Thousands of Israelis gathered Saturday evening in protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of ongoing demonstrations over his indictment on corruption charges and handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The main protest took place outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, where anti-Netanyahu rallies have been held regularly in recent months. Hebrew media reports put turnout at over 15,000 people, while organizers estimated the crowd at some 32,000 people, based on number of armbands given out to demonstrators as they entered the square.
Hundreds of police officers were deployed at the scene.
The demonstration appeared to be the largest yet of a growing movement that has seen thousands take to streets to rally against Netanyahu over the past month. Smaller protests were also held in Caesarea outside Netanyahu’s private residence, and at highway overpasses nationwide.
The number of families with children was especially prominent at the Jerusalem demonstration, in addition to the groups of young people.
Many activists dressed up as extraterrestrials, in mocking homage to the prime minister’s son Yair Netanyahu, who earlier in the week derided the protesters as “aliens.”
Representatives of independent businesspeople joined the protest, as no separate demonstration of those battered economically by the pandemic was held. Organizers instead called for a single, unified demonstration to be held at the Prime Minister’s residence.
Many demonstrators held handmade signs decrying what they say is a detached government and calling on Netanyahu to “Let my people go.” One group of protesters built a papier-mache submarine — in reference to a massive corruption case involving the purchase of naval vessels that ensnared associates of Netanyahu but not the premier himself — and carried it through the crowd.
At least two bands performed at opposite ends of the demonstration, a rare sight since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, while groups of young people danced to protest songs blasting out of a speaker on Keren HaYasod Street.
Michael Cordoba, 41, held a sign saying “left and right refuse to be enemies.” Cordoba, who identified himself as right-wing, said that Netanyahu survives politically “by dividing us.”
There are so many reasons why we should be able to work together,” he said, adding that he was optimistic about the protests after Saturday’s evening turnout. “The more people come, the more they inspire to follow them.”
Police in Jerusalem allowed protesters to remain until after midnight, but began demanding demonstrators disperse starting at around 12:30 a.m. Sunday, removing those who refused to leave by force amid chants of “no violence,” and “shame.”
The square was cleared out by 1:30 a.m., with three people being detained for “disturbing public order and attacking officers,” according to police. A Haaretz photographer was also briefly held despite showing his press credentials. A police spokesperson accused the photographer of attacker an officer.
Another rally was held near Netanyahu’s private home in the coastal town of Caesarea, with estimates of up to 1,000 participants.
Ahead of the main rallies, smaller protests were held at bridges and highway overpasses across the country.
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Like in past weeks, Netanyahu and his Likud party lashed at Channel 12, Israel’s leading broadcaster, for covering the protests.
“All over the world, the media and countries are acting for the citizens, while our reporters and analysts are mobilizing for ‘Demonstration Channel 12’ for the benefit of left-wing riots against the government that is fighting for the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of Israel,” Likud said in a statement shared by Netanyahu on social media.
“It will not help them. We will continue to work for you and we will win.”
At a protest in the Red Sea coastal city of Eilat, protesters said tear gas was sprayed at them from a vehicle that drove past. Police at the rally were also hit by the gas, the Walla news site reported. Police said they were investigating the incident.
“This incident is a direct result of the incitement by the defendant Netanyahu,” protest organizers said in a statement.
Earlier Saturday, protesters filed a police complaint against Yona Avrushmi, the killer of left-wing activist Emil Grunzweig, after he called them “germs” in a television interview and suggested that counter-demonstrators “know exactly what to do” about them.
The complaint was lodged by a member of the Crime Minister group, one of the three main groups organizing the protests against Netanyahu. The group also sent an urgent letter to Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen urging that Avrushmi be arrested immediately.
Avrushmi, who in 1983 lobbed a hand grenade into a left-wing rally, killing Grunzweig and wounding nine others — among them former Labor Party minister Avraham Burg and Likud minister Yuval Steinitz — told a Channel 12 interviewer in a clip aired on Friday that the protesters are “germs, there’s no argument there… they spread diseases and must be kept away from society.”
Calling them “evil people” and “haters of Israel,” he said: “I hate them and they hate me.”
Avrushmi, who lives in Tel Aviv, said he has no plans to “go to Balfour” to see the protests against Netanyahu but “some young guys are going, and they know what to do, they know exactly what to do.”
Avrushmi was handed a life sentence for the murder and served 27 years in prison before his release in 2011. During a police interrogation after the murder, Avrushmi was quoted as telling officers that the peace activists protesting at the time were “germs that must be eliminated.”
The Crime Minister group demanded that Avrushmi be arrested to “send a clear message of deterrence and zero tolerance to the young people he encouraged.” The group also criticized Channel 12 for broadcasting the interview.
Netanyahu and his supporters have strongly condemned the protesters, branding them “anarchists,” and accusing them of alleged incitement against the premier and his family. He has also protested media coverage of the protests, which he claims blows them out of proportion.
In their statement, the Crime Minister group said it was clear that Avrushmi admires Netanyahu and suggested that the premier’s serious comments were being echoed by the convicted killer.
The name of the group is borrowed from a popular slogan at the growing anti-Netanyahu rallies, and references his legal troubles. The premier is on trial for a series of cases in which he allegedly received lavish gifts from billionaire friends and traded regulatory favors with media moguls for more favorable coverage of himself and his family. He has denied any wrongdoing, accusing the media and law enforcement of a witch hunt to oust him from office.
Along with those at the demonstrations calling on the premier to resign due to his indictment on corruption charges, people protesting the government’s economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic have joined the rallies, with crowds in the thousands and rising.
More limited protests calling on Netanyahu to resign were held outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence on Thursday and on Friday night.
Recent weeks have seen some incidents of violence by right-wing supporters of Netanyahu. Protesters have also accused police of using excessive force during the demonstrations.
According to Channel 12 news, a pro-Netanyahu activist attacked a protester outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Friday and another posted, then deleted, a clip on Facebook saying opponents of the demonstrations should bring weapons to the rallies.
On Thursday, police told the High Court of Justice that it believed it should reject a petition against the demonstrations by dozens of residents of Jerusalem neighborhoods Rehavia and Talbieh, who are seething over the weekly protests near their homes.
Siding with the demonstrators, police told the court that any attempts to curtail the rallies, held several times weekly, would impinge on the freedom to protest.
Police said they would therefore not place a cap on the number of participants, or relocate the protests elsewhere. The force also rebuffed a call to restrict the rallies due to health fears amid the coronavirus pandemic.