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Tens of thousands protest Netanyahu across Israel; activists assaulted, arrested

Tens of thousands of Israelis protested against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government he leads in communities throughout Israel Saturday, after the passage of highly contentious legislation this week that banned mass demonstrations as part of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Socially distanced rallies were held in hundreds of locations throughout the afternoon and evening, though at times orderly conduct gave way to more chaotic scenes of scuffles between protesters and police.

A police statement said 38 people were arrested in Tel Aviv alone for “violating public order and attacking police officers.”

Demonstrators alleged that police used excessive force, and footage showed protesters being shoved or punched.

One of the groups organizing the demonstrations, the “Black Flags” movement, said its “conservative” data from its ground operatives indicated that over 100,000 people protested throughout the country.

The figure would make the demonstrations collectively the largest yet held since protests gathered steam over the summer, fueled by anger at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has refused to step down despite being on trial for graft, and at his government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.

That claim of 100,000 aprticipants was not confirmed independently, but media reports indicated Saturday’s demonstrations were larger than those seen over the past months.

There were multiple reports of protesters being assaulted by opposing activists, with several requiring hospitalization.

Meanwhile, police clashed with protesters in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, arresting dozens of people. Further arrests were made elsewhere of people allegedly not adhering to health regulations. Hundreds of fines were issued to demonstrators who did not follow rules.

Protesters seemed to be widely using protective masks but a police statement said they were intentionally breaching social distancing rules and regulations on the sizes of gatherings.

Police said some Tel Aviv protesters had launched marches along the city’s streets while blocking traffic. Hundreds of protesters who marched down Allenby Street in the city had their procession blocked by police, though many not disperse until after 1 a.m.

Police said in a statement that “many protesters disturbed order, blocked roads, ignored the instructions of officers and resorted to physical and verbal violence. A large majority overtly broke the emergency regulations when they gathered with no distancing, not wearing masks and endangering public health.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai suffered a bruise to his hand while touring protest sites, reportedly while caught up in a scuffle between police and protesters.

Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich arrived at the protest site at Habima Square, saying she’d come in response to reports police were using violence against protesters, and urged cops to allow activists to demonstrate peacefully.

In reaction to her actions, Likud MK Shlomo Karhi called on his party to demand her dismissal from the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee for “protesting against the government.”

New measures passed this week bar Israelis from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes to protest and limit demonstrations to socially distanced groups of 20, although they apparently also allow for multiple groups of 20 in “capsules” in areas with sufficient space for social-distancing between the capsules.

The approval of the restrictions was seen as a blow to the weekly demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem over the premier’s indictment on graft charges, as well as his handling of the pandemic. However, Saturday’s mass turnout throughout the country indicated it may have only served to further galvanize opposition to Netanyahu.

Along with smaller protests held throughout the country, a few hundred people rallied at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. In Jerusalem, at Balfour Street outside the prime minister’s residence, where protests have at times drawn tens of thousands, hundreds were demonstrating.

Several incidents of violence against demonstrators were reported; an 81-year-old woman was said to have been shoved to the ground in Jerusalem. Her condition was not immediately known. In northern Tel Aviv, protesters said a woman was assaulted and wounded. She was taken to the city’s Ichilov Medical Center. Police arrested the suspected assailant, as well as two other activists, with the former claiming they attacked him first.

Channel 13 reported that in Pardes Hannah, a protester’s hand was broken by an attacker, while in Holon and Ramat Gan, glass bottles were hurled at demonstrators.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted that attacks on protesters were “unacceptable” and called on police to bring the culprits to justice. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the attacks were the result of “the poisonous incitement by Netanyahu and his gang… They are responsible.”

Thursday saw a suspected car-ramming attack on protesters at an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv. Medics said no one was injured in the incident. A suspect was later arrested.

The Black Flags accused the government of obsessing over the demonstrations rather than focusing on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are at a historic, fateful moment,” Black Flags said. “They are silencing the public criticism… but we won’t give up our freedom to make our voices heard.”

Another group, Ein Matzav (“No Way”), said: “This protest will not be stopped, and it will grow and rise until [Netanyahu] leaves the [official residence] and his post.”

Police were reported to be checking the addresses of protesters to ensure they were no more than a kilometer from their homes.

Most of the protesters appeared to maintain a distance from each other, though it wasn’t clear they were staying in required “clusters” or “pods” of up to 20 people.

Late on Thursday, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee authorized the government’s emergency regulations to limit crowding. The new restrictions went into effect at midnight on Thursday and will remain in force at least until October 7.

Gantz’s decision to support barring the mass protests reportedly caused much consternation within his Blue and White party. Friday saw the resignation of Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir, who said he could no longer be a part of a government whose decisions he did not trust.

Opposition lawmakers on Friday accused the coalition of shuttering small businesses to justify new emergency regulations that grant the government authority to limit the protests.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer, and others said they were shocked to learn that small businesses were also included among gatherings the emergency regulations aimed at limiting.

The ban on small businesses came despite regulations allowing for up to 10 people to gather inside of a building, deeply angering the opposition lawmakers at the Knesset committee.

Shaked, a former justice minister, accused the coalition lawmakers of scapegoating small business owners to justify the use of emergency regulations to limit protests.

“The small businesses are not being allowed to operate because it’s clear that if they had approved that, it would have legally brought down [the legitimacy] for a ‘special state of emergency’ allowing for demonstrations to be restricted,” Shaked said during the committee meeting.

While proponents of the restrictions say that they are intended to curb Israel’s rising curve of coronavirus infections, organizers involved in the anti-Netanyahu protest movement of the past three months have vociferously opposed the new regulations, saying that they violate their freedom to protest, and opposition MKs have accused the coalition of skewing COVID-related restrictions in an effort to thwart the demonstrations.

AFP contributed to this report.

Header: Police officers remove a protestor during protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on October 03, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Source: TOI