Thousands of demonstrators took the streets outside Benjamin Netanyahu’s house over the weekend, in what appeared to be the largest protest to date calling for the embattled Israeli prime minister to resign.
Rallies on Saturday night were held in Jerusalem, home to the official residence of the 70-year-old leader, as well as his beach house in central Israel, near Tel Aviv, and at dozens of road intersections across the country.
Throughout the summer, thousands of Israelis have crammed roads and squares, calling for Netanyahu to resign, protesting against his government’s handling of the country’s coronavirus crisis and charges of alleged corruption.
While Netanyahu has attempted to downplay it, the movement shows little sign of abating, with gatherings peaking at the start and end of the country’s weekend on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Hebrew media speculated that at least 10,000 people demonstrated in central Jerusalem on Saturday night, although it was hard to gauge the true size of the protest at a normally busy intersection.
Thousands marched through the streets, waving Israeli flags and blowing on horns. Others held banners that said “crime minister” and “go to prison”.
The rallies are the larges tin Israel since the 2011 “social justice” protests over the country’s high cost of living. Netanyahu is facing an ongoing corruption trial, on charges he denies, and allegations of undemocratic power-grabs to remain in office. Meanwhile, a surge in coronavirus infections has led to unemployment soaring to 21%, with public anger focused on the government response to the pandemic.
Israeli police have been accused of using excessive force to counter protests, with officers tearing down signs and tents, dragging dozens of people into detention and using water cannon to disperse crowds.
However, they appear to have been less heavy-handed this week. By 2am on Sunday, most protesters had left peacefully, with only a few dozen refusing to leave. A police spokesperson said 12 people had been arrested in total for “causing public disturbances”.
Meanwhile, small gangs of Netanyahu supporters affiliated with a far-right group have been accused of assaulting demonstrators during rallies. Late on Thursday, members of La Familia, an extremist gang of Beitar Jerusalem football club supporters, chanted “death to leftists” and “I hate Arabs”.
Police detained 16 from the group and attempted to keep the rest away from anti-government protesters, fearing a confrontation. Several threw stones at cars in the road and attacked a television crew, according to local media reports.
Netanyahu has dismissed the demonstrators as anarchists boosted by his political enemies. He has also accused the media of overplaying their significance. Polls show his rightwing bloc retains significant support across the country of 9 million.
Nahum Barnea, a commentator for the country’s top-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, said there “aren’t any signs yet” of Netanyahu’s support base turning against him.
“Nevertheless, he ought to be worried,” he said, noting the perseverance of the protest movement, the large numbers, and the potential for some rightwingers to change their opinion of Netanyahu if the movement gains further strength.
“When they thought he was successful, they voted for him,” Barnea wrote. “Now, in light of the economic crisis and the failed management of the coronavirus that he has displayed, they are looking at him in a different light. They don’t like failures.”