Police arrested 55 demonstrators Thursday night as thousands of anti-government protesters gathered outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, calling for his resignation over his corruption charges and what they call a mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis and assault on democracy.
This is the biggest number of protesters police have arrested since the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations kicked off several weeks ago. Most of the protesters were released on Friday morning with restrictions on movement, including a ban from entering Jerusalem for a period of up to 10 days.
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Nearly 20 other protesters will be brought before a Jerusalem judge on Friday after refusing to agree to limitations.
Police said some 4,000 people took part in the protest, adding that about 1,000 demonstrators remained at Paris Square by the Prime Minister's Residence on Balfour Street after the protest ended.
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The movement had called for Thursday's protest in response to an emergency powers law that was passed in the Knesset on Wednesday and allows the government to take some executive decisions bypassing legislative oversight amid the coronavirus crisis.
Police started to forcefully break up the protest at around 10:30 P.M. At midnight, violent clashes erupted between the police and hundreds of demonstrators who refused to leave the square. Those remaining planned to march toward the city center, but police officers used water cannons to prevent them from doing so, prompting the crowd to disperse.
Police said in a statement that protesters were arrested on suspicion of causing public disturbance, as well as assaulting police officers and other demonstrators.
"Police officers acted to protect the health of those taking part in the protest, and enforced the wearing of masks on those who failed to do so. After police declared several times that the protest was over, some refused to leave the area, therefore obligating officers to disperse them and restore public order," the statement read.
The police added they "will work to allow each and every person to exercise their right to protest, but at the same time won't allow any violation of public order."
Gonen Ben Yitzhak, an attorney for some of those arrested, said an investigations officer for the Jerusalem police refused to allow him to enter the station where those arrested were being held, and was unable to represent them.
Police set up a buffer zone to separate the anti and pro-Netanyahu protesters. Confrontations also developed between the police Netanyahu's supporters, with mounted police officers pushing back demonstrators who tried to enter the buffer zone.
One counter-protester, Likud activist Boris Aplichuk, said the anti-Netanyahu protesters were "the pereprators of chaos, the perpetrators of anarchy and the destroyers of the State of Israel" and said the protests were funded by "a pedophile named Epstein," referring to Jeffrey Epstein, whose links with former prime minister and Netanyahu opponent Ehud Barak have been highlighted by supporters of the prime minister.
Aplichuk added that Barak and opposition politicians Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman were behind the protests and that "they serve the Israeli deep state that has taken over our law enforcement system."
Left-wing activists said they have been attacked throughout the protest by members of extremist right-wing La Familia soccer fan club at Paris Square and nearby streets. Some said they were attacked while sitting at a coffee shop, with one saying his hand was cut by a glass bottle a La Familia member smashed at his direction.
Left-wing activist and media adviser Ahiya Shatz who attended the protest told Haaretz he was also attacked by La Familia members. "There were four people from La Familia who yelled 'It's a shame that Hitler didn't finish the job,' and 'You don't deserve someone like Bibi, you deserve someone like Hitler.' Then a bigger group approached me and I started filming them, pushed me and knocked my phone out of my hand."
Thursday's protest is the sixth such demonstration in the last ten days. Further demonstrations are expected on Friday and Saturday. The protests started last month and as they grew and turned into marches on the center of the city, the police response also became increasingly forceful, with law enforcement deploying riot control units, as well as mounted units and water cannons.
More than 100 people were arrested in the last week and a half, most of them released with restraining orders preventing them from returning to the area.
Residents of the Rehavia neighborhood, where Balfour Street is situated, filed a petition with the High Court asking to prevent the demonstrations, saying it affected their quality of life, as well as their safety. They report constant noise from almost permanent encampments of anti- and pro-Netanyahu supporters, who sometimes engage in shouting matches in the middle of the night.
Some of the petitioners met with Public Security Minister Amir Ohana on Wednesday, who is known as a staunch Netanyahu ally. The minister suggested to ban the protests altogether, while other security officials floated the idea of moving them to another location – but police said this could not be done.
On Thursday, Ohana asked protests representatives to meet with him and residents of the neighborhood, but they all, apart from one, refused. Organizer Amir Haskel said Ohana “has nothing to do with it. We’ve already reached agreements with the police… so as not to disturb the residents, but Ohana has his mind made up to block the protest.”
The so-called Black Flag group said Ohana “puts Israeli democracy in danger,” adding: “We won’t agree to meet with him, but send him home, just like Netanyahu.”
Several groups are organizing attendance for the protests, which are mirrored by smaller gatherings in other cities and on bridges and junctions over major highways throughout the country.
But they are largely decentralized and have spontaneously combusted into a mass movement, which has made law enforcement increasingly brazen in its attempt to gather information. Several people attending protests reported attempts by police officers to recruit them as informant in the last week.