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Israel protests: Police use water cannons and arrest 55 at anti-Netanyahu demonstration

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Israeli police officers arrest a demonstrator during a protest against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli police officers arrest a demonstrator during a protest against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu   -   Copyright  Ariel Schalit/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Israeli police used water cannons to disperse protesters in central Jerusalem and arrested at least 55 of them as clashes broke out overnight after thousands staged a protest against prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israelis have held a series of demonstrations in recent weeks calling on Netanyahu to resign, citing his trial on corruption charges and his fractious unity government's poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The protest near the prime minister's residence began around sundown on Thursday and was initially largely peaceful. A smaller counterprotest in support of Netanyahu was held nearby, with the two camps separated by metal barricades and a large police presence.

Police say they moved in to disperse the protesters when they tried to stage a procession through the city. Police scuffled with demonstrators before four large trucks roared into action, spraying water cannons back and forth, scattering the protesters.

At times, it appeared the trucks were spraying protesters from behind as they tried to leave the area peacefully.

Israel imposed a general lockdown when the first coronavirus cases appeared in March and by May had largely succeeded in containing the outbreak. But then it moved quickly to lift virtually all restrictions, and in the following weeks, cases surged.

The country has reported a total of more than 57,000 cases and at least 442 deaths. More than 24,000 patients have recovered.

A unity government formed in May following three inconclusive elections in less than a year was supposed to prioritise the pandemic. Instead, it has been plagued by infighting and unable to agree on clear policies to combat the pandemic.

Reuven Rivlin, the country's largely ceremonial president, has called for the squabbling among ministers to end on Thursday, amid talk of fresh elections.

Taking to Twitter, he said: "I would like to address the government as a whole. Like all citizens of this country, I look on the developments in the Knesset with deep concern as they shake the already fragile relations between coalition partners. As a citizen and on behalf of us all, I say: get a grip!"

Netanyahu meanwhile faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust over a series of long-running corruption investigations. Critics say he is more focused on escaping legal accountability than on containing the pandemic. Many have speculated he intends to call yet another election, allegations he dismissed as “absurd” in a Thursday press conference.

At the same conference, held as the protests were underway, he called on demonstrators not to clash with police, saying it would “lead to anarchy.”