Anti-overhaul protesters call to turn up heat as over 300,000 estimated at rallies
Organizers claim half a million attend weekly protests, plan ‘day of escalating resistance’ on Thursday; coalition scheduled to drive contentious bills through Knesset committee
More than 300,000 Israelis rallied Saturday night across the country in the tenth consecutive week of demonstrations against the government’s efforts to radically overhaul the judicial system. Organizers claimed around half a million turned out for the protests nationwide. Media estimated there were at least 200,000 in Tel Aviv alone.
The protests were held as the coalition readies to charge full steam ahead from Sunday with its highly contentious remaking of the judiciary, thus far rejecting pleas, including from the president, to scrap its current legislation and instead patiently negotiate a more widely accepted compromise.
Organizers said they would further ramp up their response if the government doesn’t shelve the overhaul legislation, with a planned “day of escalating resistance” declared for Thursday.
This past Thursday saw protesters stage an unprecedented day of protests and disruption, blocking central Israel’s key Ayalon Highway for some two hours and gumming up roads to Ben Gurion Airport alongside rallies, strikes, blockages and other disruptive activities throughout the country.
The protest organizers on Saturday said that on Wednesday, they would try to disrupt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned takeoff for Berlin, similar to their effort to interfere with his trip to Rome this weekend, when cars driving at a snail’s pace clogged roads to the airport, forcing the premier to take a chopper to the airport.
“This is one of the most critical weeks in the struggle to safeguard Israeli democracy from those trying to bring about its destruction,” the organizers said in a statement. “Every Israeli in whose heart is the Declaration of Independence must come out this Thursday with strength and courage to defend the State of Israel.”
Speaking at the main gathering on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street outside government offices after a 6 p.m. march from Habima Square, retired justice Hila Gerstel said she supports “repairs” to the judiciary but not its “destruction.”
“For 24 years I served in the judicial system, and along with all its virtues I am well aware of its shortcomings. I established the audit commission, I was one of the most vocal voices for reforming the system and I criticized the conduct of the state prosecution. Precisely because of this, I stand here today and say there is room for repairs, there is no room for destruction,” Gerstel was cited by Channel 12 news as saying.
At a protest in Beersheba, with a record turnout of around 10,000 people, opposition leader Yair Lapid said that while Israel faces “huge challenges” and the “biggest crisis in its history,” the government had “lost interest.”
“The only thing that interests the government is to continue crushing Israeli democracy and the unity of the Israeli people,” Lapid said.
Police estimates cited by Hebrew language media said 50,000 people turned out for the protest in Haifa — also a record — with tens of thousands more in other cities. Israeli company Crowd Solutions estimated that some 200,000 were in Tel Aviv alone.
Smaller rallies were held in at least 95 different locations across the country, including in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Efrat, Modiin, Netanya, Kfar Saba, Yavne, Herzliya, Beit Shemesh, Rishon Lezion and Bat Yam.
Organizers claimed around 240,000 people were gathered in Tel Aviv, with around 250,000 more at around 100 other locations across the country, including an estimated 20,000 outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
“This is the largest protest night in the history of the State of Israel,” the organizers said in a statement.
In Jerusalem, a separate right-wing demonstration was held against the current reform package and in favor of compromise, the third time in recent weeks such a rally has been held at the initiative of former minister Yoaz Hendel.
The central demonstration took place under the command of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed, after Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara instructed that his removal from his position by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai be frozen immediately, as she questioned the legality of a decision that was widely seen as politically motivated.
Far-right minister Ben Gvir announced on Thursday that Eshed, believed to harbor ambitions to lead the force, would be transferred to head police’s Training Department, based on a recommendation by Shabtai.
Ben Gvir had raged about Eshed’s ostensibly mild response to anti-government protests. Ben Gvir, who has multiple past convictions for supporting a Jewish terror group and for incitement to racism, has repeatedly called the protesters “anarchists” and called for police to use more force.
On Saturday, Shabtai admitted he had “made a mistake” with Eshed’s removal from his post. Facing growing calls to quit by both protesters and several former police chiefs, Shabtai vowed to stay on, though he indicated he had considered resigning.
Eshed was greeted by protesters in Tel Aviv with cheers during Saturday’s protest.
עמי אשד מתקבל במחיאות כפיים רמות ובזעקות "גיבור ישראל" בהפגנה בקפלן pic.twitter.com/sHFWrqoba3
— יובל שדה Yuval Sade (@SadeYuval) March 11, 2023
The rallies were largely peaceful, with police detaining a Netanya resident on suspicion of hurling a firecracker at demonstrators in the central coastal city. The suspect, 22, was found with another firecracker upon his arrest, according to a police spokesperson.
In another incident, police said officers arrested two suspects for throwing eggs at anti-government protesters in Hadera. The suspects, residents of Hadera in their 30s, were taken for questioning.
Some protesters charged onto the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, in an effort to block traffic on the key transport artery in central Israel. After a short while the highway was reopened, with three people arrested.
Ahead of the protests, former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz said “the dictatorship has already begun.”
“I listen to the discussions in the [Knesset] Constitution Committee… a dictatorship is taking place there. There is no discourse there, there is chaos. I am very concerned about what is happening there. I haven’t seen such a harsh reality since the Yom Kippur War,” Mofaz told Channel 12.
The nationwide rallies were held as the coalition was set to prepare core elements of its highly contentious judicial overhaul program for final Knesset readings next week.
Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman has scheduled hearings on dramatic overhaul legislation every day from Sunday to Wednesday.
If enacted, the legislation will give the government full control over judicial appointments and ban the High Court of Justice from reviewing Basic Laws, as a central element of the coalition’s wide-ranging move to curb the judiciary and centralize almost all power in the hands of the governing majority.
Votes to approve the legislation in the committee could be scheduled whenever Rothman decides. The bills will then move to the Knesset plenum for their final two votes sometime after a 48-hour break.
Rothman announced next week’s committee sessions a day after President Isaac Herzog said he was in the final stages of forming a compromise proposal for judicial reform following consultations with academics and civil society organizations on both sides of the ideological spectrum.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have refused to join the talks, with the opposition demanding the legislation first be frozen and the coalition rejecting any preconditions.
The legislative blitz comes despite Herzog on Thursday night denouncing the current package as “oppressive” and harmful to democracy, and demanding it be abandoned immediately and replaced by a framework for consensual reform.
In a special address to the nation delivered in stark and grave tones, the president said the national crisis over the coalition’s effort to weaken the judiciary was “a disaster” and “a nightmare.”
He insisted it was the responsibility of “the leaders of the state” in the government to put aside the breakneck legislative charge lest the country descends into a societal and constitutional abyss.
Herzog’s forceful speech marked the first time he had openly spoken out against one political bloc during the current political crisis, and, like the Knesset opposition parties, unambiguously opposed the government’s bills as anti-democratic.
The legislative plans by the right-religious government, Israel’s most hardline to date, have sparked mass public protests in Israel for over two months, as well as fierce backlash from opposition politicians and dire warnings from economists, business leaders, legal experts and security officials.
Critics of the government’s divisive judicial overhaul have said the coalition’s proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an “activist” court.
A number of polls have indicated the legislation is broadly unpopular with the public.