Two Thousand Israelis Brave Coronavirus Fears to Protest Assault on Democracy

Organizers of the 'Black Flag' protest at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv were required to mark spots for people to maintain distance from each other and provide face masks

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Protesters, seen from above, maintain social distancing at the 'Black Flag' protest in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2020.
Protesters, seen from above, maintain social distancing at the 'Black Flag' protest in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Some two thousand people gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square Sunday to protest anti-democratic measures passed during the coronavirus crisis and the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while maintaining social distancing.

The protest included speeches by prominent lawmakers from the center-left bloc, including former co-leaders of Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan.

Bibi's got the perfect exit strategy - just not for the coronavirusCredit: Haaretz

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"This is how democracies die in the 21st century," said Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid in his speech, "They don't die because tanks overtake parliament, they die from the inside."

The "Black Flag" protests first gained recognition in March, when a motorcade of hundreds of cars made its way to Jerusalem to protest anti-democratic measures to combat the virus, including approval of Shin Bet phone tracking of civilians. "It started with the coronavirus, when they [the government] started passing anti-democratic bills," said Tamir Hefetz, one of the protest organizers. "I woke up and realized there is no alternative, tomorrow will be too late."

"The State of Israel is passing on to the public a responsibility that it should carry," said Gonen Ben Itzhak, another organizer.

In his speech, Lapid said Netanyahu has "turned the word democracy into a leftist word," and that Israel is undergoing anti-democratic processes similar to those that took place in Hungary and Turkey.

Addressing the ongoing coalition negotiations between Netanyahu and Gantz, Lapid's former political ally, Lapid said, "those who broke up Kahol Lavan and cheated us are going to be in government led by a fraud suspect," adding that Netanyahu has demanded power to appoint the police chief, state prosecutor and attorneys general as part of the negotiations.

Former Defense Minister and Telem Chairman Moshe Ya'alon, formerly a part of Kahol Lavan, attacked the government for "starving" the public health system for decades because it prioritized political considerations. "Fighting on the field are devoted medical teams in hospitals and clinics, social workers and yes, among them many Arabs, who are saving us despite our failed leadership," he said.

Chairman of The Joint List Ayman Odeh said, "Given our shared fate, we are fighting the cruel coronavirus epidemic – Arab and Jewish doctors, caretakers and pharmacists. We will continue fighting and we will beat it. This shared fate is meant to continue through all the issues that are dear to us: Peace, democracy, equality and social justice."

Yair Lapid speaks at the 'Black Flag' protest in Rabin Square, April 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Israelis hold signs that read 'I will not be silent while my country's face is changing,' Kikar Rabin, Tel Aviv, April 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
A woman at the 'Black Flag' protest in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Odeh admitted, "It's not easy for me to stand among some of the speakers here tonight, but we need to see the main point – only through a joint Jewish-Arab struggle can we succeed." Odeh added, "This crisis presents a huge opportunity for a wide Jewish-Arab front for peace and democracy."

A large number of police forces is also present at Rabin Square to enforce social distancing restrictions.

The protest was moved from a smaller venue so that organizers could comply with another police requirement – to maintain a distance of two meters between protesters, as well as clusters of ten people separated by ten meters from the next group. The Police also required organizers to mark the spots where people can stand and said speakers must call on protesters to "maintain distance and wear a mask for the safety of the participants."

A police document obtained by Haaretz said organizers of the protest were forced to provide face masks to participants at their own expense.

During a government conference call overnight Sunday, Interior Minister Gilad Erdan asked to limit protests, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected his request, saying he could be perceived of trying to quash protests against him.

Last Friday, police handed out 5,000-shekel-fines ($1,400) to protesters in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Similar fines were given last week to protesters outside the Kfar Saba home of Kahol Lavan lawmaker Gabi Ashkenazi.

Israelis at the 'Black Flag' protest in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, April 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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