JERUSALEM -- Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday and thronged the streets of central Jerusalem, as weeks of protests against the Israeli leader appeared to be gaining steam.
The demonstration in central Jerusalem, along with smaller gatherings in Tel Aviv, near Netanyahu's beach house in central Israel and at dozens of busy intersections nationwide, was one of the largest turnouts in weeks of protests.
Throughout the summer, thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets, calling for Netanyahu to resign, protesting his handling of the country's coronavirus crisis and saying he should not remain in office while on trial for corruption charges. Though Netanyahu has tried to play down the protests, the twice-a-week gatherings show no signs of slowing.
Israeli media estimated at least 10,000 people demonstrated near the official residence in central Jerusalem. Late Saturday, thousands marched through the streets in a noisy but orderly rally. Demonstrators hoisted Israeli flags and blew loud horns as they marched. Many held posters that said “Crime Minister" and “Bibi Go Home” or accused Netanyahu of being out of touch with the public.
Hundreds of people remained in the area well after midnight, ignoring calls by police to leave. Anti-riot forces moved into the area and began clearing out people. As of 2 a.m., most of the remaining people appeared to be leaving peacefully, but police were seen dragging some activists away.
The rallies against Netanyahu are the largest Israel has seen since 2011 protests over the country's high cost of living.
Netanyahu has dimissed the demonstrators as “leftists” and “anarchists.” Late on Saturday, his Likud Party issued a statement that accused Israel's two private TV stations of giving “free and endless publicity” to the protesters and exaggerating the importance of the gatherings.
While the demonstrations have largely been peaceful, there have been signs of violence in recent days. Some protesters have clashed with police, accusing them of using excessive force, while small gangs of Netanyahu supporters affiliated with a far-right group have assaulted demonstrators. Netanyahu has claimed demonstrators are inciting violence against him.
Israeli police have arrested some 20 far-right activists in recent days and police said they were on high alert for violence at the demonstrations. Several arrests of Netanyahu supporters were reported Saturday, including a man who got out of his car in the northern city of Haifa and threw a stone toward a crowd of protesters. Police said a 63-year-old woman was slightly hurt.
The demonstrations are organized by a loose-knit network of activist groups. Some object to Netanyahu remaining in office while he is on trial. He has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals. Many carry black flags, the name of the grassroots movement.
Many of the demonstrators, including many young unemployed Israelis, accuse Netanyau of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and the economic damage it has caused.
After moving quickly to contain the virus last spring, many believe Israel reopened its economy too quickly, leading to a surge in cases. The country is now coping with record levels of coronavirus, while unemployment has surged to over 20%.