Anti-overhaul pilgrimage regroups outside Jerusalem ahead of final march to Knesset

10,000 hold communal Shabbat service outside capital as they ready for last day of trek that will conclude with protest, as coalition gets ready to pass 1st judicial overhaul bill

Anti-overhaul activists, who are marching to Jerusalem, gather at Shoresh outside the capital on Friday evening, July 21, 2023. (Aviv Hasidov)
Anti-overhaul activists, who are marching to Jerusalem, gather at Shoresh outside the capital on Friday evening, July 21, 2023. (Aviv Hasidov)

Thousands of Israelis marching from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a mass demonstration against the government’s judicial overhaul paused their self-styled pilgrimage Friday evening outside the capital to welcome Shabbat and regroup before the final leg of their journey.

The march has become the signature event of the protest movement since it began on Tuesday evening, and will culminate on Saturday outside the Knesset, where organizers plan to set up tents and stay put for an indefinite amount of time, as the coalition readies to pass into law a ban on courts striking down governmental and ministerial decisions based on their “reasonableness.”

The legislation is expected to pass early next week and become the first part of the coalition’s judicial overhaul package to become law.

The march participants are trekking to the capital during one of the hottest weeks of the year. While many were planning to complete the entire 60-kilometer (37-mile) march, others joined the group for only parts of the walk.

The march swelled to about 10,000 demonstrators by the time participants reached the Shoresh Interchange some 9 miles (15 kilometers) east of Jerusalem, where they broke for the evening on Friday. Many of the marchers carried Israeli flags, a hallmark of the protest movement, forming a vast ribbon of blue and white on the shoulder of the highway.

Much of Friday’s march took place along the Route 1 highway, with police cars escorting the demonstrators down the central road. Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai met with the anti-overhaul protest leaders during one of their breaks on Thursday afternoon and issued a statement saying law enforcement would continue to allow demonstrations, which have roiled Israel since January when the coalition unveiled its legislation to overhaul the judiciary.

The statement from Shabtai also warned protesters not to block the highway as they marched and to be sure to stay on the shoulder of Route 1. Participants abided by the order and traffic was able to continue flowing.

Anti-overhaul activists marching to Jerusalem, on July 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who oversees police, issued a statement saying he had directed Shabtai to “immediately” open Route 1 to traffic, even though the highway was never blocked.

Police have cracked down against protesters blocking the main highway through Tel Aviv with water cannon and other riot dispersal means, and Ben Gvir has consistently pushed law enforcement to take a hardline approach to the demonstrations.

Anti-overhaul activists, who are marching to Jerusalem, gather at Shoresh outside the capital on Friday evening, July 21, 2023. (Aviv Hasidov)

The march turned off Route 1 shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday, around the start of Shabbat, to set up camp at the Shoresh Interchange.

After arriving at Shoresh, demonstrators of all ages held a communal Kabbalat Shabbat service along with a picnic dinner. Protesters from around the country supplied the marchers with food, and so much arrived that march organizers called on supporters to cease bringing in more.

Several musicians also performed for the crowd, some of whom planned to camp outside for the night at Shoresh.

Speaking to the Ynet news site, one of the protest leaders, Ami Dror, said participants chose to join the pilgrimage in order to make their voices heard.

“There is a terrible initiative happening here that is dividing the people of Israel, that is tearing apart the people’s army,” Dror said. “It threatens to change the image of the Jewish people and the Israeli people, and the least we can do is come to the Knesset where these decisions are being made.”

“Hundreds of thousands of people will arrive and look at these lawmakers in the eyes. It is possible that [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant will sign the death certificate of the people’s army. This is the magnitude of what we are talking about,” Dror said.

Anti-overhaul activists marching to Jerusalem, on July 21, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Anti-overhaul protesters have expressed hope that Gallant will issue a call to pause the government initiative. 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, Gallant was fired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading to massive protests, a nationwide labor strike and the shuttering of Ben Gurion airport. Netanyahu temporarily suspended the legislation, agreed to talks with the opposition under President Isaac Herzog’s aegis that have since broken down, and eventually reinstated Gallant.

Channel 12 reported Friday evening that Gallant was attempting to delay Monday’s vote amid unprecedented opposition from within the military. Earlier Friday, 1,142 Israeli Air Force reservists, including more than 400 pilots, issued a letter announcing that they will suspend their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the judicial overhaul.

Anti-overhaul activists marching to Jerusalem, on July 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Dror said that by marching to the Knesset, “at least they will see us and understand that they are hurting us, our generation and future generations with what they are trying to do.”

Opposition chair Yair Lapid issued a statement Friday expressing solidarity with the marchers whom he characterized as “a model of responsible and caring citizenship.”

The participants are set to resume marching early Saturday before reaching the Knesset in the evening. Organizers plan to set up tents and remain at the site, at least until lawmakers vote on the so-called reasonableness bill early in the week.

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.

Anti-overhaul activists who are marching to Jerusalem in the early morning hours of July 21, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

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 measure will likely be the first part of the government’s plan to remake the judiciary to pass into law, and protests have ratcheted up as it has moved toward its final votes before passage into law.

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