Anti-overhaul protests for 16th week as Israel readies to honor fallen, mark 75 years

Hundreds of thousands set to take to the streets Saturday night at over 100 locations; Tel Aviv demonstration to be addressed by ex-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin

Demonstrators rally against the government's judicial overhaul plans, in Tel Aviv, on April 22, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Demonstrators rally against the government's judicial overhaul plans, in Tel Aviv, on April 22, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Hundreds of thousands were set to rally on Saturday evening for the 16th week in a row amid the coalition’s contentious bid to dramatically weaken the judiciary, and ahead of a highly-charged week that will see the nation mark Memorial Day and celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Organizers said the main rally will be held in central Tel Aviv, with demonstrations at over 100 locations around the country, including Haifa, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Netanya, Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Kfar Saba and Bat Yam.

Protesters have been gathering for nearly four months against the hardline coalition’s plans to overhaul the judicial system, bring most judicial appointments under government control, and curb the oversight powers of the High Court of Justice.

Ahead of the central rally, protesters were set to gather at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, ahead of a 6:30 p.m. march to Kaplan Street.

Speakers in Tel Aviv will include former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin; Mia Zirkel, whose brother Yonatan was killed while serving in Lebanon in 1997; Sheila Katz, CEO of National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW); Holocaust survivor Avraham Roth, Bedouin women’s rights activist Hanan Alsanah and Ido Galili from the reservists’ protest group.

Yuval Diskin, a former director of the Shin Bet security agency, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, December 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

In addition, singer Oshik Levi will speak about writer and lyricist Yehonatan Geffen, the cultural icon and activist who died on Wednesday.

“By continuing forward with the judicial coup, the government is driving a deeper rift within Israeli society, damaging the economy, and hurting Israel’s security,” protest organizers said in a statement.

“The recent statement by Moody shows that the judicial coup has serious economic consequences for the State of Israel and we will not sit on the side as the government tears Israel to shreds,” read the statement, referring to the announcement by the leading rating agency earlier this month that it was downgrading the nation’s economic outlook from positive to stable, citing the “deterioration of Israel’s governance” amid the judicial overhaul.

The protest also comes days after a Tel Aviv police station selected an officer who is under investigation for throwing stun grenades at anti-government protesters for an Independence Day award. The officer, Meir Suisssa, was seen casually throwing a grenade into the center of a crowd of demonstrators during a March 1 protest. Several protesters were injured during the events, including one who required ear reconstruction.

Saturday’s demonstration comes ahead of a week that will see large rallies from both opponents and proponents of the overhaul, as the nation is set to honor its fallen on Memorial Day and mark 75 years since its founding on Independence Day.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to met by a large demonstration in Tel Aviv as he arrives to give a speech at the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel at 75 General Assembly. Organizers are also preparing for protests inside the event.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, right, and Minister May Golan, left, in the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Monday evening will see the start of Memorial Day — speculation has grown in recent days that ministers from the hardline government will be heckled and protested during their participation in the ceremonies, leading some to cancel appearances.

Of particular concern is the ceremony at the military cemetery in Beersheba, which is set to be addressed by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who was exempted from IDF service due to his extremist views.

While small-scale protests are a common occurrence at events commemorating Israel’s war dead, often by bereaved families, the prospect of the political battle over proposed changes to the judiciary spilling into cemeteries and wreath-laying ceremonies on Monday night and Tuesday has sparked concerns that the moves could offend families and harm the sanctity of the day.

Amid concerns of disruption, leading opposition lawmakers Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz made a rare call for unity with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, urging Israelis to put aside deep divisions for a single day in honor of those killed. A similar joint call was issued by Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, who also chairs the Federation of Local Authorities, along with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and more than 115 other municipality heads across the country.

Graves of fallen Israeli soldiers at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023, ahead of Israeli Memorial Day next week. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tuesday evening, the central torch-lighting ceremony will be held as the country moves from mourning those killed in military service and terror attacks, to celebrating 75 years of independence.

The usually apolitical ceremony has taken on a different tone this year amid the government’s plans to shackle the judiciary. Lapid has announced he would not attend the ceremony due to societal divisions he said the government has created due to its radical judicial overhaul program.

Lapid’s decision followed reports that Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who is responsible for the ceremony, plans to cut the live broadcast of the event and switch to a rehearsal recording should the actual torch-lighting ceremony be interrupted by anti-government protestors.

At the same time as the ceremony, a mass rally — billed as the largest in Israel’s history — will be held at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening.

Protesters rally against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, at the Azrieli junction in Tel Aviv, on April 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meanwhile, supporters of the overhaul are set to rally on Thursday evening.

The Knesset is scheduled to return from its month-long recess on April 30, with a law to put judicial appointments within political control, one part of the legislative package, ready to be passed within days.

According to a survey published by the Kan public broadcaster on Friday, a majority of Israelis believe the contentious judicial overhaul is harmful to the country — 53 percent. Just 32% believe it is beneficial and 15% said they did not know.

When asked whether they felt represented by the government, 60% said no and just 27% said yes, with 13% responding that they do not know.

According to a Channel 12 news survey, 51% said they were pessimistic about the country’s future, while only 43% were optimistic and 6% said they did not know.

Critics say the overhaul, which will shift much of the judiciary’s power into the government’s hands, will make Israel a democracy in name only, shielding leaders from accountability while leaving minority rights largely unprotected and subject to the whims of Netanyahu’s hard-right government. Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in what they see as an activist court.

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