Despite the order, thousands of Israelis have continued to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they have for months, because the right to protest is still enshrined in Israeli law. But late Tuesday night, Israel’s parliament voted to approve an amendment to its emergency Coronavirus Law that authorizes the government to bar how many people can assemble and where they can protest — in this case, limiting their right to protest to within a half-mile of their homes for a week, with the option to keep the limit in place for longer, even though there is no evidence that outdoor protests have contributed to the rising infection rate in Israel and health officials have questioned the efficacy of such a sweeping lockdown.
As a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, Mordechai Kremnitzer, wrote in Haaretz, restricting the right to protest is as good as banning it. “Demonstrating against the regime is meaningless if you cannot demonstrate in front of the seat of government or in other central public places. There is no meaning to the right to demonstrate when you cannot mass together to realize it.”
No other country in the world has so heavily restricted protests amid the pandemic against a leader seen as corrupt. But this isn’t about the virus; it’s about Netanyahu holding on to power. He’s finally gotten desperate enough to deploy tactics Israel routinely uses against Palestinians on its Jewish citizens, too.
For over three months now, tens of thousands of Israelis have been filling the streets of Jerusalem in front of Netanyahu’s official residence every Saturday night to demand he step down, with chants of “Bibi, go home,” and “we won’t give up till Bibi resigns,” using the leader’s nickname. Hundreds have also protested in front of his private home in Caesarea, and many elderly Israelis and those with small kids or who cannot make it to Jerusalem have been going to their local bridges and intersections to join in, too. These local protests have continued despite the new restrictions.
It is a growing mass movement of disgruntled Israelis who want Netanyahu out because he is on trial in three separate cases of bribery, breach of trust and fraud and for his glaring mismanagement of the pandemic, which has left a quarter of the population unemployed with little government support. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has been inciting against the protesters for weeks, calling them “anarchists” and virus spreaders.
The orders have outraged Israeli politicians and journalists. “This is the last step before we fall into a completely fascist state,” Asaf Agmon, a former brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces who has been protesting regularly, said the night before the amendment was voted on.
“This is the elimination of Israeli democracy,” said opposition politician Yair Golan (also a retired major general) at the Knesset podium at 2 a.m. Wednesday, shortly before the vote. As Gershom Gorenberg just wrote, “More than a campaign against the pandemic, this is a campaign against dissent.”
Israelis are now sounding the alarm bells about an impending dictatorship and the end of democracy there. But where have they been? This has been happening in the country since it was established. Just not to Israeli Jews.
Anti-Netanyahu protesters now feel caged in, constricted by increasingly rigid and seemingly arbitrary restrictions, and they have been subject to police brutality, baseless arrests or fines. But when they call out that “there is no such thing as an illegal protest,” they’re wrong — that’s how Israel defines protests that happen just a few miles away in the occupied territories.
The government’s crackdown means many Israelis are, for the first time in their lives, getting a very small taste of what it’s like — what it has always been like — for Palestinians. Not only those in the occupied West Bank who do not actually have the right to protest without a military permit and whose nonviolent resistance has been brutally suppressed, but also Palestinian citizens who make up over 20 percent of the population of the state of Israel. They have been noticeably absent from these protests.
On Thursday, Palestinians marked the 20th anniversary of the October 2000 killing of 13 Palestinians by Israeli police during protests and rioting that broke out at the onset of the second intifada — for which no one has ever been indicted. When Palestinians in the northern Israeli city of Haifa protested the 2014 Gaza offensive, Jafar Farah, a civil society activist, had his knee broken by an officer while in custody at a police station.
On Tuesday, the government went so far as to station soldiers at some of the checkpoints in Jerusalem to help police enforce the lockdown at a car protest in front of the Knesset — but they were quickly removed after an uproar. Some Israelis were outraged that the military was being used as a political, policing force to restrict civilians’ basic democratic right to protest and expression. This, of course, reveals a huge double standard held by most Israelis, as this is precisely what the Israeli military has been doing to Palestinians; the army long ago became primarily a police force charged with maintaining Israeli control.
The Israeli government has been not only operating a 53-year military occupation over millions of Palestinians afforded no rights, but it also maintains an ethnocracy within its pre-1967 borders, privileging Jewish rights, as enshrined in the 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law. Just as Israel exercises varying levels of control between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, it also permits varying levels of dissent and criticism depending on who you are, what you are protesting and where.
When Israeli Jews objected to Israel’s military operation in Gaza in 2014, they were demonized for deviating from the consensus, and it started to become clear that those who challenge the regime may pay a price, even if they’re Jewish. Now that Israelis — many of them not from the anti-occupation left — are denouncing the most powerful man in Israel, the one who supposedly has their best security and economic interests at heart, who fights for their superiority on the world stage, the consensus is starting to crack further, and Netanyahu knows he is in trouble. That is why he is trying to crush anyone who stands in his way.
Netanyahu has made incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel his primary campaign strategy in recent years, undermining their right to vote, and under his 11 consecutive years in office, Israel has passed myriad anti-democratic laws and normalized incitement against Israeli human rights groups and left-wing activists. While the treatment of Jewish citizens comes nowhere near how Palestinians are treated, those who question the legitimacy of the government are not immune to some of the same repressive tactics.
As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This couldn’t be truer of Israelis and Palestinians who live under one de facto sovereign. The sooner Jewish citizens realize their fight against Netanyahu and for Israeli democracy must include a fight for equal rights for Palestinians, the better they will be able to safeguard their own civil rights.
An earlier version of this article called the restrictions on protests a ban. While the order does effectively ban large centralized protests, the article has been updated to clarify the nature of the restrictions.