Israel clears protest camp ahead of pro-Netanyahu rally

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police dispersed dozens of protesters outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Thursday ahead of a rally attended by hundreds of his supporters.

The protests come amid bitter infighting within the unity government formed in May. Netanyahu and his rival-turned-coalition partner Benny Gantz face an Aug. 25 deadline to agree on a budget to avert early elections — the fourth in less than two years.

Some of the protesters, including a former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, chained themselves to roadblocks before police unbound them and dragged them away.

“Clearing part of the encampment is a violent act against the protesters,” Carmi Gillon, the former Shin Bet chief, was quoted as saying by the Haaretz newspaper. “The right to protest is a right I will not allow to be taken away from me.”

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He raised his arms as he was led away, showing what appeared to be bruising and scrapes.

Netanyahu’s supporters later held their rally amid a heavy police presence, with no immediate reports of arrests or violence.

Protesters have staged a series of demonstrations this summer calling on Netanyahu to resign over corruption charges and criticizing the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.

Police have clashed with protesters on a number of occasions and used water cannons to clear them off of main streets and squares, though in recent weeks the gatherings have been calmer.

Netanyahu has vowed to remain in office despite being charged last year with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three long-running corruption investigations. He has rejected the allegations as a “witch hunt” and lashed out at the judiciary, law enforcement and media.

He has also faced anger over the coronavirus outbreak, which has worsened since authorities abruptly lifted a nationwide lockdown in May.

Israel has reported more than 99,200 cases, including at least 795 deaths, since the pandemic began. The economy, meanwhile, has struggled, with unemployment remaining over 20% despite the reopening of most businesses.

If the government does not pass a budget by Tuesday, then elections would automatically be called. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White battled to a stalemate in the previous three elections, leading to more than a year of gridlock and uncertainty.

Recent polls show the Likud with a sizable lead, and dissolving the government would save Netanyahu from handing over the premiership to Gantz in November 2021, as required by the coalition agreement. Netanyahu appears determined to remain in office through the duration of his trial, which is expected to last several years.

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