Thousands demonstrate as anti-Netanyahu protests gain steam

JERUSALEM (AP) – Thousands of protesters gathered outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence on Saturday and packed the streets of central Jerusalem, while weeks of protests against the Israeli leader appeared to be gaining momentum.

The demonstration in central Jerusalem, along with smaller meetings in Tel Aviv, near Netanyahu's beach house in central Israel and at dozens of busy intersections across the country, was one of the biggest turnouts in weeks of protests.

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During the summer, thousands of Israelis took to the streets, calling for Netanyahu's resignation, protesting the country's coronavirus crisis and saying that he should not remain in office while on trial for corruption charges. Although Netanyahu tried to minimize the protests, the meetings twice a week show no signs of slowing down.

Israeli media estimated that at least 10,000 people demonstrated near the official residence in central Jerusalem. At the end of Saturday, thousands marched through the streets at a loud but orderly rally. Protesters raised Israeli flags and blew horns as they marched. Many held signs saying "Minister of Crime" and "Bibi Go Home" or accused Netanyahu of not having contact with the public.

The rallies against Netanyahu are Israel's biggest protests since 2011 against the country's high cost of living.

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Netanyahu called the protesters "leftist" and "anarchist". At the end of Saturday, his Likud Party released a statement accusing Israel's two private TV stations of giving protesters "free and endless publicity" and exaggerating the importance of the meetings.

Although the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, there have been signs of violence in recent days. Some protesters clashed with the police, accusing them of using excessive force, while small gangs of Netanyahu supporters, affiliated with a far-right group, attacked protesters. Netanyahu said the protesters are inciting violence against him.

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Israeli police have arrested about 20 far-right activists in recent days and the police said they were on high alert for violence at the demonstrations. Several arrests of Netanyahu supporters were reported on Saturday, including a man who got out of his car in the northern city of Haifa and threw a rock at a crowd of protesters. Police said a 63-year-old woman was slightly injured.

The demonstrations are organized by a united network of activist groups. Some are opposed to Netanyahu remaining in office while he is on trial. He has been accused of fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes in a series of scandals. Many carry black flags, the name of the popular movement.

Many of the protesters, including many unemployed young Israelis, accuse Netanyau of mistreating the coronavirus crisis and the economic damage it has caused.

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After acting quickly to contain the virus last spring, many believe that Israel reopened its economy too quickly, leading to an increase in cases. The country is now experiencing record levels of coronavirus, while unemployment has risen to over 20%.

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