Israel’s parliament has approved a law restricting demonstrations which critics say is aimed at silencing protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over alleged corruption and his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The legislation, which gives the government powers to declare a “special emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic”, was ratified early on Wednesday after an all-night debate in the Knesset.
The law bans Israelis from holding demonstrations more than one km (0.6 miles) from their homes, a measure the government said was aimed at curbing COVID-19 infections.
Critics of the new measure, which becomes part of Israel’s second national lockdown that went into effect on September 18, said it was really intended to block protests near Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.
“What’s the next step? Banning the opposition leader from addressing parliament?” Yair Lapid, who heads the opposition in the legislature, tweeted about the vote.
Meir Cohen of main opposition party Yesh Atid-Telem condemned the new controls as a “slippery slope” while Yair Golan of the left-wing Meretz party warned the new law “won’t stop the demonstrations”.
“The anger growing in the streets will find its way out,” Golan said.
For weeks, thousands of demonstrators have gathered to call for Netanyahu’s resignation.
Hours before the vote, hundreds of Israelis protested outside parliament, calling the protest limit a blow to democracy.
Opinion polls show only about a quarter of the public has confidence in the way he has dealt with the pandemic, which had largely subsided during a March-May lockdown.
Israel’s lockdown, which closed schools and limited business operations, was imposed after new COVID-19 cases climbed to around 7,000 a day in a population of nine million, overtaxing some hospitals.
But Netanyahu claims Israel has handled the health crisis relatively well and that he has no political motive in seeking to prevent the protests. He denies any wrongdoing in three corruption cases against him.
But with infection rates still high, especially in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods where social-distancing compliance has been lax, Netanyahu on Tuesday said the lockdown measures, scheduled to last three weeks, might have to be extended for at least a month or longer.
Israel has reported 234,060 infections and 1,516 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.