Hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrated across the country Saturday evening against the coalition’s controversial judicial overhaul plans, with tens of thousands rallying outside the Knesset in Jerusalem following a mass march from Tel Aviv, as part of a last-ditch effort to prevent the passage of a bill that would curtail judicial oversight of government decisions.
The mass demonstrations came as over 10,000 reservists including pilots and others in top military units announced they were halting their service, amid threats of strikes by various professional groups, growing calls for civil disobedience and with the country’s largest labor union meeting to decide on a course of action.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared undeterred, however, with multiple anonymous coalition officials telling Hebrew media that they would not capitulate and were determined to pass the legislation.
Kan news said Netanyahu has commented behind the scenes that “either we reach a compromise by tomorrow or the bill will pass.”
In addition to the landmark march in Jerusalem, believed to draw some 90,000 on its final leg, some 170,000 demonstrators converged on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street for the main weekly rally for the 29th week in a row, according to estimations by the CrowdSolutions firm cited by Channel 13 news.
Tens of thousands more demonstrated at some 150 other cities, towns and intersections across the country. Opponents of the legislation rallied outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem.
ללא מילים. קרדיט עמיר טרקל. pic.twitter.com/BFAjSodbZV
— Ami Dror ???????? עמי דרור (@AmiDror) July 23, 2023
After seven straight months of the most sustained and intense demonstrations the country has ever seen, the grassroots protest movement has reached a fever pitch.
Organizers claimed some 500,000 people took part in rallies overall, though this figure could not be independently confirmed.
סנטיאגו קלטראווה תכנן את גשר המיתרים. היום הגשר נכנס לתולדות ירושלים. pic.twitter.com/avEIGd21O6
— Yigal Mosko (@igalmosko) July 22, 2023
In scorching heat that reached 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit), the procession into Jerusalem turned the city’s main entrance into a sea of blue and white Israeli flags as marchers completed the last leg of a four-day, 70 kilometer (45-mile) trek from Tel Aviv to Israel’s parliament. Arriving at the Knesset, protesters sang Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva.”
ישראל היפה והערכית כובשת את ירושלים ומחזירה עטרה ליושנה
— Yoram Kraus יורם קראוס (@yoramkraus) July 22, 2023
Members of the Students’ Protest group set up a “tent city” in Sacher Park, adjacent to the Knesset, with protesters planning to remain there until further notice.
— נועה ברנס Noa Baranes (@noabaranes10) July 22, 2023
“We won’t move until the legislation is stopped,” the group said, referring to the “reasonableness” bill.
Former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin told the Tel Aviv Kaplan Street rally that IDF reservists were “heroic” in declaring that they will not report for volunteer reserve duty.
“My brothers and sisters… who have saved our state on the battlefield from our enemies,” he said, “the battle today is for the nature of the state, against those who are seeking to destroy its foundations and its values.”
“I feel like an unending earthquake is shaking everything we’ve known. This government is illegitimate in its immoral composition, in its insincere actions and the shocking values it promotes,” Diskin said. “We are days away from the end of the rule of law in Israel. The time has come to pause volunteer duties for reservists until the complete halt of the legislation and until there is a commitment to make changes only by broad consensus.”
Diskin continued: “Suspending voluntary reserve service is certainly an irregular step — but it is a legal, democratic and non-violent step. And above all, it is a heroic step.”
Eyal Nave, a former commander of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, told protesters in Jerusalem that the country was “facing one of the most difficult moments” in its history.
“Today we, who represent about 10,000 reservists, say to the government of Israel, to the prime minister, to the defense minister: The responsibility for the ‘destruction of the Third Temple’ will be on you.”
In Tel Aviv Shikma Bressler, one of the leaders of the protest movement, urged protesters to join the demonstration outside the Knesset on Sunday.
“If the legislation passes, the government of Israel will discover that perhaps they’ve legislated, and perhaps they are a government, but they have no country, they have no people, they have no army, and they have no police.”
“They will discover citizens standing before them… [who] will not live in fear in our country.”
Marching to Jerusalem
Protesters paused their self-styled pilgrimage on Friday evening to welcome Shabbat with a communal meal, as they regrouped before the final leg of their journey.
After spending the night at Shoresh, outside Jerusalem, the marchers ate breakfast donated by supporters, before beginning the climb up to the capital.
לא זזים, עד שהחקיקה לא עוצרת: פעילות ופעילי מחאת הסטודנטיות והסטודנטים החלו בהקמת עיר האוהלים בגן סאקר.
אנחנו לא מתכוונים לוותר, ולא ניכנע לניסיונות של הממשלה להרתיע את המחאה. עד שנתניהו לא יחדול – אנחנו לא מתכוונים לזוז מכאן. מזמינות את כל משתתפי הצעדה להצטרף אלינו. pic.twitter.com/bbgemYwb6P
— מחאת הסטודנטים Students Protest (@1StudentProtest) July 22, 2023
Thousands more from across the country joined the group for the final leg of the march, much of it uphill under the punishing summer heat.
The column of people stretched for several kilometers and large crowds gathered on the bridges spanning the route, cheering on the marchers.
Though protesters did not block roads, the sheer numbers inevitably led to traffic disruptions.
הצעדה נעה על כביש 1 לכיוון ירושלים pic.twitter.com/yNLwa0dAUw
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) July 22, 2023
Participant Guy Shahar from Tel Aviv suburb Givatayim told the Ynet news site that he had joined the march because he “fears for the fate of the country.”
“There is no doubt that this is a historic moment, the amount of people here is amazing. Each person has come from a different place, with concern for the fate of the country,” he said.
Lapid: Return to the talks, save Israel
The nationwide protests took place Saturday night under the headline: “We won’t let [Netanyahu] destroy our home.”
Addressing protesters in Modiin, opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government had two options: “To destroy the country or not to destroy it.”
“To destroy the army, the economy, our relations with the Americans, or to not do it. They can continue [on this path] and the people of Israel will be torn apart. Or stop the legislation, return to talks, and the State of Israel will be saved,” he said.
“Who are they to talk of refusal?” Lapid asked, referring to heated criticism by government ministers of reservist soldiers who have said they would no longer show up for duty due to the overhaul plans.
“A government that has the most refusers and draft dodgers in the entire history of the State of Israel. This government has two parties where refusal is the official policy,” he said, referring to ultra-Orthodox parties that fight to prevent Haredi men from being drafted into the army.
Demonstrators blocked roads at several locations across the country Saturday evening. The Ayalon Highway and several other central roads in Tel Aviv were blocked for several hours, with police arresting six people.
Elsewhere, around a thousand protesters blocked the southbound route at Karkur Junction in northern Israel, the Ynet news site reported. Protesters blocked the road between Rehovot-Ness Ziona at the Science Park Junction in the center of the country and at Ein Yahav Junction in southern Israel.
Protesters also rallied outside Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s home in Amikam, urging him to seek a halt to the “reasonableness” bill.
Television reports Friday night said Gallant was working to push off next week’s vote due to growing protests and opposition in the military, with over 1,000 air force reservists announcing Friday they will suspend their volunteer service to protest the judicial overhaul.
Responding to the report, Gallant said in a statement that he “is taking measures in order to reach a wide consensus, and in order to ensure the security of the State of Israel, while leaving the IDF separate from political discourse.”
In the largest declaration yet, 10,000 reservists from the Brothers and Sisters in Arms group, representing 40 units of the military, announced Saturday night they would no longer serve.
Anti-overhaul protesters have expressed hope that Gallant will issue a call to pause the government initiative.
— Or-ly Barlev ~ אור-לי ברלב (@orlybarlev) July 22, 2023
The defense minister was instrumental in getting the controversial overhaul paused in late March. After calling for a halt to the legislation in a public address, he was fired by Netanyahu, leading to massive protests, a nationwide labor strike, and the shuttering of Ben Gurion Airport. Netanyahu quickly paused the legislation to allow for talks with the opposition, and eventually walked back Gallant’s dismissal.
On Saturday, dozens of former top security officials — including ex-heads of the Israel Defense Forces, Mossad, and Shin Bet — sent a letter to Netanyahu calling on him to halt the legislation to allow for renewed compromise talks, while expressing support for the reservists who have threatened to stop volunteering.
The Histadrut labor federation held a five-hour “emergency meeting” Saturday night and early Sunday morning, as union chief Arnon Bar-David faces calls from overhaul opponents to declare a general strike to stop the “reasonableness” bill from being passed. Bar-David said after the meeting that if no compromise with the opposition is reached on the bill by 4 p.m. Sunday, his organization will convene to discuss “further steps.”
יצאה הצעדה מכיכר מילנו לכיכר הדמוקרטיה( קפלן).
אבן גבירול מלא כולו ????????????
חשבתי שכולם בירושלים מסתבר שיש הרבה כולם ????????⬇️ pic.twitter.com/iWmeqIbc6c
— OV ovadia (@OV45316627) July 22, 2023
Legislating as planned
The threats of refusal have simultaneously created more pressure on the government to halt the controversial legislation, while also increasing the coalition’s determination, with members of Netanyahu’s government saying they cannot under any circumstances succumb to what they say is blackmail by members of the military, which they warn could create a dangerous precedent.
Indeed Netanyahu’s government indicated Saturday it had no intention of slowing the passage of the “reasonableness” bill.
“The government and coalition’s position is unequivocal: The greatest harm to Israel’s security and democracy is the subordination of the government and Knesset to the dictates of military units,” an unnamed coalition official told Hebrew media outlets.
“The efforts to reach an agreement on the legislation will continue until the last moment. In the absence of an agreement, the legislation will be passed as planned,” the officials added.
An unnamed source in the Prime Minister’s Office told Walla news on Saturday: “We believe the wave of refusals will pass a day or two after the legislation is approved. Once we promise there will be no more legislation without consensus, things will go back to normal.”
The bill would ban the Supreme Court and lower courts from using the reasonableness standard to review decisions made by the government and cabinet ministers.
Proponents say the bar on the use of the doctrine is needed to halt judicial interference in government decisions, arguing that it amounts to unelected judges substituting their own judgment for that of elected officials.
Opponents argue, however, that the legislation is far too broad and will weaken the court’s ability to review decisions that harm civil rights and hinder its ability to protect the independence of senior civil servants who hold sensitive positions, such as the attorney general, police commissioner and others.
The “reasonableness” law would be the first law to pass of the coalition’s planned judicial overhaul package, which is set to give the government near-complete control over the appointment of Israel’s judges, and widely constrain the High Court’s capacity to overrule laws and government decisions. The Knesset is set to begin debating it on Sunday ahead of a vote on its second and third (final) readings on Monday, and protests have ratcheted up as it has moved toward its final votes before passage into law.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.