Defying a new controversial law that limits demonstrations during lockdown, tens of thousands of Israelis have protested against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has refused to step down despite being on trial for graft and his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
The protests took place in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem al-Quds, Haifa and Pardes Hannah and Oranit on Saturday.
One of the groups organizing the demonstrations, the Black Flags movement, said its “conservative” data from its ground operatives indicated that more than 100,000 people rallied in the occupied territories.
The figure makes Saturday’s demonstrations collectively the largest yet held against Netanyahu over his serial corruption indictments and mismanagement of Israel’s COVID-19-ravaged economy.
The protests came a few days after the Israeli parliament (Knesset) approved emergency regulations that bar individuals from protesting more than one kilometer from their homes.
Under the new restrictions, demonstrators must maintain a distance of two meters from one another at all times, and may only demonstrate in groups of up to 20 people at a time.
Netanyahu’s regime claimed the measures were aimed at curbing COVID-19 infections. However, critics called them a blow to freedom of speech and accused the coalition of skewing virus-related restrictions to thwart gatherings against the scandal-hit prime minister.
A decision by Israeli minister of military affairs Benny Gantz to support the contentious measures caused much consternation within his Blue and White party, leading to the resignation of tourism Minister Asaf Zamir.
During Saturday’s protests, participants said policemen used excessive force, while footage showed demonstrators being shoved or punched.
Police said they had arrested 38 protesters in Tel Aviv for disorderly conduct and assaulting officers and handed hundreds of coronavirus fines to the demonstrators.
A police statement claimed those arrested “violated public order, blocked streets, ignored police orders and resorted to physical and verbal violence.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the attacks were the result of “the poisonous incitement by Netanyahu and his gang… They are responsible.”
Gantz tweeted on Saturday night that violence against protesters is “intolerable,” calling on police to apprehend those attacking crowds and bring them to justice.
The Black Flags responded to Gantz, saying, “Words do not suffice: as long as you serve the defendant you are just as guilty as he is – resign!”
“We are at a fateful historic moment, over 1,000 protests with tens of thousands of participants who are no longer willing to accept the situation that the indicted individual is dragging all of us into after him,” the group said in a statement.
“Israel threw 35 billion shekels of taxpayers’ money into the garbage that we the citizens paid just because of Netanyahu’s obsession to stop the demonstrations. Netanyahu’s continuing in office is the greatest threat to Israel, the coronavirus will not be solved until Netanyahu resigns,” it added.
Meanwhile, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai was injured as he was caught up in a scuffle between police and protesters while touring protest sites.
Blue and White lawmaker Miki Haimovich also arrived at the protest site in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, saying she had come in response to reports of police brutality.
Haimovich noted that she was “very worried” by what she saw and that she had made efforts to speak with police leadership on the ground to curb violence, to no avail.
The police “used unreasonable force,” she said, suggesting that the clashes escalated following provocations by officers.
Likud lawmaker Shlomo Karhi called on his party to demand Haimovich’s dismissal from the Knesset’s internal affairs committee for “protesting against the government.”