JERUSALEM: With the Israeli government enacting a series of emergency measures to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing growing accusations that he is exploiting the crisis to entrench himself in power and undermining the country’s democratic foundations.
Amid a wave of sweeping restrictions that have put Israel in near shutdown mode, Netanyahu has managed to postpone his own pending criminal trial, authorize unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens and block parliament from pressing ahead with legislation aimed at pushing him from office.
The moves, on the heels of the country’s third inconclusive election in less than a year and under the shadow of Netanyahu’s corruption indictment, sparked leading opposition figure Yair Lapid to tell Israeli citizens that they “no longer live in a democracy.”
“There is no judicial branch in Israel. There is no legislative branch in Israel. There is only an unelected government that is headed by a person who lost the election. You can call that by a lot of names, it isn’t a democracy,” he said in a recorded video.
Amid growing anger toward Netanyahu, police on Thursday blocked two convoys of cars from reaching the Knesset, or parliament, where activists planned to protest against the government moves.
Police stopped dozens of cars on a major highway as they made their way to Jerusalem, calling it an “illegal protest.” They also stopped dozens of cars inside Jerusalem from approaching the Knesset. Many of the cars hoisted black flags alongside Israeli flags and honked in protest. “With dictatorship we die,” read one poster.
Israeli health officials have diagnosed over 400 coronavirus cases, roughly a quarter of them detected in the last 24 hours.
With the numbers quickly rising, authorities have issued a series of tough guidelines that have brought the country to a standstill. People have been instructed to stay home, tens of thousands are in home quarantine and foreigners have been banned from entering the country.
Most controversially, the Israeli government instructed the shadowy Shin Bet internal security service to start deploying the agency’s phone surveillance technology to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Israel by tracking the moves of the infected.
Israel uses phone surveillance in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying it’s an important tool to prevent attacks on Israelis, but critics say it’s also aimed at maintaining tight control.