week, “without any conditions or bureaucracy, even without Knesset legislation.” He said there had been significant bureaucratic difficulties in approving those payments.
Other parts of the aid package included a “safety net” for salaried employees and for businesses, as well as expanding the eligibility for unemployment benefits.
Small businesses will receive up to NIS 6,000 once every two months, he announced. Big businesses will receive aid totaling up to NIS 500,000, depending on how much the business was harmed due to the crisis.
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, with a daily record of over 1,600 on Thursday, and the number of active cases reached an all-time high of 18,296 on Saturday night.
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.
The government this week 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.
AFP contributed to this report.