Thousands of Israeli protesters have gathered outside the official residence of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to demand his departure over his administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and attempts to curtail their right to demonstrate.
Long lines of cars drove along the main highway to Jerusalem al-Quds, with demonstrators converging on Balfour Street Saturday night.
Similar anti-Netanyahu protests were held in Tel Aviv and Caesarea, where Netanyahu's private residence is located.
In al-Quds rally, some people carried banners reading, “Disgrace,” “Ashamed,” and “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”
Organizers said 16,000 were present at the demonstration, citing numbered wristbands they handed out to the participants.
The 'Black Flag' movement, one of the protest groups, said they were demonstrating at 315 junctions, and in over 100 neighborhoods, estimating "tens of thousands" had joined the rallies.
"This is the largest number of protesters since the bridge and intersection protests began 14 weeks ago," it said.
Meanwhile, seven organizations released a joint statement, saying, "We will demonstrate against him [Netanyahu] in Balfour until he leaves!"
"On the eve of Yom Kippur, the citizens of Israel tell Netanyahu: You, the sinner before us, go!," the statement said.
The rallies came one day after the Israeli regime tightened a three-week lockdown imposed on September 18 in a bid to bring down the world's highest coronavirus infection rate per capita.
Netanyahu and his allies also attempted to curb the protests as part of the strict lockdown, but the Israeli parliament (Knesset) failed to pass the amendment to the coronavirus law that targeted protests specifically.
The controversial legislation would have limited protests to within a kilometer of an individual’s home, and in groups of no more than 20 people.
Israeli health minister Yuli Edelstein tweeted against the protesters, calling them virus spreaders.
The demonstrators “exploited the delay in the Knesset to harm the health of those in their surroundings,” he wrote. "With God’s help on Tuesday we’ll end the legislative process and the protests will be restricted.”
During a press conference on Thursday, Netanyahu rejected allegations that he was pushing for the lockdown to stop ongoing protests against him over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the virus pandemic.
He argued that “these anarchist and ludicrous protests” actually help him politically, but “the public is sick of them.”
Several clashes were reported between police officers and protesters during the rally.
Police announced five arrests. They also handed out fines to some demonstrators due to what they said was failure to socially distance and wear masks.
Israeli media said around 150 people were fined on charges of not following social distancing restrictions.
Accusing officers of acting aggressively, participants were seen surrounding the police, yelling, “Violent cops, you ought to be in jail.”
“This is dangerous for everybody — people could get hurt. But what are we to expect from a political police which is trying to scare people away from the demonstrations?” said Ziv, a demonstrator who declined to be identified by his last name.
The Israeli prime minister held a call with minister of military affairs Benny Gantz and justice minister Avi Nissenkorn of the Blue and White party, to push them on approving emergency regulations, Channel 12 TV channel reported.
Speaking to Channel 13 on Saturday, Gantz accused Netanyahu’s Likud party of “sabotaging” the restrictions by suddenly demanding changes to the legislation that would have given “excess authority” to the regime in restricting freedoms.
He also supported the protesters’ right to demonstrate, but urged them to act responsibility by limiting numbers and keeping social distancing rules.