Anti-government activists streamed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem for the first time in weeks Saturday night, as regular protests looked to resume following a clampdown during Israel’s nationwide virus lockdown.
Media reports put the crowd size at Paris Square in the thousands, and organizers claimed at the end of the evening that some 260,000 people attended rallies throughout the country, though their figures could not be independently confirmed.
Demonstrators waved pink banners and Israeli flags, chanting slogans against the prime minister and blowing on vuvuzelas.
“Sheheyanu!” said demonstrator Meir Moscovitch, invoking a Hebrew prayer for auspicious occasions. “We were away for three weeks and now we’re back to call for honesty — not left, not right, honest.”
While police barricades allowed demonstrators ample space to socially distance, most were tightly clustered close to Balfour Street near Paris Square.
Some protesters also attempted to hold an unauthorized march away from the Paris Square, police said at 10 p.m.
A second anti-corruption protest at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square also drew large crowds, and smaller protests were happening in cities across the country.
Around midnight police forcibly dispersed several hundred protesters who remained at Jerusalem’s Paris Square. Authorities said nine people were arrested during the earlier march.
The protest was the first major demonstration in Jerusalem since a rule including protests in restrictions barring travel more than a kilometer from home expired Tuesday.
The Balfour Street residence has been the locus of weekly protests that have gained steam since the summer as activists urge the ouster of Netanyahu over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Activists were forced to shift to small rallies at bridges and intersections limited to 20 people each to comply with the rules, which many charged had been politically motivated to quash the demonstrations. Protest leaders claimed the rules had the opposite effect, leading to even larger numbers of people coming out to demonstrate against the government.
Some demonstrators decried the economic consequences of the second coronavirus lockdown. Moran Halperin, a resident of Carmiel, attended the Jerusalem protest with her husband.
“We own a small business, a photography studio. We live in a city with low levels of coronavirus. We have young children at home. There’s no reason why we should be closed — we follow health and safety guidelines. But we have no clients. Zero. They shut us down,” Halperin told The Times of Israel.
“We’re digging deep into our savings. We’re asking our families for help. And everything’s closed, so we can’t even look for an additional job,” Halperin continued.
Others focused on what they deemed to be a widening sense of division in the country, the blame for which they laid at Netanyahu’s feet.
“This country is heading towards rupture and division, and it begins with the Prime Minister… I’m here representing my four children and their future. They’re at home. They made me my sign, by the way,” said Eldad Miller, an engineer from a small town outside of Be’er Sheva, gesturing with his cardboard placard.
Many of the demonstrators were from the left and center, with large blocs of activists holding signs in Hebrew and Arabic. But protesters who spoke to The Times of Israel said that anyone would be better than Netanyahu, even right-wing political Naftali Bennett, who has risen sharply in the polls in recent weeks.
“I don’t care if the next leader comes from the right. [Netanyahu’s] been indicted. Let someone else from the Likud take charge,” Miller said.
Asked about a potential Bennett administration, Miller said: “It doesn’t make a difference — as long as he thinks about the country and not about himself.
“I certainly object to Bennett and [fellow Yamina MK] Ayelet Shaked from a political standpoint. But I also believe that they are better than Bibi, because at the very least they’re not corrupt,” said Yuval, a middle-aged demonstrator from the Lower Galilee.
Police released a statement ahead of the protests saying they were closing off streets and calling on demonstrators to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.
They said they would enforce rules banning noisemakers after 9:30 p.m. and voice amplification after 11 p.m.
“The police reiterates that it is acting to allow the holding of protests by all demonstrators, but will not allow any violation of public order and will act firmly against any attempt to disturb public order,” a police statement says.
Despite the lifted restriction, the Black Flags protest group claimed in a statement that many protesters were being held up at checkpoints outside of Jerusalem.
Ahead of the main protests, demonstrators began gathering for smaller demonstrations at various sites across the country, as they have done for months. Among those making the rounds of ancillary protest sites was opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party.
In Jerusalem, former defense minister and current opposition MK Moshe Ya’alon and Joint List MK Ofer Cassif could be spotted taking selfies among the demonstrators.
Organizers told Channel 12 ahead of the protest that they were planning for “hundreds of thousands” of people to join demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere.
In Haifa, police said three people were arrested on suspicion of pepper spraying anti-Netanyahu demonstrators in Haifa, the latest in a rash of attacks on demonstrators by far-right activists.
On Thursday, a number of anti-Netanyahu demonstrators on Holon were sprayed with “some kind of gas” by opponents who showed up to confront them, police said in a statement. Media reports indicated the substance was tear gas.
A Haaretz photographer tweeted a picture of far-right activists at the Holon counter-demonstration, some of whom were holding a sign that read “A good leftist is a dead leftist.”
להפגנה בחולון הגיעו כמה עשרות פעילים ( ככל הנראה לה פמיליה)
זה אחד השלטים שאחזו pic.twitter.com/SnLlUV2si6
— Tomer Appelbaum (@tomerappelbaum) October 15, 2020
A video posted to Twitter by Channel 12 showed that same Haaretz photographer, Tomer Appelbaum, being attacked by far-right activists shortly thereafter.
Protests in recent months have seen dozens of attacks on anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, including by one Sderot resident accused of assaulting a protester with a sharp object. There have also been two suspected incidents of cars trying to ram protesters.
The protests come hours before Israel is slated to significantly roll back a national lockdown in place for exactly a month, after the closure managed to curb sky-high infection rates. The lifted restrictions will end a ban on travel of more than a kilometer, and allow preschools and non-public-facing businesses to open.