Israelis Take on Netanyahu and Coronavirus Restrictions in Wave of Civil Disobedience

Many Israelis believe their country’s second coronavirus lockdown was about stopping anti-corruption protests — not the spread of the disease.

18 July 2020, Israel, Jerusalem: A man wearing a rubber mask of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, handcuffs and a jail suit during a protest against Netanyahu near his residence in Jerusalem ahead of another court hearing on Sunday, during which he will stand trial over charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)
A person wearing a rubber mask of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, handcuffs, and a prison uniform during a protest near Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, on July 18, 2020. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

On a Friday evening in late June, 67-year old Amir Haskel, a retired 32-year career air force pilot in the Israel Defense Forces with the rank of brigadier general, found himself inside of a jail cell for the first time in his life. Haskel was arrested while protesting in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street in West Jerusalem. He and a handful of others had been camping out on the sidewalk for two weeks, engaging in a sit-in to demand that Netanyahu resign.

That Friday, hundreds of people unexpectedly showed up. The police arrested Haskel, who said cops took him in because he was leading a protest that violated police terms, even though no such terms or permit were required. They tried to strike a deal with him to sign a restraining order that would prevent him from entering Jerusalem for 15 days, but he refused and spent the night in jail until being released by a judge. “It was clear to me that the change can only happen at Balfour. It can’t happen in Tel Aviv. He has to feel us breathing down his neck,” said Haskel, who sees Netanyahu’s ouster as the first and necessary step in a process. “The biggest threat to Israel is not Iran or Hezbollah or Hamas. It is our society’s internal divisions,” he added.

In this photo taken on Sunday, June 28, 2020, former Israeli Air Force general and leading critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel wears a face mask amid the concerns over the country's coronavirus outbreak pose for a photo in Tel Aviv, Israel. After 32 years in the Israeli Air Force, retired Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel wasn't looking to politics. But as his prime minister became further enmeshed in corruption, he felt he could no longer stay silent. So, he picked up a sign and took to the streets in an individual act of protest. Now, after his highly-publicized weekend arrest during a peaceful demonstration, he has become the unquestioned leader of the growing grassroots movement demanding that Benjamin Netanyahu step down. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Retired Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel wears a face mask amid the concerns over the country’s coronavirus outbreak as he poses for a photo in Tel Aviv, Israel, on June 28, 2020.

Photo: Ariel Schalit/AP

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, having been at the helm for over 11 consecutive years. He is also the first sitting prime minister to be indicted, currently on trial in three cases of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, arising from abusing his authority to grant favors for, among other things, favorable media coverage. While there have been small but stubborn protests against Netanyahu since investigations into his corruption first opened in late 2016, it was not until the coronavirus paralyzed Israel’s economy that people — many of them in their 20s and 30s — starting coming out in droves.

For more than 20 weeks now, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to call on Netanyahu to recuse himself for corruption, for failing to manage the pandemic, and for what many describe as his megalomania — doing whatever it takes to evade trial. They have been convening in massive numbers in front of his official residence, many carrying homemade signs, chanting in unison “Go!” and “We won’t leave till Bibi resigns.”

JERUSALEM - OCTOBER 31: Israeli protestors gather on Saturday night in protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding his resignation over corruption cases and his failure to combat the new type of coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in West Jerusalem on October 31, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Israeli protesters gather in protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding his resignation over corruption cases and his failure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, in West Jerusalem on Oct. 31, 2020.

Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

There have also been protests in front of Netanyahu’s private home in Caesarea (just north of Tel Aviv), in front of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s home in the central suburb of Rosh Haayin, in the streets of Tel Aviv — where the city’s septuagenarian mayor, Ron Huldai, was injured during a protest last month — and at over 1,000 locations across the country, including a few towns considered to be right-wing strongholds. Carmi Gillon, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, was arrested after chaining himself to a roadblock in Jerusalem. According to some protest organizers, the number of people protesting throughout Israel in a single day has exceeded 250,000 Israelis, with more than 20,000 in Jerusalem alone.

The prime minister and his loyalists have called the protesters “anarchists” and “disease spreaders,” and recently also accused them of being funded by Iran.

Protests that historically bring out large numbers of Jewish Israelis have long been dominated by Israel’s left-leaning peace camp, and a decade ago, others drawing attention to the high cost of living. What is happening now is different: With over a million people unemployed in a country of 9 million, culture and nightlife all but dead amid the pandemic, and people’s ability to travel outside the country severely restricted, a nationwide movement of disgruntled Israelis, spanning ages and to an extent sociocultural backgrounds, is practicing civil disobedience. Israel has been led by right-wing governments for the last 20 years, and as its political parties continue to tack to the right, many of its citizens are warning about the country’s democratic decline.

The government has responded with relative force against a segment of the Jewish population that is largely unfamiliar with police brutality and has not had their individual rights violated. At the same time, the government has all but ignored incitement and incidents of violence against the protesters. The official response is giving Jewish Israelis a tiny window into what it has always been like for Palestinians, both in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza, whose protests are, prima facie, treated as suspect. 

“You could tell something was different here from the start,” said photojournalist Oren Ziv, who has been covering protests large and small, left and right, throughout Israel and the West Bank for over 15 years. “In a country where Netanyahu has ruled for so many years, and so many were born into a Netanyahu reality, protesters are changing the agenda by putting the spotlight on how Netanyahu is the problem. And as opposed to protests in the past, like the 2011 protests” — which were focused on high cost of living and social issues and saw even higher turnouts — “here demonstrators came out unabashedly saying, this is political,” Ziv said. “Because no matter what you stand for, the first demand is that he must go.”

TOPSHOT - Protesters, mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, gather for a demonstration against the Israeli government near the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem on August 1, 2020. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Protesters, mask-clad due to the Covid-19 pandemic, gather for a demonstration against the Israeli government near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem on Aug. 1, 2020.

Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The protests intensified in September, as Israel experienced a second wave of Covid-19 cases — with some of the highest infection rates in the world — leading to a rigid second national lockdown. In addition to fining people for not wearing masks and tracking cellphones for contact tracing, for two weeks, Israel’s government enacted emergency regulations that restricted any gathering to up to 20 people and up to a half-mile from one’s home. That measure, which was taken despite there being no evidence that outdoor protests have contributed to rising infections, effectively stopped the mass protests in front of Netanyahu’s residence. Over half the Israeli public believes this second lockdown was motivated by politics rather than health, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.

“When I’m arrested in the West Bank, there aren’t thousands of people who support me. In Balfour, when you’re arrested, you’re a hero.”

The restrictions backfired, leading to hundreds of small protests mushrooming across the country, making it nearly impossible for the police to contain. It led the police, in early October, to inflict some of the worst police violence on the protesters yet. Police tactics for containing and quelling the protests have at times been unexpectedly harsh, including spraying water cannons directly at protesters’ bodies, resulting in numerous injuries, as well as mounted police and violent arrests — measures that have been historically used against minorities in Israel like Palestinian citizens, Ethiopian Jews, and Orthodox Jews. Protesters have sat down on the street and refused to heed police calls to leave, initiated spontaneous marches to evade police barricades, refused to provide their ID numbers, and refused to pay the $250 fines police have handed out, preferring instead to take it to court.

“People have undergone a quick politicization process, driven by a discourse focused on government corruption. People don’t have work, so they have time, and they have reached their limit,” said Ori Givati, an activist and staffer at the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, who has been arrested several times during the protests. “I no longer believe that the police is protecting me. I haven’t believed this for a long time because of my experiences in the West Bank. But until you yourself experience it and are targeted, you don’t feel it,” he said, pointing to the stark difference between anti-occupation activism and this protest. “When I’m arrested in the West Bank, there aren’t thousands of people who support me. In Balfour, when you’re arrested, you’re a hero.”

Protest in West Jerusalem against Israeli PM Netanyahu
Anti-Netanyahu Protests Continue In Jerusalem

Left/Top: Israeli security forces use water cannons to disperse demonstrators as protesters gather against the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Western Jerusalem, on July 18, 2020. Right/Bottom: Israeli protesters clash with police officers during a demonstration against Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Israel, on Aug. 22, 2020. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Amir Levy/Getty Images

Following a July 14 protest, numerous people testified that they were cornered by cops into an area and sprayed deliberately with a water cannon, despite pleading with the cops that they wanted to go home. Among the 50 people who were arrested that night was 25-year old student Merav Ferziger, who had traveled to Jerusalem to join the protest and ended up with a hurt arm from the water cannon and a black eye from all the police shoving. “It was scary and painful but also very exhilarating,” she said. “I felt like I was in a movie. A woman next to me got sprayed directly in her face.” Despite the mass arrests, not a single one of the protesters has been indicted.

The arrests are the police’s way of crushing the protests, said Israeli human rights attorney Gaby Lasky, who has been defending the right to protest of both Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists for years. There have been over 500 arrests since July, according to Lasky, who said most arrestees are asked to sign a restraining order distancing them from the protest location for up to 15 days, and some are even put under house arrest. Most people sign because not doing so means spending the night in jail until they can see a judge — who, in most cases, annuls the police orders.

Police have also applied the “kettling” technique a few times, closing protesters off in a specific area and not letting them out for an extended period of time. “It’s a new tactic,” Lasky said. “It not only goes against the corona guidelines since you are supposed to maintain two meters of distance, but it is also traumatic and damaging mentally.”

American-French law professor Frank Romano (C) who was arrested by Israel while protesting against the demolition of a Palestinian village in the West Bank gestures at the Jerusalem court on September 16, 2018.To his right is his lawyer Gaby Lasky. - US-born Romano, who teaches law at the Paris Nanterre University, was detained two days ago while taking part in a demonstration at the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, east of Jerusalem. His lawyer said today that he will be deported. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)        (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Frank Romano, center, was arrested while protesting against the demolition of a Palestinian village gestures next to his lawyer Gaby Lasky at the Jerusalem court on Sept. 16, 2018.

Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

According to Lasky, police have been confiscating people’s phones upon arrest, and several activists say they are being surveilled by plainclothes cops. In recent weeks, undercover cops have been operating inside the protests, picking out those they deem to be the leaders and arresting them. This is a mainstay of Israeli military tactics in the occupied West Bank. “It’s called the ‘main inciter,’ a military term,” said Givati. “You grab the Palestinian with the megaphone,” the idea being that if you take the leading activists out, the protests lose steam.

The police have also employed officers from its organized crimes unit to investigate the protesters. Ferziger, who was arrested for a second time in October, said that while she was interrogated, officers accused her of being part of a criminal organization that planned to destroy public property, injure police, and spread the virus. “They were trying to get more names of activists,” she said. “They are trained to catch mafia guys and drug dealers. I was sitting there in my tie-dye shirt, smiling in disbelief behind my mask.”

The segment of Israeli society most familiar with state repression — Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up over 20 percent of the population — has been noticeably absent from the protests. That’s in part because they find protesters’ talk of saving or restoring Israeli democracy to be off base; in their experience, full democracy has yet to be established.

Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian Israeli politician who heads the Joint List, the political alliance of Israel’s main Arab parties, has been to the protests and supports them, but understands his constituency’s reluctance. He said Palestinian citizens see protesters fighting to save a democracy that they themselves never had and lamenting a breakdown of trust with the state that they never experienced. “An entire generation of Jews is being confronted, for the first time, with police brutality,” he said, “even if it is much softer than what Arab citizens face.”

Israeli protesters hold signs and chant slogans during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu In Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israeli protesters hold signs and chant slogans during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Aug. 27, 2020.

Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The crackdown by police has not had the intended deterrent effect, largely because the movement has no official leaders, nor have any politicians or political parties been able to monopolize it to their advantage. This is by design. “There are no decision-makers. It’s really authentic, that’s what is beautiful,” said Yishai Hadas, a 65-year-old demonstrator active with a protest group called “Crime Minister,” dedicated to forcing Netanyahu out of office due to his corruption trial.

In stark difference to the types of demonstrations that Israel’s peace camp has traditionally partaken in — static rallies with preapproved speeches and songs, or even the 2011 social protests, which had more of a Woodstock feel — these protests have an active, spontaneous, and dynamic nature. While there are both ideological and tactical differences between the older protesters, like Haskel, who seek to remain on good terms with authorities, and the younger protesters who are willing to challenge the police and get arrested repeatedly, both camps agree the potency of the protests is that they are diverse and decentralized, with no one claiming ownership over their messaging or character.

“The lockdown turned every citizen into a lawbreaker. The most basic act of going outside your house became civil disobedience.”

For the younger crowd, the appeal of the protests is that they go beyond calling for Netanyahu’s ouster. “Our discourse talks about equality, individual rights, welfare, peace, occupation, distributive justice,” said Maayan Amran, who is 37 years old. “I also want Bibi to go, but just getting him out isn’t enough.” When she began protesting in July, she was pleasantly surprised that one of the first chants she heard was “Justice for Iyad,” referring to Iyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem shot and killed by border police in May while walking to school. “Youth are starting to make the connections between forms of police brutality, against the Ethiopian community as well, which many were not aware of,” said Amran, who is from a family of Iraqi descent that has always voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party and who herself did in the past.

The reality of the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis also played a role in prompting more Israelis to engage in acts of dissent and normalize acts of resistance against government policy. “The lockdown turned every citizen into a lawbreaker,” said Ohad Nevo, a 33-year-old activist from Jerusalem who is part of a burgeoning group of artists, students, and activists who have become known for wearing pink bandanas to the protests. “The most basic act of going outside your house became civil disobedience. The situation has allowed for popular awakening as people see how the state can take away basic rights, placing us on more similar footing with the ultra-Orthodox, Palestinians, and Ethiopians.”

There are signs that the protesters are succeeding at getting under Netanyahu’s skin. “He’s going mad. The Likud party is obsessed over these protests. Ministers are describing meetings in which they are focused solely on how to put a stop to them,” said Akiva Novick, a right-wing journalist with Israel’s public broadcaster. “But Netanyahu is still the most popular figure in Israel. If there is an alternative, it’s to the right. The Israeli public is only moving further right. Whoever thought disaffection with Bibi would make Israel go left is imagining things.”

While what may come next for Israel remains an open question, activists have been galvanized by Joe Biden’s presidential victory in the U.S. Their message since the election has been: “Trump’s out, Bibi you’re next.”

Correction: Nov. 18, 2020
A previous version of this article referred to Merav Ferziger by the incorrect first name. 

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