Protest Against Government’s Economic Response to Virus Turns Violent

YERUSHALAYIM (Hamodia/AP) -
A general view shows Rabin square as Israelis protest against the government’s response to the financial fallout of the coronavirus disease (COVID- 19) crisis in Tel Aviv, Motzoei Shabbos. (Reuters/Ilan Rosenberg)

Thousands of Israelis demonstrated in downtown Tel Aviv on Motzoei Shabbos, protesting what they claim to be Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s failure to address economic woes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Protesters blocked main roads in the city, committed acts of vandalism and burned garbage dumpsters as the demonstration escalated later in the night. Police forces tried dispersing the protesters and were attacked with tear gas and bottles. One protester threw a brick at a bank branch, shattering its window. Three officers were lightly wounded.

Twelve protesters were arrested on charges of disturbing the public order; nineteen others were taken in for questioning.

With economic stress deepening in recent weeks, many Israelis think the government has not done enough to compensate hundreds of thousands of workers who lost their jobs as a result of restrictions and shutdowns. Unemployment has surged over 20%, and Netanyahu has seen his popularity plummet.

The protest was organized by unemployed, self-employed, entrepreneurs and business owners who gathered in central Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Some participants wore masks, but did not appear to be following social distancing rules.

“We are not working already nearly five months and unfortunately most of us have not received any compensation from the Israeli government and this is really a tragedy,” said Daniel Tieder, a protester. “In every country all over the world people have received compensation and support from their government. Unfortunately, here in Israel, nothing yet.”

On Thursday, Netanyahu announced an economic “safety net” promising quick relief to the self-employed and stipends over the coming year for struggling workers and business owners. The government is expected to approve the plan on Sunday.

But the large turnout at Rabin Square was a sign of widespread discontent with the government’s policies.

Addressing the crowd at the protest, Achinoam Nehmad, the owner of a domestic tourism company and father of five, said: “The fight began with the lockdown and continued with not receiving fair compensation. We fight for the present, for our livelihood, for our dignity as human beings – and that is no nonsense,'” he said in an apparent dig at Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who last week dismissed as “nonsense” claims that some Israelis don’t have enough money for food amid the economic crisis. Hanegbi later apologized for the comments.

Michal Gaist-Casif, vice president of a sound and lighting company, said, “I have forty workers with no income, no money. We need the government to pump in money until we’re back to normal. We haven’t been working since mid-March through April, May, June and July, and August is looking to be a catastrophe.”

In an interview with Channel 13 on Motzoei Shabbos, Finance Minister Yisrael Katz asserted that “the demonstrators don’t have a reason to protest,” adding that “we haven’t lost control over what’s happening in the economy.”

Concerning complaints that previously promised government aid has been slow to arrive, Katz said the former plan prior to his taking over the ministry “was imprecise, that’s why not all the money arrived.”

He promised that the latest government stipend for independents and small businesses “will reach the bank on Tuesday and you’ll see this in your account on Wednesday.”

Despite successfully keeping the outbreak under control in the spring, Israel’s government, which took office in May, has been accused by some of reopening the economy too quickly. That has caused a new spike in infections that is expected to put more people out of work as a result of renewed closures.

Authorities now report record levels of more than 1,000 new cases a day, higher than any peak in the spring. The death toll has passed 350.

After three inconclusive elections in under a year, Netanyahu and his main rival, retired military chief Benny Gantz, agreed in May to form an “emergency” government with a mandate to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

In a statement, Gantz, who serves as defense minister and “alternate” prime minister, acknowledged the pandemic has brought “the largest health, economic and social crisis” in Israel’s history. “We understand the public outcry and we will do everything we can to be responsive to it,” he said.

In the face of an angry electorate, Netanyahu’s support has tumbled. A recent Midgam Research & Consulting poll on Channel 12 found just 46% of respondents approved of Netanyahu’s job performance, down from 74% in May.