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Dozens arrested as police clear large anti-Netanyahu rally in Jerusalem

Dozens of people were arrested late Thursday and early Friday as police deployed water cannons against protesters urging the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside of his residence in Jerusalem.

The protest drew thousands of Israelis angry at government corruption, the handling of the coronavirus crisis and other ills to the capital’s Paris Square Thursday evening, the latest in a series of rallies that have ratcheted pressure on Netanyahu and his governing coalition.

Police said 55 demonstrators were arrested or detained as officers attempted to clear the area.

Officers sprayed protesters with high-pressure water cannons in a bid to move people off the streets after midnight. Some protesters who were peacefully dispersing were shot in the back by the water cannons, and activists said police left them with nowhere to go.

Some protesters crouched behind trees and cars for shelter, while others attempting to exit the scene were hit by water cannons as they went towards HeMekhes Square.

In an attempt to escape the water, some demonstrators entered Independence Park, where mounted police moved at them in an attempt to force them to stay in the road.

Protesters who remained on the road, however, were drenched by the water cannons roaming up and down Agron Street, which bounds the park on one side.

Dozens of officers eventually marched into Independence Park, dragging out individual protesters and arresting them before allowing the last clusters of huddling demonstrators to leave the scene.

“Despite the legitimate protest by many participants, who dispersed on their own, protesters were left who refused to disperse after police declared several times that the demonstration had ended and asked protesters to leave on their own, and so police were forced to act to disperse them and restore public order,” a police spokesperson said in a statement.

Anti-Netanyahu protesters have been holding regular rallies outside his official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, calling on the premier to resign due to his indictment on corruption charges. Rallies against Netanyahu’s economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic have also been held, though mostly in Tel Aviv.

There have been occasional scenes of violence at recent protests, and police were reportedly wary of further clashes. Protesters have also accused police of using excessive force during the demonstrations.

Police put the number of protesters at 4,000, according to the Ynet news site. Demonstrators held signs with slogans including, “We won’t stop fighting for the state,” “I have no other land,” and “Fed up with corruption.”

Yotam, a 27-year-old Hebrew University student, said this was his fourth time attending the anti-government rallies.

“I feel like this government is cheating us. They’re telling us a story which serves one man in power,” Yotam said.

Noga, a Haifa native who now lives in Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel that the most important thing for her now was for the country to be unified.

“We can see that the behavior of the government right now is dividing the country. That’s why it’s important for me to be here,” Noga said.

The protest drew a wide array of demonstrators, from hippies distributing flowers, to a self-proclaimed Likud voter who opposes Netanyahu, to Hadash activists calling for an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. One idea, however, seemed to unite every protester in the square: that the current government must not remain in power.

“What I want most is for this whole government to go home. All of them? Yes, all of them,” said Nati, a 40-year-old Tel Aviv resident.

A number of female protesters at the rally removed their shirts and held up signs with the words “tits photograph better than…” followed by various words written on their chests, including “occupation” and “police violence.”

One held a sign calling for “Justice for Iyad,” in reference to Iyad Halak, an autistic Palestinian man killed by police in Jerusalem in late May.

The act appeared to be inspired by a protester who raised a firestorm by removing her shirt on Tuesday while on a menorah statue near the Knesset.

A small counter-protest of Netanyahu supporters was also held nearby.

Police had granted permission for the protests to continue until 11 p.m., with acting police chief Motti Cohen urging the sides to “maintain a protest free of violence and unrest and to adhere to police instructions.”

The two crowds were separated by several hundred meters, with a large number of policemen on scene to keep them apart and to protect the premier’s residence on Balfour street. The streets around the demonstrations were blocked to traffic.

Netanyahu in a Thursday night press conference on the coronavirus, held during the protest, said to the demonstrators: “Don’t drag the state into anarchy, violence, and destruction of property. Don’t drag it into attacks on police; they’re doing their jobs.”

Anti-Netanyahu protests have been going on for several years, led by a core group of older protesters, but in recent weeks have drawn in a younger cohort. The financial crisis and soaring unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have provided the impetus for younger people to join their elders on the streets.

Amir Haskel, a former Israeli Air Force general who has become a prominent figure in the anti-Netanyahu protests, told Ynet: “Tonight’s protest is a protest of young people. We expect very many of them and hope that the protest ends without violence.”

The organizers said in a statement: “Thousands of young people that are coming out to protest are not victims of the coronavirus — they’re victims of the [governmental] corruption of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Demonstrations against Netanyahu, which organizers dubbed the “Siege of Balfour,” took place near his residence on several nights last week.

The events have veered between a carnivalesque atmosphere, with circus performers and meditation circles, and violence, including a controversial incident Tuesday night when a police officer was filmed and photographed digging his knee into the neck of a protester.

Israel’s spiraling coronavirus crisis, and the economic effects of its second wave, have ratcheted up tensions in the country and caused a steep drop in Netanyahu’s approval ratings.

Header: Topless Israeli activists hold placards during an anti-government demonstration in Jerusalem on July 23, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Source: Aaron Boxerman, Anat Peled – TOI