Israeli protesters accuse Netanyahu of using coronavirus to erode democracy, escape corruption charges

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Thousands of Israelis practiced social distancing Sunday during a massive protest in Tel Aviv against what demonstrators perceive as an erosion of democracy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coronavirus measures, according to reports.

Following police requirements, “Black Flag” movement organizers marked more than 2,000 spaces for protesters to stand 2 meters, or about 6 1/2 feet, apart in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. The group was also required to provide each person with a mask to wear.

Gaining traction since hundreds drove to Jerusalem in March, blocking traffic but remaining inside their cars, the “Black Flag” movement has repeatedly accused Netanyahu of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to evade his looming trial and cement his lengthy rule.

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One sign held by a demonstrator Saturday read: “Corona equals virus in the service of a dictator."

After filling the square, some protesters spaced out into the streets, waving black flags and chanting “democracy.” Thousands more joined the protest online via Facebook Live and Zoom, Haaretz reported.

People keep social distancing amid concerns over the country's coronavirus outbreak, during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, April 19, 2020. More than 2,000 people took to the streets on Sunday, demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempts to form an "emergency" government with his chief rival and accusing him of using the coronavirus crisis to escape prosecution on corruption charges. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

People keep social distancing amid concerns over the country's coronavirus outbreak, during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, April 19, 2020. More than 2,000 people took to the streets on Sunday, demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempts to form an "emergency" government with his chief rival and accusing him of using the coronavirus crisis to escape prosecution on corruption charges. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

"This is how democracies die in the 21st century," Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid said in his speech, according to Haaretz. "They don't die because tanks overtake parliament, they die from the inside."

The movement first began in March after Netanyahu, citing the coronavirus pandemic, approved measures allowing police to track civilians’ phones. Israel has recorded more than 13,650 confirmed coronavirus cases, with at least 173 deaths, as of Monday.

“It started with the coronavirus when they started passing anti-democratic bills,” Tamir Hefetz, one of the protest organizers, told Haaretz on Saturday. “I woke up and realized there is no alternative, tomorrow will be too late.”

Speakers criticized Netanyahu's possible partnership with rival Benny Gantz and accused him of using the coronavirus crisis to escape prosecution on corruption charges.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a statement during his visit at the Health Ministry national hotline, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel last month. Netanyahu on Monday announced movement restrictions during the upcoming Passover holiday. (REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a statement during his visit at the Health Ministry national hotline, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel last month. Netanyahu on Monday announced movement restrictions during the upcoming Passover holiday. (REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo)

Gantz, who during three bitter election campaigns over the past year and vowed never to sit in a government with Netanyahu due to his legal problems, announced last month that he had accepted the prime minister's suggestion to form an “emergency” government to deal with the coronavirus crisis. The announcement infuriated many of Gantz's supporters and caused his Blue and White party to fracture.

“You don't fight corruption from within. If you're inside, you're part of it,” Lapid, Gantz's former political partner, who withdrew from the Blue and White alliance last month, said, according to the Associated Press.

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of justice and accepting bribes. He denies the charges and says he is the victim of a hostile media and aggressive police and prosecutors.,

Also citing the pandemic, Netanyahu's handpicked justice minister delayed the prime minister's trial, just two days before it was set to begin, until late May.

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Since then, Netanyahu's coalition talks with Gantz have stalled due to demands by the prime minister to gain more control over judicial appointments and assurances that he can remain in office even if he gives up the prime minister's job in a proposed power-sharing arrangement with Gantz.

Under Israeli law, public officials, with the exception of the prime minister, must resign if charged with a crime.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.