Israel has passed a law that bans mass protest during the country’s coronavirus lockdown in a move government opponents have claimed exploits the health crisis to suppress demonstrations calling for Benjamin Netanyahu to resign as prime minister.
The contentious legislation was approved at 4:30 am local time (1:30 am GMT) on Wednesday after an all-night session by the country’s parliament, the Knesset. It allows the government to restrict people from travelling more than 1km from their homes to demonstrate and bans outdoor gatherings of more than 20 people.
Critics say it, in effect, criminalises weekly rallies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where thousands have voiced their anger over Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic as well as charges of alleged corruption, which he denies.
Outside the Knesset, several hundred people had gathered on Tuesday to condemn the new laws.
“I think we can see they are not aimed to stop the pandemic or the coronavirus but it’s a political restriction in order to stop and kill the demonstrations against Netanyahu,” said Yaniv Segal, an actor who has been out of work for several months.
“This is an anti-democratic law. It’s only to stop resistance against a prime minister that is corrupted and accused of many crimes.”
Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party had previously demanded that the ban on mass protests remain in effect even after the lockdown was lifted but lawmakers rejected that proposal. The new law can only be used during a lockdown.
After the law was passed, Yair Lapid, the head of the opposition, tweeted: “What’s the next step? Banning the opposition leader from addressing parliament?”
Israel has recorded some of the highest per capita daily infection rates in the world, and a military body said on Tuesday the country’s coronavirus deaths per capita had surpassed the US.
While a spring lockdown managed to get infection rates to very low levels, officials say the country was reopened too fast and with few restrictions.
“We were not careful. We weren’t careful in how we emerged from the last lockdown, I think we are not doing enough to lower infection and morbidity,” Health Ministry Director General Hezi Levy told public radio.
A three-week lockdown imposed this month has forced all non-essential businesses to close and largely shuttered the country.
Protest leaders have questioned the science behind the new rules, arguing that open-air rallies do not pose a significant infection risk, especially when compared with indoor religious gatherings, which have been singled out as hotspots.
Netanyahu’s critics accuse the prime minister, whose government is propped up by powerful Jewish ultra-Orthodox politicians, of not doing enough to limit religious gatherings. This month Netanyahu dropped a plan for localised lockdowns, which would largely impact religious communities, after pressure from ultra-Orthodox mayors.
“I’m not saying I have anything against religious people, I don’t,” said Liri Burak Shavit, 44, a psychologist at Tuesday’s protest. “But we see that most of the corona is in the cities of the religious people.
“The religious people didn’t want it to go ahead. They said, ‘Bibi, we will not vote for you next time if you do it’,” she said. “Then, after one minute, it’s the whole country that had to closed down. People are angry, people are furious.”
In response, many deeply religious Israelis believe they are being unfairly targeted and point to the fact that ultra-Orthodox communities often live in poor, congested areas where infections can spread rapidly.
Israel has recorded more than 234,000 infections and 1,516 deaths in a population of 9 million. The health minister, Yuli Edelstein, on Tuesday ruled out measures being lifted completely after three weeks as originally planned.
“There’s no way that in 10 days we’ll be lifting all the restrictions and saying it’s all over, everything is fine,” he told the public broadcaster Kan. “The opening of the economy and our lives will be gradual and slow.”
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