90,000 or 300,000? Why estimates of crowd size at Jerusalem protest vary so widely

Figuring out just how many people came to the capital on Monday to protest the government’s judicial overhaul is both difficult technically and fraught with political bias

Israelis wave flags during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israelis wave flags during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

How many people attended Monday’s protest in Jerusalem against the government’s planned legal overhaul? Nobody knows for sure, and estimates diverge widely.

Following the event, police sources estimated that about 90,000 people attended the protest, while some organizers put the number at 130,000, others at 250,000, and a high-tech group affiliated with the demonstrators went as high as 300,000. Some of the organizers’ numbers are the highest to be claimed for any demonstration since the protests began six weeks ago, notably outstripping, on a work day — many attendees having been given the day off for this purpose — the numbers claimed for weekly Saturday night rallies in Tel Aviv.

Part of the problem is in the method of estimating crowd sizes, but another part lies in the fact that all sides have an interest in either inflating or lowering the perceived support.

While police officials briefed the media that they estimated there were some 90,000 demonstrators, they did not release official figures, nor did they say how they reached their estimate.

Cellphone operators also sometimes give their estimates of crowd sizes at events in Israel but did not do so this time, with many noting that cellular coverage at the event all but collapsed for most participants.

Also, most estimates focused on the peak of the demonstration at 1 p.m. However, due to there having been not enough public transportation to meet the demand, even with extra trains added, and traffic snarls at the entrance to the capital, many arrived late.

The Israeli company Crowd Solutions, which said it had been asked by organizers to estimate the total, said it believed there were over 120,000 participants.

It used drone footage from 1 p.m., and estimated the density “for each polygon.”

The report estimated that at that time there were 120,000 people in the area, but noted that “as people came and left between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. there were likely more.”

One of the groups involved, “high-tech protesters,” put out its own analyses in which it estimated that some 300,000 people were at the march. It noted that police numbers were likely based on failed cellular data or traffic cameras and probably inaccurate.

“After seeing repeated publications by the government and its representatives about the presence of just tens of thousands of people, we decided to take up the challenge and do what we do best, which is to work with data,” one of the leaders of the group, Moshe Redman, told the Ynet news site.

The group analyzed both footage from drones and images from Google Earth to come up with a crowd-density estimate.

“The number of people who enter this area if it is densely packed is 406,352. If we conservatively assume a coming-and-going of some 20% during the three hours of the height of the protest we get to over 500,000,” it wrote.

“If we take into account a deviation due to some parts of the area being built up, or having foliage etc., then we reach the estimate that in Jerusalem alone there were some 300,000 people,” the group said.

However, its estimate was criticized online, with some pointing out that part of the area it included in its analyses is almost completely built up.

Demonstrators against the judicial overhaul outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 13, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Nadav Galon, one of the protest organizers, estimated the crowd at 250,000, based on what he said was drone footage and calculations of how many people stood in each square meter along the route. He noted in an Army Radio interview on Tuesday morning that people came and went from 9 a.m. until mid-afternoon, with many only arriving in early afternoon, in part because public transportation was overwhelmed.

Hundreds of tech startups, law firms, and other private sector companies allowed their employees to join the nationwide strike, with buses to bring them to the capital.

Train stations across the country were crammed as demonstrators tried to reach the capital. Israel Railways added several trains to Jerusalem to deal with the demand, but bus companies did not increase service despite the expected influx of protesters.

Thousands more drove to Jerusalem in their own cars and the main entrances to the city were backed up as people tried to enter.

In addition, thousands more protested in other cities, with several main thoroughfares blocked in Tel Aviv by demonstrators.

Protesters march in Tel Aviv at a demonstration against the judicial overhaul, February 13, 2023 (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

The Jerusalem protests and concurrent protests in other cities coincided with the legislation’s first rounds of committee voting in a stormy session that saw a number of opposition lawmakers physically removed from the room.

The legal overhaul, advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 of the 120 MKs.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism, saying the legislation would strengthen Israeli democracy.

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