Author Matti Friedman: Mustn't let Israel turn into Lebanon

As rallies surge, protesters warn leaders ‘will learn what happens when we’re angry’

140K in Tel Aviv; all-night demo at Gallant’s home; Yuval Noah Harari: ‘If you pass a single bill, we’ll oppose you with every non-violent means we have’; doctors warn of strikes

  • Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. (Courtesy/GIlad Furst)
    Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. (Courtesy/GIlad Furst)
  • A demonstrator from the 'Pink Front' group lights a flare while others in a marching band perform with drums during a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    A demonstrator from the 'Pink Front' group lights a flare while others in a marching band perform with drums during a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. Hebrew on sign reads 'Must resist.' (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
    Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. Hebrew on sign reads 'Must resist.' (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Demonstrations were being held throughout Israel Saturday night for a 27th straight weekend against the government’s judicial shakeup plans and with temperatures rising in the national conflict over the effort to curb the powers of the justice system.

Crowd assessment company Crowd Solutions told Channel 13 it estimated that over 140,000 people were demonstrating in Tel Aviv, and tens of thousands more in other locations, based on aerial footage. Organizers claimed the total Tel Aviv numbers were closer to 180,000.

Protest leaders have pledged to further intensify their opposition to the government’s renewed efforts, and were hoping for a show of force as they voice increasing anger over the coalition’s plan to pass in its first Knesset reading Monday a bill to remove courts’ ability to rule on the “reasonableness” of governmental decisions.

Speaking at the main demonstration in Tel Aviv, world-renowned Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari said, “The time to stop the Netanyahu government is now.”

“We are allowed to and must be angry for what the Netanyahu government is doing to the Israeli dream,” he said, and if the government does not stop, it “will learn what happens when we are angry.”

“If you unilaterally pass a single one of your regime coup bills, we will oppose you with every non-violent means we have.”

Harari also tied the government’s judicial overhaul effort to Israel’s military control over the Palestinians in the West Bank, arguing that they both need to be opposed with equal vigor.

Prof. Hagai Levin, representing doctors opposed to the overhaul, warned that the health system could see major strikes if the bill is approved.

“The health system will start operating in a state of emergency — because this is a state of emergency,” he said.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Speaking at a large rally outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Canadian-born Israeli author and journalist Matti Friedman warned that Israel, potentially, could turn into a failed state like Lebanon, torn apart by corruption and internal division. But, he insisted, this would not be allowed to happen.

He lambasted the role of Itamar Ben Gvir, a figure from “the violent margins of Jewish extremism” as the minister responsible for the police, and described Bezalel Smotrich as a minister from “the messianist edge of the settlement movement who controls the nation’s purse strings and the Civil Administration.”

Author Matti Friedman speaks at an anti-judicial overhaul rally in Jerusalem on July 8, 2023. (Screenshot: Protecting the Shared Home)

Also citing the political cracks that the overhaul has created within the IDF, Friedman said, “Everyone who knows Lebanon knows where this can lead.”

“But there is a difference between us and Lebanon,” he said, “and the difference is us. We, all the citizens, all the ethnic groups, all the streams that believe in the joint good…. all of us born into a national movement that created miracles and that taught us that reality is strong but that our will is stronger… Lebanon is a possibility. But we will not let it happen.”

Ahead of the protests, police said they would uphold the right to demonstrate but “will show zero tolerance for rioting, damage to infrastructure and symbols of government, and harm to police officers.”

After the main Tel Aviv rally ended, some demonstrators descended to the Ayalon Highway and blocked it in both directions for a short time. Footage published by Hebrew-language media outlets showed a motorcyclist hitting protesters. The reports claimed he pulled a knife out at one point.

The man who was hit by the motorcycle was in good condition, Kan news said.  The motorcyclist had not so far been detained.

The demonstrators were removed from the road by police after a short time. Two people were arrested.

Saturday’s rallies in Tel Aviv were the first such demonstrations where police are commanded by Tel Aviv District deputy chief David Filo, following the departure of district head Amichai Eshed this week. Eshed’s announcement of his resignation, saying he was to be transferred from the role due to politicians’ distaste for his soft approach toward demonstrators, led to spontaneous mass protests and the blocking of the Ayalon Highway for long hours.

Police also denied Saturday a Kan report that they intended to set up detention centers near various protest sites in which to hold individuals.

The anti-overhaul protest movement “Brothers in Arms,” representing members of the reserve army and military veterans, said they would demonstrate outside the home of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Amikam in northern Israel throughout the night.

A marching band of demonstrators from the ‘Pink Front’ group performs with drums during a protest against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“Chiefs of staff and generations of IDF generals, Mossad commanders, Shin Bet and police commanders will come with us,” Brothers in Arms said. “Together we will pin our hopes on the defense minister, who has already proven that his conscience will not allow damage to Israel’s security and for the nation to be torn apart.”

Earlier this year, Gallant called to pause the judicial overhaul, citing a “tangible danger” to state security, as hundreds of military reservists threatened to stop showing up for duty, in protest of the contentious legislation. This led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire him, a decision that set off intense protests and strikes and swiftly led Netanyahu to freeze the entire overhaul plan for months and renege on Gallant’s removal.

The bill set for preliminary approval this week, which would prevent the judiciary from using the “reasonableness” argument to review decisions made by the cabinet, government ministers and unspecified other elected officials, was approved by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday.

Bereaved families protest against the planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, on July 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The coalition reportedly aims to have it enacted into law before the Knesset breaks for summer recess at the end of July.

After previously announcing plans for a major day of protests Tuesday if the bill passes its first reading the day before, organizers said Saturday that it would be “July’s first Day of Resistance” and would include rallies, protest convoys, disruptions throughout the country and another largescale protest at Ben Gurion Airport in the afternoon.

Organizers have called for a demonstration “such as has never been seen before in Israel” on Tuesday.

They said they were “issuing a final call for the government to stop the legislation, and not to bring for a first vote the first dictatorial law, which will give the government a blank check to act with extreme unreasonableness.”

“If the government doesn’t stop — the whole country will stop,” they said.

On Saturday, dozens of tech companies said workers who wished to do so could take the day off Tuesday to protest.

On Friday in New York City some 150 people participated in a flotilla to the Statue of Liberty in protest of the overhaul plan, saying the monument symbolized freedom and values shared by the US and Israel.

“The Statue of Liberty bears a poem by a Jewish poet. Freedom has been the Jewish people’s desire since the dawn of time,” said Shany Granot-Lubaton, a protest organizer in New York. “All of our hearts are in Israel with the protesters and we are sending American winds to fill the sails of freedom and support pro-democracy fighters defending our futures.”

Addressing National Unity party chief Benny Gantz’s call Thursday for the coalition to resume judicial reform talks, protest leaders have reiterated their demand for no negotiations until the judicial legislation is shelved altogether.

In addition to the demonstrations, increasing numbers of reservists have renewed threats not to volunteer for service if the legislation passes.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. Hebrew on sign reads ‘Must resist.’ (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Former prime minister and IDF chief of staff Ehud Barak said Thursday that pilots and other elite military members should refuse to continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces if the reasonableness bill becomes law.

Barak said in an interview with Channel 12 that “when a law like that passes a first reading [in the Knesset], it is passed in order to prepare it for its second and third [final] readings. That marks the sounding of an alarm, a genuine alarm for the entire country.”

“On that day,” Barak went on, “I expect the pilots, the Military Intelligence Special Operations Division, to all repeat their warning: Netanyahu, watch out, the minute you try to turn the first reading into an actual law, we will not serve a dictatorship. Period.”

On Saturday, Regional Cooperation Minister David Amsalem, a firebrand who also serves as a minister within the Justice Ministry, called for Barak’s arrest and interrogation.

With the advancement of the legislation, Thursday evening saw demonstrators rally near the homes of numerous coalition lawmakers, most notably two of the leading figures in the judicial shakeup push — Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the latter of whom heads the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Other protests were held at the homes of ministers and MKs from the ruling Likud party, including Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Science Minister Ofir Akunis and Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel. A number of protesters were arrested.

Demonstrators gather for a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Herzliya on July 8, 2023. (Courtesy/Ido Meirovitz)

Coalition members have recently upped their complaints about the rallies outside their homes and urged a tougher police response (though they often supported similar demonstrations when in opposition to the previous government).

Ministers are set to discuss the protests at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. In an unusual move, multiple top officials from the Justice Ministry were expected to attend, amid concerns of pressure on police and the legal system to suppress the protests on behalf of the hardline coalition. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Thursday warned Netanyahu against any political interference in the police’s response to mass demonstrations.

Police’s conduct was being closely watched Saturday, after 14 people were wounded during Wednesday’s rallies. Six of them had wounds to their eyes, including Udi Ori, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force reserves who required surgery.

The hospital decried the use of water cannons to disperse demonstrations.

Brothers in Arms member Udi Ori at the hospital on July 7, 2023, after suffering an eye injury when taking a direct hit from a water cannon during a protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on July 5, 2023. (Courtesy)

Kan news reported that police chief Kobi Shabtai had instructed district commanders to exercise judgment on the use of water cannons Saturday to clear demonstrators, after Wednesday’s injuries.

The demonstrations have been ongoing since Levin revealed the overhaul plans in January and recently ramped up again as Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has renewed its efforts to push through some of the relevant laws unilaterally.

Opponents say they are a threat to Israel’s democratic character and will leave the rights of minorities unprotected, while supporters argue they are needed to curb the powers of a judiciary they say is unrestrained.

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