How Netanyahu's Attempt to Limit Anti-government Demonstrations Backfired

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A protest on the Givat Olga-Hadera overpass, September 26, 2020.
A protest on the Givat Olga-Hadera overpass, September 26, 2020.Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer

Wearing a “Crime Minister” T-shirt and a brightly patterned mask, Gal Shatter, 31, vigorously waved his black flag above the bold anti-Netanyahu banner hung on a bridge above Israel’s coastal highway near the beach town of Mikhmoret, where he lives, on Saturday night. 

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He said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s condemnations of the months-long demonstrations against him as “spreaders of disease” and his repeated attempts to shut them down as part of the coronavirus lockdown by invoking emergency regulations only made him “more determined” to show up and make his voice heard. 

For most of the past weeks, Shatter, an engineer, has driven to Netanyahu's official residence, on Jerusalem's Balfour street, to protest there. “Because of the lockdown, my girlfriend and I decided to take the week off and demonstrate here instead," he said. "But we’ll be back at Balfour, for sure.” 

Gal Shatter, 31, and Noy Einav, 29, on Beit Yannai bridge, September 26, 2020.Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer

Not all of his friends, he noted, had made the same choice. Some decided to take advantage of the failure of Netanyahu’s government to restrict protests to a kilometer from demonstrators' homes during the current lockdown, and continue to protest farther away. Those heading for Balfour Street had left hours earlier to join the massive caravan of cars from the Latrun junction to Jerusalem.

Others stood at the Mikhmoret overpass for an hour, and then got in their cars to join another caravan heading for Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea, only 15 minutes away. 

The scene Shatter participated in at the Beit Yannai highway bridge – and those nearby, around the coastal cities of Netanya and Hadera, felt radically different than it had in previous weeks, before the coronavirus lockdown. 

For months, at sunset each Saturday, the highway entrances to these beach communities, like other overpasses across the country, have been decorated with banners and filled with demonstrators like Shatter. They waved black and Israeli flags, protesting government corruption, the handling of the coronavirus crisis and demanding that Netanyahu go home. They have been a nationwide echo of the message being sent by the Balfour protestors. 

Until this week, the protesters had played to a particularly large and generally appreciative audience below them. Beachgoers and vacationers returning home to Tel Aviv meant that the highways below them were always packed with traffic during their early evening protests, and the noise of car horns honking in approval competed with the loud horns the protesters blew.  

But Israel entered its second national lockdown a little over a week ago, which was tightened on Friday. It restricted Israelis to a 1,000 meter (or .6 mile) distance from their homes. As a result, traffic was sparse on this Saturday, and the atmosphere quieter and less charged. Still, several of the infrequent drivers who did pass by, either traveling locally or making sanctioned "essential" trips, waved and honked approvingly.

On the next overpass north, at the exit to Givat Olga, a cluster of police and soldiers stood alongside the protests, stopping every car getting on or exiting the highway and checking if they had a legitimate reason to travel. Drivers had to explain where and why they were travelling, some pulling out supermarket or pharmacy receipts to show that they had ventured far from home for a sanctioned purpose. Those whose answers were not satisfactory received a ticket. 

The crowd of 100 demonstrators included people of all ages – from young children to senior citizens, all masked and distanced, spread out across the highway bridge. 

Police question drivers at the Hemed junction during the coronavirus lockdown, September 26, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Miki Shomroni, 47, a Givat Olga resident, said she had also spent the past months protesting every Saturday night – either at Balfour, Caesarea, or here at her local overpass. She said she vigorously rejected Netanyahu’s call to end protests as part of the effort to fight COVID-19.

“The right to protest is too basic,” she said. “It’s part of who we are; it’s a fundamental part of democracy. And since we have a Prime Minister who is a thief and a liar – someone has to say enough is enough.” 

She was interrupted by a driver who yelled a pro-Netanyahu slogan from his car window “Only Bibi!” One of the demonstrators immediately shot back: “Yeah, only Bibi should go to prison!” 

To Shomroni, the fact that Netanyahu had been so focused on shutting down the protests meant that he was worried by the weekly mass display of dissatisfaction with his leadership: “It shows that the protests are working, and there’s no way we should give up now.” 

His invective against the demonstrators, and expressions of concern that the protests would justify others to defy lockdown restrictions such as prayer in synagogues, “is just spin meant to divide us and create a dynamic of ‘us against them.’"

Next to Shomroni – a safe social distance away – Chaya Greenberg, 64, and her partner Avi Gal waved their flags over the highway.  “We have to be here. If we don’t do anything, if we just sit in our living rooms, nothing will change,” she said. In the past, the couple had travelled to Balfour, but like Shatter, she said they decided that with the lockdown and the soaring infection rate, it was wiser to make their voices heard closer to home. 

Avi Gal, 65, and Chaya Greenberg, 64, at Givat Olga, September 26, 2020. Credit: Allison Kaplan Somme

Gal, who works as a tour guide but has been unemployed since March, said was pleased with the size and diversity of the crowd, because “the world has to see that this is happening all over the country, that all kinds of people are unhappy with the situation."

She added, "I’m here fighting for the future of this country. I travel the world in my job, but Israel is special, this country is mine. My father came here as a Holocaust survivor and immediately went to fight in the War of Independence. What did he fight for? What did I fight for in my army service? Not for this. I’m embarrassed to hand over the country to my children and my grandchildren in this condition. And I’m going to do whatever I can to change it.” 

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