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Israel moves to sharply curtail anti-Netanyahu protests

Alisa Odenheimer
Bloomberg

Israel’s parliament moved to squelch the mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reasoning that such an emergency measure was necessary to limit coronavirus infections.

The protests have drawn thousands of people weekly since late June, and critics of the premier have alleged that a law passed Wednesday empowering the government to sharply restrict demonstrations is intended to muzzle dissent. Netanyahu’s allies say the protests help him by shoring up his base, and the legislation is necessary to contain infections and justify limitations on prayer gatherings during a virus lockdown.

Israeli protesters wave flags and chant slogans during a demonstration against parliament's plans to ban them from protesting during the current nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. The protesters accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of exploiting the coronavirus crisis in order to stop weeks of demonstrations against him.

Previously the demonstrations had been shielded from lockdown limits under free-speech provisions. The amended law curbs participation in demonstrations to within a kilometer (0.6 mile) of a person’s home, and allows the government to restrict the number of participants.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel has petitioned the Supreme Court to exempt demonstrations from the new law, which also applies to communal worship and religious ceremonies. In the meantime it has requested a temporary injunction against the legislation.

The law gives the government the right to extend the emergency footing to 21 days, subject to parliamentary review, and then again by two week increments as long as the lockdown is maintained. Israel entered a second lockdown on Sept. 18 and on Wednesday, Netanyahu said it could last “much longer” than a month.

The economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak triggered the protests, which have since focused on calls for Netanyahu to resign over multiple corruption indictments. His trial is due to resume in January.

Israel Controversially Tightens Lockdown as Virus Cases Soar (2)

While the prime minister and his allies pushed vigorously to gut the demonstrations on health grounds, it remains to be seen whether he will use the new law to break up communal worship and study that have contributed to a massive outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

One third of all cases in Israel come from the community, Health Ministry Director-General Hezi Levi said Wednesday, the Ynet news website reported. But the government, which depends on ultra-Orthodox legislators for a parliamentary majority, may be reluctant to crack down on the community’s health infractions.