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Israelis take to the streets to condemn government handling of coronavirus crisis

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv claim government delivery of financial aid packages in the Covid-19 crisis has been too slow and warn of impending economic disaster
Protesters gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Saturday (AFP)

Israeli protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday, angered by what they say has been an inadequate government response to the economic damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Israeli media said thousands attended the rally in the city's Rabin Square. No official figure for the number of protesters was given.

The event was organised by the self-employed, small businesses and performing artists' groups angry at coronavirus curbs which have taken away their livelihoods.

"I have 40 workers with no income, no money," said one of the protesters, Michal Gaist-Casif, vice president of a sound and lighting company.

"We need the government to pump in money until we're back to normal. We haven't been working since mid-March through April, May, June and July, and August is looking to be a catastrophe."

 Israel imposed a broad lockdown from the middle of March, allowing only staff deemed essential to go to work and banning public assembly. Places of entertainment were closed, hitting the leisure industry hard. Facing public and economic pressure, the government eased restrictions in late May.

But infections have mounted and rules tightened again, including the closure of event venues, clubs, bars, gyms and public pools. While salaried workers sent on furlough received unemployment benefits, the self-employed said most had been waiting months for promised government aid. 

Unemployment in Israel has soared to 21 percent since the country went into partial lockdown and aid packages promised by the government have been slow to filter through, frustrating Israelis who fear they are on the verge of economic collapse.

'People feel helpless, there's no response. They are enraged and want the government to take responsibility'

- Roee Cohen

With less than half of the $29bn previously pledged in aid paid out and anger building, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a new welfare package on Thursday, saying the measures would provide an economic safety net for the coming year.

In the past few weeks, protesters from across the political spectrum have taken to the streets with demands for speedier compensation from the coalition government.

"People feel helpless, there's no response. They are enraged and want the government to take responsibility," said Roee Cohen, president of the Israel Chamber of Independent Organisations and Businesses.

On Thursday, Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid had warned that protests over the economic slowdown could turn violent as restrictions to contain the coronavirus were reimposed and state assistance for the jobless lagged.

"We are talking to people who are becoming more and more desperate and angry, who feel, and rightly so, that the country has deserted them at their hardest hour," Lapid told Reuters.

"We are trying to be responsible … to calm things down, telling people, 'You know violence is not the answer'," he said.

"But it's getting harder by the day … I sympathise with the anger and I also worry about the possibility of violence as a result of this anger. What I am trying to do is not to encourage it but to raise a red flag as to what might happen."

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Khalifa, a source who spoke to Middle East Eye, is one of half-a-million business owners in the country not eligible for unemployment benefits. He said he was bewildered by the government's compensation plan.

"The government thinks because you are a business owner, you are rich," he told MEE.

His seasonal catering company, which was almost fully booked for the spring months, saw "business disappear into thin air" as soon as the first lockdown was announced.

Meanwhile, Yaakov, a freelance packaging designer from Ra'anana, lost all his customers during the lockdown. 

After receiving "meagre" compensation, he was fearful of another lockdown. He asked: "Why implement a lockdown if the economic situation will kill more people than corona?"