Demonstrators protest Knesset closure, scuffle with police in Jerusalem

Demonstrators protest Knesset closure, scuffle with police in Jerusalem

Cops try to block convoy of cars from reaching capital, later arrest five during protest outside of parliament building.

Over 100 vehicles carrying demonstrators protesting against the closure of the Knesset made their way to the capital on Thursday, despite police efforts to block and break up the convoy. Protesters later demonstrated outside the parliament and scuffled with police, leading to five arrests.

Protest organizers said the demonstration was “to save Israel’s democracy” under threat from government actions taken under the cover of a campaign against the spread of the coronavirus.

Likud Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has refused to allow the Knesset to vote on setting up parliamentary oversight of the government’s far-reaching measures to tackle the virus, citing the need for unity talks with Blue and White and regulations restricting lawmakers from convening, but has been accused of using the crisis as cover to cling to power illegally.

Protest organizers said the convoy met Health Ministry directives aimed at maintaining social distancing in order to stop the spread of the virus.

Starting near Tel Aviv, the vehicles snaked their way up Route 1 toward Jerusalem with black and Israeli flags waving from their cars.

Police stopped the convoy near Latrun about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Jerusalem, telling the drivers they were not permitted to go any further.

In a statement police said the cars were driving slowly in “an unauthorized illegal protest” and that as a result there was a disruption to traffic between the Ben Shemen Interchange and Latrun.

Video shared on social media showed police preventing the cars from driving to the capital, with an officer telling one driver that those were his orders from the district commander.

Protest organizers advised drivers to take down their flags until they could reach the capital, where the protest was set to renew near the Knesset.

Police also later allowed the convoy to continue after facing criticism from opposition lawmakers, among them former Jerusalem District police commander and now Blue and White lawmaker MK Mickey Levy.

Dozens of drivers were eventually able to get to the capital and approach the parliament area, where police blocked access roads to the Knesset itself. The sound of the drivers honking their horns could be heard across a wide swath of the capital.

Edelstein made the shock announcement earlier on Wednesday that he was locking the plenary, at least until next week, after the Blue and White party refused his proposal of having equal representation with Likud in the Knesset’s so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the formation and operation of the parliament. He cited the need for unity talks between Likud and Blue and White, and expressed concerns about the coronavirus. Israel has banned gatherings of over 10 people to stem the spread.

Edelstein has faced criticism for his clamp-down, with the Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon telling him the same day he cannot continue the closure of the plenary into next week.

Among other things, the Arrangements Committee oversees the creation of the Knesset’s other committees, including those that would provide parliamentary oversight of the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic. The committee could also allow the Blue and White party to call for a vote on the Knesset speakership, which would likely result in Edelstein’s ouster from the position that he has held since 2013, leading critics to accuse him of subverting the will of the majority of the country.

In an extraordinary intervention underlining concerns over Israeli democracy functioning properly during the coronavirus outbreak, President Reuven Rivlin phoned Edelstein earlier Wednesday and told him to reopen parliament.

Rivlin “implored” Edelstein “to ensure ongoing parliamentary activity, even during the coronavirus crisis,” a statement from the President’s Office said.

The Knesset closure comes in the wake of elections earlier this month and after Rivlin on Monday tasked Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz with forming a coalition. If successful, Gantz will replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and remove his Likud party from power.

Israel has introduced a series of sweeping restrictions since the coronavirus outbreak began, requiring all Israelis returning to the country to self-quarantine for 14 days and barring foreigners. It also shut schools, cafes, malls, gyms and more. Ministers early on Tuesday approved a highly controversial measure to allow the government to track Israelis’ phones to locate where carriers of the virus had been.

On Tuesday, widening the restrictions, the Health Ministry told Israelis not to leave their homes or visit parks and beaches, with exceptions made for essential needs, like food shopping, medicine shopping, medical care and work.

As of Thursday morning, there have been 529 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Israel, six of them in serious condition.

Two ministers and two Knesset members have been placed in quarantine after being in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

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