Israel's anti-Netanyahu protests draw tens of thousands despite Covid rules

Demonstrators gathered across the country as lockdown barred them from outside prime minister’s Jerusalem residence

Israeli protesters scuffle with Israeli police officers during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
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Tens of thousands of Israelis calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign gathered across the country on Saturday evening.

They said he was unfit to rule while on trial for corruption charges and accused him of mismanaging the nation’s coronavirus crisis.

Protesters met at hundreds of locations because lockdown rules barred them from demonstrating outside Mr Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.

The regulations allowed people only to gather within a kilometre of their home.

The largest gathering, at Habima Square in central Tel Aviv, drew thousands of protesters, who blew horns and pounded on drums and tambourines. They waved pink and black flags symbolising grassroots protest movements. Some of the banners, using Mr Netanyahu’s nickname, read: “Bibi, you are destroying my future.” Others read “Go!”

Police reported clashes with the protesters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes for his role in a series of scandals, and the demonstrators have staged weekly gatherings for the past four months demanding that he step down. Mr Netanyahu denies the charges and called the protesters leftists and anarchists.

The demonstrations were also fuelled by the government’s response to the pandemic. After appearing to contain the outbreak with a tight lockdown in the spring, it reopened the economy quickly and the infection rate soared. The country of 9 million people has one of the highest infection rates in the developed world and the death toll is approaching 2,000.

With infections at record levels, Israel imposed another lockdown last month, again hurting business owners and entrepreneurs who have been a key component of the protests. The economy has been devastated by the closures, and many of the protesters are young Israelis who have lost their jobs.

Mr Netanyahu’s trial, the pandemic and the plummeting economy are adding further pressure on his emergency government, which was formed in May in partnership with his rival, Benny Gantz.

The government was meant to address the coronavirus crisis and the parties formed it after three inconclusive elections in less than a year. Instead, it has been hobbled by non-stop infighting.

Last week, the government’s tourism minister of Mr Gantz’s Blue and White party resigned over the failure to contain the outbreak. Violations of the lockdown by senior government officials, including a cabinet minister from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and Mr Netanyahu’s wife Sara last week, have further damaged public trust in the country’s decision-makers.