Anti-government activists streamed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem for the first time in weeks Saturday night, as regular protests looked to resume following a clampdown during Israel’s nationwide virus lockdown.
Media reports put the crowd size at Paris Square in the thousands, and organizers claimed over 15,000 attendees as of 9 p.m.
Demonstrators waved pink banners and Israeli flags, chanting slogans against the prime minister and blowing on vuvuzelas.
“Sheheyanu!” said demonstrator Meir Moscovitch, invoking a Hebrew prayer for auspicious occasions. “We were away for three weeks and now we’re back to call for honesty — not left, not right, honest.”
While police barricades were allowing demonstrators ample space to socially distance, most were tightly clustered close to Balfour Street near Paris Square.
A second anti-corruption protest at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square also drew large crowds.
The protest is the first major demonstration in Jerusalem since a rule including protests in restrictions barring travel more than a kilometer from home expired Tuesday.
The Balfour Street residence has been the locus of weekly protests that have gained steam since the summer as activists urge the ouster of Netanyahu over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Activists were forced to shift to small rallies at bridges and intersections limited to 20 people each to comply with the rules, which many charged had been politically motivated to quash the demonstrations. Protest leaders claimed the rules had the opposite effect, leading to even larger numbers of people coming out to demonstrate against the government.
Police released a statement ahead of the protests saying they were closing off streets and calling on demonstrators to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.
They said they would enforce rules banning noisemakers after 9:30 p.m. and voice amplification after 11 p.m.
“The police reiterates that it is acting to allow the holding of protests by all demonstrators, but will not allow any violation of public order and will act firmly against any attempt to disturb public order,” a police statement says.
Despite the lifted restriction, the Black Flags protest group claimed in a statement that many protesters were being held up at checkpoints outside of Jerusalem.
Ahead of the main protests, demonstrators began gathering for smaller demonstrations at various sites across the country, as they have done for months. Among those making the rounds of ancillary protest sites was opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party.
In Jerusalem, former defense minister and current opposition MK Moshe Ya’alon and Joint List MK Ofer Cassif could be spotted taking selfies among the demonstrators.
Organizers told Channel 12 ahead of the protest that they were planning for “hundreds of thousands” of people to join demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere.
On Thursday, protests of several hundred people were held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere.
In Tel Aviv, hundreds of activists broke through a fenced-off area designated for them by police at Habima Square and began marching down Ibn Gabirol Street after officers blocked them from proceeding down Shaul Hamelech Street.
In the nearby city of Holon, a number of anti-Netanyahu demonstrators were sprayed with “some kind of gas” by opponents who showed up to confront them, police said in a statement. Media reports indicated the substance was tear gas.
None of the demonstrators needed medical treatment, police said, adding that they had detained two suspects in the attack.
A Haaretz photographer tweeted a picture of far-right activists at the Holon counter-demonstration, some of whom were holding a sign that read “A good leftist is a dead leftist.”
להפגנה בחולון הגיעו כמה עשרות פעילים ( ככל הנראה לה פמיליה)
זה אחד השלטים שאחזו pic.twitter.com/SnLlUV2si6
— Tomer Appelbaum (@tomerappelbaum) October 15, 2020
A video posted to Twitter by Channel 12 showed that same Haaretz photographer, Tomer Appelbaum, being attacked by far-right activists shortly thereafter.
Protests in recent months have seen dozens of reported attacks on anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, including by one Sderot resident accused of assaulting a protester with a sharp object. There have also been two suspected incidents of cars trying to ram protesters.
The protests come hours before Israel is slated to significantly roll back a national lockdown in place for exactly a month, after the closure managed to curb sky-high infection rates. The lifted restrictions will end a ban on travel of more than a kilometer, and allow preschools and non-public-facing businesses to open.