Israeli government extends ban limiting public protests

PM Netanyahu says the restrictions are driven by safety concerns as the country battles a surge in COVID-19 but critics say he is muzzling dissent.

A youth wearing a protective face mask sits on a pavement near shuttered shops amid Israel's second national coronavirus lockdown in Ashkelon, Israel on October 7, 2020 [Amir Cohen/REUTERS]

The Israeli government has extended an emergency provision that bars public gatherings, including widespread protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for an additional week.

Government ministers approved the measure by a telephone vote, the prime minister’s office said in a statement late on Wednesday. It will remain in place until Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the head of the Shin Bet internal security service acknowledged violating lockdown orders by hosting visiting family members at his home, becoming the latest of several senior Israeli officials caught bending the rules.

Israel imposed a nationwide lockdown ahead of the Jewish High Holidays last month to rein in the country’s surging coronavirus outbreak.

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law last week allowing the government to declare a special week-long state of emergency to limit participation in assemblies because of the pandemic.

The government then declared the state of emergency, limiting all public gatherings to within a kilometre (0.6 miles) of a person’s home.

Netanyahu has said the restrictions are driven by safety concerns as the country battles a runaway pandemic, but critics and protesters accuse him of tightening the lockdown to muzzle dissent.

Thousands of Israelis have participated in weekly demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem for months, calling on the longtime prime minister to resign while on trial for corruption.

Since the restriction was approved last month, tens of thousands of Israelis have staged protests on street corners and public squares near their homes against the government’s perceived mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.

On Thursday, an Israeli protester painted the Hebrew word “Go” – an increasingly popular slogan among anti-Netanyahu protesters – in large letters across Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

Senior officials, including Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, have been caught violating their own orders since the start of the pandemic.

In recent days, Environment Minister Gila Gamliel has come under fire over allegedly misleading contract tracers after she violated the lockdown and tested positive for the virus.

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman on Thursday acknowledged press reports that his daughter and other family members visited his home over the holidays. “The head of the security service regrets this incident and accepts full responsibility,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.

Israel was initially praised for its swift imposition of restrictions in February to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

But after reopening the economy and schools in May, new cases increased quickly. It imposed a second lockdown on September 18 as the infection rate skyrocketed to one of the highest per capita in the world.

After nearly three weeks of lockdown, the number of new cases is gradually decreasing, but infections are still spreading, particularly among the country’s hard-hit ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

As of Thursday, Israel has recorded 284,705 confirmed cases and more than 1,800 deaths in the country of about nine million people.

Source: News Agencies