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5 arrests, some clashes as thousands protest against Netanyahu

Thousands of people took part in protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throughout the country Saturday, as well as online, with the largest events held in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Caesarea.

Five demonstrators were arrested during the Jerusalem rally, which was one of the most violent in recent weeks. Police and protesters clashed as officers sought to enforce “social distancing restrictions” with what demonstrators called an excessive use of force.

The protests were held in spite of the national coronavirus lockdown, but were in accordance with its stipulations, after lawmakers on Friday failed to pass legislation that would severely restrict both demonstrations and public worship.

They came as the Health Ministry’s latest figures showed a new record of 8,315 “cases” were diagnosed Friday (though so far there has been no data linking infections to protests).

Several clashes were reported between police and protesters during the Jerusalem rally, and police announced five arrests, while a number of right-wing ministers accused the demonstrators of “irresponsible behavior” during a pandemic.

Likud’s health minister vowed to pass legislation on Tuesday to prevent further major demonstrations so long as the lockdown is in force.

Demonstrations against the prime minister over his alleged corruption as well as his scathing attacks on the justice system have become a regular occurrence in recent months, with rallies held several times a week, and major events every Saturday. But the protests have become a contentious issue as virus cases have grown, with the premier and others disparaging the mass gatherings amid “fears of infection”.

Saturday’s main protest event was, as usual, held outside the prime minister’s official residence in the capital, with media reports putting attendance in the thousands. Organizers asserted 16,000 were present, citing numbered wristbands they hand out to participants.

Many of the demonstrators hoisted Israeli flags. Banners against Netanyahu included “disgrace,” “ashamed,” and “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” quoting the Ten Commandments before Sunday evening’s start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Early evening footage from the scene showed demonstrators making a greater effort to keep their distance from each other. But videos taken later showed that “at least some areas were heavily crowded”.

Police said officers throughout the country had been instructed not to hinder protests, but to strictly enforce health regulations among protesters.

Cops also moved barriers back from their usual locations to allow demonstrators to spread out more. Demonstrators spread out from Paris Circle well down King George Street. Still, many tight clusters of protesters could be observed in apparent violation of the regulations.

Saturday’s protests in Jerusalem were some of the loudest and most energetic for several weeks. Police entered the crowd several times to bodily drag out demonstrators and detain them, though it was unclear why specifically they were detained.

Five protestors were arrested during the demonstrations in Jerusalem — although at least a few dozen were detained during the course of the protests before being released.

Officers handed out fines to some protesters due what they said was “failure to socially distance and wear masks”.

Activists said officers checked if demonstrators standing close together if they lived in the same household, and issued fines if they did not. Around 150 were fined by police on charges of “not following social distancing restrictions”.

“We asked demonstrators to wear masks, but many did not,” Kalfon said. The Times of Israel noted throughout the night that the vast majority of protesters were, in fact, wearing masks.

Officers appeared to be acting more aggressively than in recent weeks, causing some panic by suddenly pushing into the crowd in several instances. Demonstrators were seen surrounding the police, yelling, “Violent cops, you ought to be in jail.” A video showed protesters and police shoving each other in one incident.

“This is dangerous for everybody — people could get hurt. But what are we to expect from a political police which is trying to scare people away from the demonstrations?” said Ziv, a demonstrator who declined to be identified by his last name.

“Plus, they’re not even [distancing] themselves,” he said, pointing to a cluster of officers with fewer than two meters between them. “They need to stand back and let us protest.”

“There’s plenty of space — it’s only when the police enter that everyone clusters up,” demonstrator Merav Greenberg said.

Police officer Kalfon blamed protesters for the night’s charged atmosphere, with led to clashes between police and demonstrators.

“Some protesters don’t come here to protest, they come here to fight,” Kalfon said.

By midnight the vast majority of protesters had dispersed and police reopened the intersection to traffic. There did not appear to be any major resistance as the protest dispersed.

A rally was also held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, with attendance reported as being in the hundreds and possibly thousands.

Between dozens and hundreds of cars took part in a demonstration outside Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein tweeted against the protesters, calling them “virus spreaders” and saying their activities would soon be curtailed.

“Don’t follow the protesters’ example tonight. They took advantage of the foot-dragging at the Knesset to endanger their health and the health of those around them,” he wrote. “On Tuesday we will finish legislating and the protests will be limited.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri accused the thousands of protesters of “acting irresponsibly, saying they would be the cause of a further spike in new infections”.

“When they act irresponsibly, we are required to act even more responsibly and so I call on the whole huge public which will be fasting and praying on Yom Kippur to keep the guidelines and to pray outside as rabbis have instructed,” Deri wrote on Twitter.

Earlier, convoys stretched along central Israeli highways, headed to Jerusalem and Caesarea. Cars sporting Israeli flags honked as they crawled along roads, with demonstrators by the roadside and on overpasses calling out encouragements.

And, as on every weekend in recent months, protesters gathered in the late afternoon on highway overpasses and in central intersections throughout the country. Organizers said activists gathered at 315 locations.

Two videos showed apparent violence against protesters in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In one video, religious youth in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood appeared to throw a bottle at a car in a convoy. The video showed a man, apparently the driver, being accosted by several people as he pulled over.

Police said a suspect was arrested for throwing a bottle at a car, after fighting with police. A statement says a number of officers needed medical treatment following the arrest.

In a second incident, a group of people was seen surrounding and punching a protester in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood.

Plans by the government to severely limit the rallies, as well as public prayers, fell through Friday after lawmakers failed to agree on the legislation before the start of Shabbat. The legislation would have limited protests to within a kilometer of an individual’s home, and in groups of no more than 20 people.

Channel 12 reported Saturday that over the weekend, Netanyahu pressed for emergency regulations that would bypass the Knesset and clamp down on protests, asserting that nationally broadcast images of thousands protesting on Saturday night would “severely undermine efforts to keep the public at home and out of gatherings during the lockdown”.

The network said that the premier held a call with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of the Blue and White party, to push them on approving emergency regulations.

During the call, according to Channel 12, Nissenkorn and Gantz indicated they believed it was Netanyahu himself who was causing difficulties with the legislative process, as he preferred to use the method of emergency regulations.

While any bill would have a set time limit for restrictions, emergency powers would give Netanyahu a far freer hand on implementing limitations for extended periods.

Channel 13 reported Friday that Likud was seeking to continue to block demonstrations after the period of tightened lockdown ends in a few weeks’ time.

Speaking to Channel 13 Saturday, Gantz said there would be no emergency powers, and accused Netanyahu’s Likud party of “sabotaging” the restrictions that the cabinet had agreed on, by suddenly demanding changes to the legislation that would have given “excess authority” to the government in restricting freedoms.

Gantz’s position was reported to have been backed up by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who was widely reported in Hebrew media to have warned Netanyahu against seeking emergency powers, which he said would be unconstitutional.

Gantz also expressed support for the protesters’ right to demonstrate, but urged them to act responsibility by limiting numbers and keeping social distancing rules.

In an interview with Channel 12, Gantz said ahead of Yom Kippur: “I’d like to ask forgiveness of the Israeli public. I don’t think we have served it [well] enough, but rather have concerned ourselves too much with political fights.”

Eight different protest groups organized Saturday’s convoys and protests, vowing to “demonstrate in line with the Health Ministry’s guidelines and while maintaining social distance between one another.”

They said that “coronavirus is dangerous, but dictatorship is more dangerous. We will continue to demonstrate, in accordance with restrictions. We will not give up.”

Some protest groups, including the large “Black Flags” movement, said they would not travel to Jerusalem this week and respect the national lockdown. However, they took part in other events, including protests at bridges, squares and intersections across the country and a virtual, online protest event on Facebook and zoom. Over 20,000 people watched that event.

Amnon Dafni-Meron, a medical student at Hebrew University, who took part in the Jerusalem demonstration, said there were some benefits to the new rules. “It’s actually nicer to protest this way, with your own space,” she said.

Still, Dafni-Meron said she believed the restrictions on the Balfour demonstrations — and the national lockdown itself — were transparently political. “People aren’t coming despite the restrictions. They’re coming because of them,” she said.

During a press conference Thursday, Netanyahu said it was “absurd” to say that he was pushing for a nationwide lockdown to stop ongoing protests against him over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the pandemic, before railing at length against the demonstrations.

He rejected the notion that he had sought the full lockdown to halt politically damaging protests, arguing that “these anarchist and ludicrous protests” actually help him politically, but “the public is sick of them.”

He said the demonstrations were “incubators” for both the virus and for anarchy, and said they’d been held in Israel on “a scale seen nowhere else in the world.”

There has been no data to show protests have been the cause of infection spread. The virus is thought to mostly spread in indoor spaces rather than in the open air, and most protesters wear masks.

A report on Channel 13 claimed that the government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu had privately said Netanyahu was pushing for harsher restrictions, specifically in order to curb the protests against him. Gamzu reportedly called the move “disgusting” and said he had felt the need to take nausea pills.

AP contributed to this report.

Header: Protesters sit near policemen during a demonstration in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, on September 26, 2020, to protest the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem to demand the resignation of Netanyahu, a day after the country tightened its lockdown aimed at slowing coronavirus spread. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Source: Aaron Boxerman – TOI Staff