Israeli protests accuse Netanyahu of exploiting coronavirus to solidify power

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Hundreds of people defied restrictions on large gatherings to protest outside Israeli 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.

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.

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