ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Anti-government protesters to clog airport access as Netanyahu leaves for Germany

Demonstrators aim to block roads to Ben Gurion Airport from midday, when PM is expected to arrive for flight; police reportedly assure hardline minister Ben Gvir they will be tough

Travelers on their way to Ben Gurion Airport, where flights were delayed due to protesters blocking the road to the airport, March 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Travelers on their way to Ben Gurion Airport, where flights were delayed due to protesters blocking the road to the airport, March 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul were planning to hold demonstrations in and around Ben Gurion International Airport Wednesday, in an effort to disrupt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s flight to Germany on a state visit.

Netanyahu is slated to take off at 5 p.m. for a two-day trip centered around meetings with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The Prime Minister’s Office kept the timing of the flight from journalists traveling with Netanyahu until Wednesday morning.

According to the PMO, Netanyahu will stress the importance of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and will discuss “developments in the regional theater.”

Germany is a member of the P5+1 powers that signed on to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. Talks about returning to the breached agreement are stalled, as Western frustration with Tehran grows over military support for Russia’s war with Ukraine, and crackdowns on protestors.

Netanyahu’s state visit in Berlin will begin with a memorial ceremony at the Platform 17 Memorial at Grunewald Station, from which thousands of German Jews were deported eastward to labor and concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the coalition’s sweeping overhaul of the judiciary. Local protests last week were so large that Netanyahu was forced to take a helicopter to the airport in order to catch a flight for an official visit to Italy.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, right, and her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen leave a news conference after a meeting at the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Netanyahu is likely to hear thinly veiled warnings from Germany about the judicial reform. When Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was in Berlin in late February, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock shared her views as she stood  alongside him.

“The values that link us includes the protection of legal principles and the rule of law, like an independent judiciary,” she said.

“We in Germany, the German government, are firmly convinced that a strong democracy needs an independent judiciary that can also review majority decisions,” she added.

Protest organizers say thousands of vehicles will again try to block the prime minister’s way to the airport by driving slowly and jamming roads leading to Ben Gurion. The demonstrations are slated to start at 12:30 p.m.

They are protesting the government’s plans to remake the judiciary and curtail the High Court’s ability to act as a check on executive power. Nationwide rallies in recent weeks have brought hundreds of thousands out into the streets, and further large protests are planned for the coming days.

In a statement Tuesday, protest organizers vowed to hound the premier wherever he goes.

“The incoming dictator Netanyahu will meet us in every corner, flight or conference he attends,” they said. “We won’t let him destroy the Zionist vision and turn the State of Israel into a dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the assembly hall of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Though protesters do not plan to disrupt train service, a notice on the airport website Wednesday advised travelers or others going to the airport to plan for extra time due to the expected disruptions and to follow police instructions regarding preferred access routes.

Airport workers were also asked to arrive early “to ensure operations continue normally for departing and arriving passengers.”

Channel 13 reported that some 60,000 people are expected to pass through the airport on Wednesday, evenly split between those arriving in the country and those departing.

Members of Israel’s large expat community in Berlin plan to be on hand to protest Netanyahu once he arrives in Berlin.

On Tuesday, some 1,000 Israeli writers, artists, and intellectuals penned a letter to the German ambassador asking that Berlin cancel Netanyahu’s visit, accusing the prime minister of trying to turn the country into a “theocratic dictatorship.”

“In the face of Mr. Netanyahu’s dangerous and destructive leadership, and in light of a vast democratic civilian resistance against the destruction of state institutions by undemocratic law-making, we are asking that Germany and Great Britain swiftly announce to the defendant Netanyahu that his planned state visits to your countries are canceled,” read the letter. “If these visits go ahead as planned, a dark shadow will hang over them.”

The letter was signed by internationally acclaimed author David Grossman, novelist Dorit Rabinyan, Oscar-nominated director Uri Barbash and scores of academics, business figures, and professionals.

It was also sent to the ambassador from Britain, where Netanyahu is reportedly planning on visiting in the coming weeks.

Travelers on their way to the Ben Gurion International Airport, where flights are being delayed due to protesters blocking the road to the airport, March 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Ahead of Wednesday’s rally, Central District police commander Superintendent Avi Biton warned protesters that some routes near the airport used for emergency access would need to remain open, but indicated that cops would not stop people from demonstrating.

“The Israel Police sees the right to protest as a cornerstone of a democratic country and therefore we allow every citizen to exercise their basic right to demonstrate,” Biton said in a statement.

Police have been challenged in recent weeks trying to navigate between mostly peaceful protesters and demands from the government, including far-right police minister Itamar Ben Gvir, to crack down on so-called “anarchists.”

Ben Gvir met Tuesday with Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and other senior force officials for a situations assessment ahead of the protests the following day.

“Last week anarchists were permitted to slow down traffic, I was not at all satisfied,” Ben Gvir told the gathering, according to an unsourced Channel 12 report.

“Anarchists harmed tens of thousands of flyers. My policy is to not permit the blocking of central roads; Ben Gurion is also a central route. If there is anyone who doesn’t like that, then they can come and tell me,” Ben Gvir said.

The minister is expected to attend the police control room directing operations during the protests, as he has done in the past, which drew criticism that he was inserting himself too deeply into police activities.

Police at the meeting reportedly told Ben Gvir they learned from last week’s events and that this time around officers will be more “assertive,” handing out more fines to slow-moving drivers and impounding vehicles, according to the report.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attend the inauguration of new police station in southern Israel, March 14, 2023. (Flash90)

Last week, Ben Gvir attempted to remove Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed after grousing that cops were treating protesters with kid gloves and allowing them to block roads and the Ayalon Highway. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara froze the move, saying she suspected it had been made under undue political influence.

Shabtai had approved Eshed’s demotion, apparently amid longstanding tensions with the top officer, but admitted on Saturday that taking the step at the current time had been an error.

Eshed was on vacation during mass protests in Tel Aviv on March 1, when police came under criticism for using a heavier hand with protesters, leading to several injuries. His deputy oversaw those rallies, with police conduct then praised by Ben Gvir for its severe response toward unruliness.

Ben Gvir, whose ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party campaigned on a law and order message, has also sought to bypass the attorney general, petitioning the High Court on Monday to allow him to appoint independent counsel in petitions against him and his ministry. The court rejected the bid on Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court and give them control over the appointment of the nation’s judges.

They say the plan is a long-overdue measure to curb what they see as outsize influence by unelected judges. But critics say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority. They also say it is an attempt by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.

High-tech leaders, Nobel-winning economists, and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have urged Netanyahu to slow down. Repeated efforts by President Isaac Herzog to broker a compromise have not yielded fruit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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