Several convoys of more than a thousand vehicles set out from all across Israel Saturday toward the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis.
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Thousands have already gathered near Netanyahu's official residence on Balfour Street and are calling for his resignation.
The motorcades were organized in light of the government's attempts to curtail citizens' right to demonstrate during the country's second nationwide lockdown. Despite gaining government approval, restrictions that would only allow Israelis to protest within a 1,000 meter distance from their home failed to make it through the Knesset.
The main convoy entered Jerusalem around 6 P.M. with police escort. Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, about 150 protesters had gathered in Rabin Square and dozens more in Dizengoff Square to demonstrate. Hundreds of cars also crowded the coastal city of Casarea, where Netanyahu's private residence is located.
"The goal is to show Netanyahu that the people are tired of him," says Yuval Yellin, one of the organizers of a convoy driving to Jerusalem. "The caravan allows everyone to participate... I personally drive with the windows closed and will not get out of the vehicle at any stage."
"At the first checkpoint we passed, the policeman asked us where we were going and told us straight away - democracy is an important thing," Yellin added. "That's right."
The protests are organized by a loose coalition of several groups, and some had originally issued statements saying they would comply with the regulations.
Several other protest initiatives were expected on Saturday, including a virtual demonstration organized by the Darkenu movement, a call for the public to step out into their balconies at 8 P.M. and boo Netanyahu, as well as protests under the "A Kilometer It Is" banner in intersections and roundabouts near peoples' homes.
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Coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud meanwhile said that “the government must break up as soon as possible," asserting that Benny Gantz, the defense minister and Netanyahu's main coalition partner, and his Kahol Lavan party were working to undermine the coalition amid what he called "the divisive protests."
Earlier on Saturday, some protesters in Modi'in reported that officers prevented them from leaving the city, and that they could only protests 1,000 meters from their homes.
A spokesperson confirmed that police officers at checkpoints had been instructed to let protesters through. "Unfortunately, there are many drivers who abuse regulations... requiring police officers to conduct inspections and exercise discretion where required," she added.
There were several reported incidents of violence throughout the evening. In the Shapira neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv, protesters, some of them with children, were harassed by young people on mopeds shouting pro-Netanyahu slogans. After one of the protesters wrote down one of the licence plate number, a member of the group violently attacked him with his helmet until the man found refuge in a nearby store.
Jerusalem Police also said they had taken in a man after he threw a bottle at the protesters' convoy and resisted arrest.
Police officers also fined protesters near the prime minister's residence for not maintaining a distance of two meters from each other, despite not having the authority to do so. According to the coronavirus regulations approved by the government, a police officer may fine for "refusing to disperse a gathering."
The law stipulates that an officer must first ask a group to scatter in accordance with Health Ministry directives, and only after a reasonable amount of time in which it refuses to do so may the officer issue a fine.
If proven true, protesters claims that they received fines for standing too close to each other would render the fines illegal.
There have been several clashes between Netanyahu supporters and demonstrators in the last few weeks. On September 20, a Jerusalem man was arrested on suspicion of trying to run over protesters near the prime minister’s official residence.
The 'Black Flag' movement, one of the major forces in the Jerusalem protest, which originally started on bridges over Israel's highways, has been successful at decentralizing action. On Saturday, they said they were protesting at 315 junctions, and in over 100 neighborhoods, estimating "tens of thousands" had joined across the country. "This is the largest number of protesters since the bridge and intersection protests began 14 weeks ago," a statement said.
"We will demonstrate against him [Netanyahu] in Balfour until he leaves!" a joint statement by seven organizations said on Saturday. "Only Netanyahu is to blame [for the coronavirus crisis] and he is now trying to destroy democracy. He is obsessed with demonstrations in Balfour because they expose the lies he is trying to hide," the statement said.
"On the eve of Yom Kippur, the citizens of Israel tell Netanyahu: You, the sinner before us, go!" the joint statement concluded.
The prime minister and his allies have attempted to curb the protests as part of a stricter lockdown which went into effect on Friday afternoon. But the Knesset failed to pass the amendment to the coronavirus law that targeted protests specifically.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein expressed his disapproval on Saturday night, saying that protesters “exploited the delay in the Knesset to harm the health of those in their surroundings.”
"With God’s help on Tuesday we’ll end the legislative process and the protests will be restricted,” Edelstein added.
The issue of personal responsibility has been at the center of the debates regarding protests: The main argument is that allowing people to protest would effectively give the larger public an excuse to disobey coronavirus rules. “There is no way to resolve the coronavirus crisis without the confidence of the public, and Netanyahu has lost the confidence of the public," counters Eliad Shraga from the Movement for Quality Government. "He is in up to his neck with his trial and therefore for the sake of the country Netanyahu should vacate his position immediately. There is no other option."
Israel Police issued a statement on Saturday, saying they would enforce regulations that went into effect on Friday night, namely focusing on social distancing and the wearing of masks.
They also said they would restrict noise after 9:30 P.M., only allowing for public address amplification, which will still be legal until 11 P.M. This is in accordance with a previous High Court decision taken after residents of the neighborhood around Balfour Street complained.
As of Friday evening, the police, which has stepped up its enforcement in the last week, had given close to 242,500 coronavirus-related citations, 3,359 on Friday alone. A large majority of those were for violating movement restrictions.
Several were arrested in a similar initiative earlier this year, during the first coronavirus lockdown.