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Hundreds of self-employed rally in Tel Aviv

Hundreds of small business owners and self-employed workers on Thursday gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to rally for increased government help and eased restrictions to allow them to return to work.

Self-employed workers are not entitled to unemployment benefits.

Israel has so far granted the self-employed a payment of NIS 6,000 ($1,700) to help them weather the pandemic and last week approved a plan including a second stipend equaling 70 percent of their regular income up to a maximum amount of NIS 10,500 ($3,000).

Roee Cohen, head of Lahav, Israel’s Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses, said at the protest: “During the coronavirus crisis, the state turned its back on independent workers and business owners. We are endangering ourselves and our families’ health for justice and for the right to be self-sufficient and independent.”

“We demand compensation for the lost time that we closed our businesses. Half a million families remain in uncertainty and in existential crisis,” Cohen said, according to Haaretz.

The demonstrators chanted “Give air to the unemployed,” and “Justice, livelihood, equality in debts and equality in rights.”

Police attempted to enforce social distancing regulations in the square, which has seen other demonstrations where protesters kept several feet between each other.

Ahead of the protest, Tel Aviv city hall put down place markers for people to use to keep distance, reading “preserving democracy, preserving health.”

The self-employed have long complained of mistreatment by state and tax authorities, who take large amounts of their income, but provide none of the security nets enjoyed by salaried employees.

Last week the government approved an NIS 8 billion ($2.27 billion) plan to increase support for self-employed Israelis and small business owners who have been hit hard by the coronavirus, following accusations that Israel wasn’t helping businesses forced to shut down.

The plan includes a grant of up to NIS 400,000 per business or non-profit, depending on the degree to which its activities have been curtailed, the Finance Ministry said in a statement. The grants will be paid directly by the Tax Authority starting in May, the statement said, without giving details on how eligibility will be determined.

With the economy at a near-halt, jobless figures spiked to 1,093,000 by mid-April, bringing the unemployment rate to an unprecedented 26%, from below 4% pre-coronavirus.

The government also approved, in March, an economic rescue package worth NIS 80 billion (approximately $22.9 billion), the largest in Israeli history, to prop up its economy. The package includes a NIS 8 billion fund for small businesses, backed by government guarantees; loan guarantees for larger businesses; property tax relief for businesses; payment deferrals for VAT, municipal taxes, utilities and income tax; accelerated tax refunds and business grants.

The package is very conservative compared to those of other countries, critics said. And implementation is experiencing hiccups, with businesses accusing the banks of dragging their feet in vetting, and then turning down their applications for the government-backed loans because they are deemed too risky.

Also Thursday, dozens of right-wing activists staged a protest outside the Supreme Court, decrying what they call the “judicial dictatorship.” Counter-protesters from the “black flag” movement also demonstrated nearby.

The High Court is set to make a decision next week on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a government, as well as on the legality of the coalition deal signed by Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

“Did anyone elect [Chief Justice] Esther Hayut?” called the right-wing protesters. “The people are sovereign.”

The approximately 100 left-wing demonstrators, keeping a distance of two meters from each other in line with social distancing regulations, denounced the “calls to destroy the Supreme Court.”

They called for protecting the court and democracy from right-wing “incitement.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party called the group of so-called black-flag protesters “reminiscent of fascists.”

“The bullying protesters of the far-left in black shirts and making battle cries are reminiscent of fascist protests in every way,” the Likud spokesperson said.

Header: Self-employed and kindergarten owners participate in a rally calling for financial support from the Israeli government outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Original: TOI Staff