TEL AVIV — Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday night to protest the government’s economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic in what was later described by the country’s deputy health minister as a “health terror attack.”
According to estimates in Israeli media, some 80,000 protesters turned up to Rabin Square to express their anger at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz, who they said failed to keep their promises and compensate thousands of people who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
Unemployment in Israel has soared to close to 30 percent since the coronavirus outbreak hit the country in mid-March.
A poll released Sunday by the Central Bureau of Statistics showed that 50 percent of Israelis feared that they wouldn’t be able to pay for basic expenses during the March and April lockdown and 46.5 percent expressed similar fears thereafter.
Netanyahu and Katz on Friday met with the organizers and urged them to call off the protest, saying they would hold weekly meetings on the matter. The organizers, which comprise representatives from small business owners, restaurateurs, and a delegation from Israel’s culture scene, declined.
The organizers also refused an offer to address the crowds from the country’s major opposition figures, Yesh Atid-Telem leaders Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, on the basis that they wanted to protest to remain “apolitical.”
Towards the end of the main rally, which was largely without incident, some offshoot protests took place with demonstrators blocking surrounding streets. There were several clashes with police and dozens of protesters were detained for vandalism and attacking police officers with pepper spray and rocks.
Chants of “Bibi, go home!” and “police state” and “we’re at war!” were heard.
Some of the organizers later distanced themselves from the offshoot protests.
“We’re against violence. The demonstration was exemplary until the end,” Shai Birman, who heads an organization of restaurant and bar owners, told Channel 12 news on Sunday.
He added, however, that “the writing was on the wall.”
“The Israeli government has been ignoring the public in Israel for over half a year already. It reached a breaking point and a crisis of confidence between the nation and its leader. This crisis of confidence is unrelated to the rally. It has been incubating for a long time and yesterday it erupted,” he said.
Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch (Likud) said that while “the extent of the economic crisis, the uncertainty and the fight for livelihoods” was clear, an event of that magnitude was dangerous.
“We’re doing everything to curb gatherings and are paying a high price (socially and economically) in order to stop the virus and then you see pictures from the square yesterday. A mega health terror attack,” he wrote on Twitter.
Despite being an ostensible target of the protest, Finance Minister Katz defended it as a “legitimate part of democracy.”
Katz and Netanyahu on Sunday presented an NIS 80 billion economic plan to aid flailing businesses and others who have lost employment as a result of the virus.