Anger Over Gov’t Handling of COVID-19 Crisis Pours Onto Streets of Israel
Analyst compares current economic protests to 2011 social justice movement that rocked country
Saturday’s mass demonstration at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv against the government’s economic policies in response to the coronavirus pandemic displayed some of the same motivating factors as the social justice demonstrations that saw protesters pitching tents across the country in the summer of 2011, according to an Israeli analyst interviewed by The Media Line.
“The basic motivation is very clear. It’s frustration,” said Benjamin Bental, principal researcher and Economics Policy Program chair at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.
“I go back to 2011. It is similar,” Bental continued. “These people who organized this represent the middle class. We did not see there the very poor, which was also true in 2011. We also didn’t see the very rich, obviously.”
Small business owners, self-employed workers and performing artists organized the event. They say that financial aid has been slow to arrive.
Organizers said that around 10,000 people participated in the event Saturday night. As the official rally ended, some protesters blocked roads and clashed with police. There were also reports of vandalism along Rothschild Boulevard. Police arrested a dozen people. Three officers were lightly injured.
S. Esiati, 44, a musician who also works in media and business intelligence, described the protest as a release from four months of pent-up frustration about what he views as an insufficient amount of government assistance for Israelis who have been unemployed due to the drastic measures taken to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
“No one received a sufficient amount of money to keep their heads above water. No one. We’re all drowning,” Esiati told The Media Line. “It’s like they are making fun of us. I have a strong feeling that the government is making fun of its citizens.”
Bental said that like Saturday’s protest and in particular among smaller self-employed business owners in Israel, in 2011 there was a general sense of frustration that members of the middle class were not getting the services they were entitled to.
“Essentially they were promised a lot of stuff in the first and second steps of the government assistance program, and little if anything was really carried out in practice,” Bental said. “So clearly against this background, people have a lot of mistrust against big announcements about new government programs that will be running smoothly and funneling funds into people’s bank accounts very easily.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the situation at the start of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, saying that a cash advance to small businesses – the first step of the 80 billion shekel ($23 billion) economic safety net plan for the rest of year, announced on Thursday by Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz – would be implemented immediately.
“This support, this grant, is not dependent on legislation and we have instructed that it be put into effect today. The button will be pressed and the money will reach accounts in the coming days,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu said that the rest of the plan, which would provide money directly into bank accounts until June 2021 or if the unemployment rate is above 10%, would be submitted to the cabinet on Monday. The unemployment rate in Israel currently stands at 21%, according to the latest figures from the Employment Service.
Esiati said that Netanyahu’s speech didn’t make him feel more comfortable. “There’s a problem of credibility there for me,” he said of the prime minister.
The protesters were mainly wearing masks but not observing social distancing.
The basic motivation is very clear. It’s frustration
Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch on Sunday called the demonstration a “health terror attack.”
However, public health expert Dr. Gabi Barbash told The Media Line that there was no way to quantify the risk of such a gathering.
Barbash is director-general emeritus of Israel’s Health Ministry and director of the Weizmann Institute’s Bench-to-Bedside Program.
“It was in the open air, which minimizes its risk despite the density,” Barbash said. “Hopefully, there was no super spreader there.”
Esiati said that from what he observed, everyone wore masks but didn’t keep to social distancing. He said that the organizers were persistent in reminding the crowd to follow the guidelines.
“The organizer kept going for the microphone, saying, ‘Wear your mask, adhere to police instructions.’ [They] definitely made a big effort to make the whole thing organized and in an orderly fashion,” Esiati said.
The number of coronavirus cases in Israel as of Sunday stood at 38,213 with 358 deaths and 18,915 recoveries.
There were also protests in Jerusalem Saturday, including outside of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street. The Jerusalem Municipality announced on Sunday morning that Israeli police removed equipment from the Balfour Street protest because the demonstrators stayed after the approved time.
Another protest took place Saturday night in Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood, where hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators blocked a major intersection and clashed with police, leading to 10 arrests.
Romema is one of three Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem locked down for a week until Friday. In all, neighborhoods in five Israeli cites are under the lockdown orders as Israel works to contain fresh outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.
Bental said he could understand the frustration emanating from the Haredi community because in his view the government’s lack of preparation had led to using the blunt instrument of neighborhood lockdowns instead of a more targeted approach as demonstrated by certain countries in East Asia and Europe.
“If you don’t have a better tool, because you have not prepared the tool, then you use this very heavy hammer and affect an entire population,” Bental said. “This is how it was done initially. An entire country was then put under a closure. So now it is done at the neighborhood level.”
However, Barbash argues that Israel’s options are limited.
“There are not too many tools to restrain corona outbreaks,” Barbash said. “I do believe this tool of lockdown is justified in ‘red’ areas [where the rate of infection is particularly high].”