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Hundreds protest against Netanyahu, contentious emergency virus bill in Tel Aviv

Hundreds of Israelis protested against a bill that would introduce sweeping emergency regulations aimed at tackling the coronavirus pandemic in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

The protesters railed against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing him of using the pandemic to advance legislation for his own political interests.

The demonstration began in the city’s Rabin Square before moving to the intersection of King David and Ibn Gabirol streets, blocking traffic on one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

Police forcibly broke up the rally late Thursday night, arresting 12 demonstrators. The protesters who were arrested had blocked traffic, attacked bystanders and police, and damaged property, the police said.

Some of the participants threw bottles and paint at vehicles, threw objects at police and scuffled with officers who arrived to break up the protest, the Walla news site reported.

The demonstrators carried signs that said “Bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” and “Netanyahu is destroying Israeli society,” and chanted “fighting against corruption,” in reference to the criminal charges against the premier.

The organizers of the protest said ahead of the demonstration: “The work on Corona Law continues. We’re sure that this is a malicious law that is another part of the plan to save the accused from trial, while overriding our democracy.”

According to a draft memorandum of the bill reported late Sunday night, the government would be given special powers to deal with the coronavirus for 45 days, with the Knesset able to extend the emergency period every 30 days for up to 10 months.

Included in the so-called Corona Law is the ability to restrict visits to private homes, permission for police to enter homes without a warrant and use force to enforce regulations, and, crucially, power for the government to decide upon new measures without Knesset approval. According to the bill, the minister in charge of administering the law would be the prime minister himself.

Netanyahu was indicted last year on charges of fraud and breach of trust in three criminal investigations, as well as bribery in one of them. The cases center on accusations he received illegal gifts and traded political favors for positive news coverage.

With his trial opening last month, Netanyahu again denied wrongdoing and dismissed the charges against him as a conspiracy by law enforcement, the media and political rivals to force him from office. He has not provided evidence for these claims.

Following widespread public criticism of the coronavirus bill, Netanyahu said Monday that the government would not allow police officers to enter and search homes without a warrant as part of the legislative package.

Speaking at a Likud faction meeting Monday, Netanyahu called reports that described some of the bill’s clauses “fake news.”

“Regarding civil rights and privacy rights, I just spoke with the public security minister and we agreed unequivocally that we will not allow police to break into citizens’ homes without a warrant,” he said.

“That won’t happen,” he added. “We will find the necessary balance between the need to enforce the quarantine requirements and the need to safeguard citizens’ privacy and civil rights.”

“We are aware that some members of the public think we intend to harm that balance; we haven’t done that so far and we will not do that in the future,” Netanyahu said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz similarly said Monday that the government would ensure that individual liberties were protected, and also vowed to soften certain parts of the proposed legislation.

“Yes, in case of emergency, the state must defend itself, but we will ensure civilian rights and oversight even in emergencies. Israeli democracy is stronger than the coronavirus, and so it will remain,” he said in a series of tweets largely backing the measures.

Responding to opposition criticism that the law would give the government unbridled power, Gantz said that the bill would, for the first time, introduce a proper oversight mechanism for the coronavirus regulations.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, also from Gantz’s Blue and White party, wrote on Twitter that “the authorities will be given the tools to enforce the guidelines, but no police officers will arbitrarily break into residents’ homes.”

Responding to reports on the bill Sunday night, opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government was trying to “sweep the measures through under the radar.”

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi likened the measures to “anti-democratic legislation we have seen introduced in Victor Orban’s Hungary. That’s where this will take us.”

Israel has taken steps in recent weeks to roll back its virus restrictions, reopening schools, synagogues, malls, restaurants and other spaces. While social distancing and hygiene guidelines remain in place, many have taken a more relaxed attitude as the virus appeared to wane, including toward a regulation requiring that masks be worn in most settings outside the home.

But a recent rise in the number of new infections, especially in schools, has government officials warning of a new lockdown.

Over 20 more schools were closed Thursday due to coronavirus infections, as Israel recorded the largest single day rise in coronavirus infections in over a month.

According to the Education Ministry, 87 schools and daycares have now been closed to stem the spread of the virus, up from 65 earlier in the day.

The ministry said 301 students and teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 during the fresh outbreak, with another 13,696 people in quarantine because of potential exposure to the virus.

The closures came a day after the government said it would leave schools open but use targeted closures anywhere a coronavirus case is found to help stem the recent spike in infections. Though classes resumed after two months of closures, students and teachers are required to wear face masks and keep to strict hygiene practices.

The Health Ministry, which has reportedly been pushing to reintroduce a nationwide closure of schools, says the rising number of infections among students is the primary factor in Israel’s recent spike in cases.

The ministry on Thursday evening reported 118 new infections over the past 24 hours, the largest daily increase since May 2.

The number of active cases ticked up to 2,191, with 17,495 infections recorded since the start of the pandemic. No additional fatalities were reported, with the death toll remaining at 291.

The Health Ministry also said 12,929 tests were carried out Wednesday, a marked rise from recent days.

The jump in new cases came after the daily infection rate steadily dropped through much of May, with Israel easing restrictions on movement, economic activity and gatherings that were put in place to contain the virus.

Original: TOI Staff