JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of people defied restrictions on large gatherings to protest outside parliament Thursday, while scores of others were blocked by police from reaching the area as they accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of exploiting the coronavirus crisis to solidify his power and undermine Israel’s democratic foundations.
In recent days, Netanyahu and his surrogates have shut down the Israel’s court system just ahead of his trial on corruption charges, have begun using phone-surveillance technology on the public and adjourned parliament until next week.
Netanyahu has defended most of these moves as unpleasant but necessary steps to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. But opponents say he is more interested in staying in power as Netanyahu governs in a caretaker role after a third consecutive inconclusive election in under a year.
Outside the Knesset, or parliament, hundreds protested the government’s moves, hoisting banners that said “No to dictatorship,” “Democracy in danger,” and calling Netanyahu the “crime minister.”
Police said they arrested three people for violating a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. They also blocked a convoy of dozens of cars from entering Jerusalem and prevented dozens of other cars inside Jerusalem from approaching the Knesset building. Many of the cars honked and hung black flags out their windows.
Israel is a “good country, good people and we need to remember the foundation upon which this country was built,” said protester Michal Levi. “We have only one country. That’s it. Don’t give up on it.”
Police rejected accusations that they were carrying out Netanyahu’s bidding, saying they were following Health Ministry orders meant to curb the spread of the virus. “No one is above the law or above public health orders released by the ministry of health,” it said.
At the nearby Supreme Court, justices heard separate challenges to the new mobile-phone tracking edict and the shutdown of the Knesset. Civil rights groups and the opposition Blue and White party filed the cases.
Netanyahu announced this week that Israel’s Shin Bet security agency would begin deploying its phone surveillance technology to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Israel by tracking the moves of those infected. The order went into effect late Wednesday when the government said it had notified about 400 people that they had come into contact with infected people and should immediately quarantine themselves.
Israel uses phone surveillance in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying it’s an important tool to prevent attacks on Israelis, but critics say it’s also aimed at maintaining tight control. The surveillance in Israel has sparked widespread criticism from lawmakers and civil rights groups.
The virus has spread to more than 100 countries, infected more than 220,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 10,000. For most people, it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
Israeli health officials have diagnosed over 500 infections, with a sharp spike of positive tests in the past two days. There have been no deaths.
With the numbers quickly rising, authorities have issued tough guidelines that have brought Israel to a standstill. Many of the measures have been seen elsewhere. People have been instructed to stay home, tens of thousands are in preventive home quarantine and the borders have been virtually sealed.
Netanyahu has thrived in the crisis, delivering stern televised addresses nearly every evening.
Presenting himself as the responsible adult steering the country through an unprecedented emergency, he has defended the tough steps, including the electronic surveillance, as measures he has reluctantly been forced to impose in order to save lives, while his opponents are focused on petty politics.
In a televised interview Wednesday, Netanyahu said that during his 11 years as prime minister, he had always refused to use surveillance on Israeli citizens. He said there would be “maximum oversight” to protect privacy concerns.
“The last thing I will do is harm democracy,” he said.
But critics say that is exactly what he has done by allowing Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of his Likud party, to suspend parliamentary proceedings. Edelstein has cited technical reasons, but political opponents accuse him of stonewalling on behalf of the prime minister to prevent them from pushing forward with legislation that could bring Netanyahu’s time in office to an end.
After the March 2 election, Netanyahu’s opponents hold a slim majority and are planning on presenting proposals that would impose term limits and block an indicted politician, like Netanyahu, from leading or forming a government.
The leaders of the Israel Democracy Institute, a prominent think tank that often conducts research for the government, sent an “urgent” appeal to Edelstein to allow the Knesset to resume operations and allow its committees to begin work.
Their letter expressed “grave concern” over his moves.
“The outcome of this decision is that at this critical period – during which Israel is in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that has dramatically affected all areas of life including the public health and safety, personal freedom and the economy – the most important democratic institution in our country, the Knesset, is effectively incapacitated,” they wrote.
President Reuven Rivlin, a figurehead leader who serves as a moral compass for the country, appeared to side with the opposition Blue and White party, calling for an end to deadlock and for the Knesset to resume work.
Following the election, Netanyahu has the support of only 58 lawmakers, leaving him three short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Sixty-one lawmakers have come out in support of his opponent, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, while one refuses to endorse either side.
Backed by a narrow majority, Gantz, a former military chief, was tasked by Rivlin this week to try to form a new government.
In the meantime, Netanyahu has used a series of executive orders and other tactics to push forward his agenda while preventing parliament from convening.
The phone-surveillance plan was approved by the Cabinet in the middle of the night, without the traditional parliamentary oversight that is customary for such decisions.
Likewise, the courts shutdown also was approved in the middle of the night by Netanyahu’s hand-picked justice minister, just a day before the prime minister’s criminal trial was to begin. The decree, citing the coronavirus, postponed the trial until May.
In a video statement, Yair Lapid, a senior figure in Blue and White, told Israeli citizens that they “no longer live in a democracy.”
“There is no judicial branch in Israel. There is no legislative branch in Israel. There is only an unelected government that is headed by a person who lost the election. You can call that by a lot of names. It isn’t a democracy,” he said in a recorded video.