As violence against protesters escalates, opposition blames Netanyahu’s ‘incitement’

Man said to ram car into Herzliya group; motorcyclist drives into Givatayim crowd; multiple assault reports; well-known Likud activist calls women ‘Hitler’s contemptible handmaids’

Likud activists and judicial overhaul supporters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Likud activists and judicial overhaul supporters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Saturday night’s weekly mass protests against the government around the country saw a notable escalation in violence and verbal abuse against demonstrators by counter-protesters, with government supporters ramming, beating, cursing, mobbing and otherwise assaulting critics of the coalition’s judicial overhaul plan.

The attacks led leaders of the opposition and protest organizers to point the finger at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who they said was fueling the hatred among his supporters and failing to clearly condemn violence directed at demonstrators.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted: “The government’s incitement against the protests caused this. Violent thugs behaved wildly around the country. I call on Likud to restrain its thugs and on the prime minister to condemn them forcefully.”

In a joint statement, protest leaders said “The rise in violence is a direct result of incitement originating in Netanyahu. When the prime minister’s son calls protesters Nazis, this is what it looks like.”

Yair Netanyahu had on Friday compared the demonstrators to the Nazis’ Sturmabteilung paramilitary, or SA, in his latest diatribe against them.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said that “violence against protesters is bubbling up around the country and civil war is at hand. Netanyahu, the responsibility is on you. Call to stop the violence, hit the brakes now… stop everything. We are approaching the abyss.”

Police detain a right-wing activist who clashed with protesters at a rally against the government’s judicial overhaul bills in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023 (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

And Labor party chief Merav Michaeli, referencing the 1995 assassination of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, said: “This hatred for protesters, for the left, for the justice system, for democracy, was not born in [activists’] hearts. It is fed to them from the top and seeps in… Netanyahu, it has ended in blood once before. Stop your militias before it happens again.”

For years, many on the left have accused Netanyahu, the opposition leader at the time of the assassination, of encouraging the widespread incitement against Rabin that preceded his killing, an accusation he has vehemently denied.

Violent incidents were recorded against demonstrators in multiple locations on Saturday.

Police said they detained a 57-year-old man who allegedly rammed his car into a group of protesters in Herzliya, lightly injuring one protester. The demonstrator was taken to the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba for treatment.

Police also said officers detained a 24-year-old man for driving a motorcycle into a group of protesters in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. He was suspected of assaulting and threatening the demonstrators.

None of the protesters were hurt in that incident.

Several right-wing activists, some of them masked, were seen physically confronting protesters in Tel Aviv.

Right-wing counter-protesters in the city, supporting the government’s proposed changes, held up signs reading “leftists are traitors.”

Well-known Likud agitator Rami Ben Yehuda, who is friendly with many Likud MKs and a frequent guest at party events, was filmed shouting at women in Tel Aviv dressed in the now ubiquitous handmaid costumes, that they were “Hitler’s contemptible handmaids.”

He also called them “Red bolsheviks, despicable and damned, dancers of Islamic terror, disgruntled white racists.”

As hundreds of anti-overhaul demonstrators rallied for the first time in the northern city of Or Akiva, a mostly right-wing community, supporters of Likud hurled eggs at the demonstrators. Police said officers detained three people at the scene for throwing eggs.

As one couple attempted to leave the rally area in their car, they were surrounded by a mob of right-wing activists who blocked their way while cursing at them and banging on the vehicle.

Saturday evening’s protests followed a fiery demonstration earlier in the day when clashes broke out between protesters, police, and residents of a village where National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was spending Shabbat.

Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff noted that the turmoil in Israel was not escaping the notice of Israel’s enemies, tweeting that one Hezbollah supporter had written: “From throwing eggs, to car rammings and to brawls tonight, we’ll say again — the temporary entity (Israel) is a single bullet away from civil war.”

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis participated in nationwide demonstrations held for the 11th straight Saturday evening against the government’s plans to weaken the powers of the judiciary.

Protest organizers vowed to escalate demonstrations if the coalition doesn’t halt its legislative proposals, which lawmakers are due to advance next week, declaring this coming Thursday a “national day of paralysis.”

“Next week Israel’s government intends to pass the dictatorship and religious coercion laws,” protest organizers said in a statement Saturday.

“Hundreds of people will line up against them like an iron wall and back the High Court and heads of the [judicial] system to stop the coup. Every citizen must come out and take a stand in these fateful moments for the State of Israel. Together, hundreds of thousands will save Israeli democracy,” they added.

Over 260,000 people demonstrated across the country, including 175,000 in Tel Aviv, 20,000 in Haifa, 4,000 in Netanya, 11,500 in Herzliya, 18,000 in Kfar Saba, and 6,000 in Beersheba, according to a count by the company Crowd Solutions cited by Channel 13 news.

Approximately 10,000 protesters rallied outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

Jacob Frenkel, a former Bank of Israel chief who until recently chaired JP Morgan Chase International, warned that the coalition’s far-reaching plans for overhauling the judicial system are “destroying the Zionist enterprise from within.”

Speaking at the main protest in Tel Aviv, Frenkel told the crowd that the judicial overhaul will cause Israel severe economic consequences.

Speaking at a rally in the southern coastal city of Ashdod, Lapid charged that the government was not interested in compromise.

“They are rushing forward with their legislation to turn Israel into a non-democratic country. They have just one problem. They did not expect [the demonstrations] to come to Ashdod, to Beersheba, to the hills of Gush Etzion, to Rehovot and Jerusalem,” he said.

Dan Halutz, a former IDF chief of staff, encouraged demonstrators to bring more people to the protests, calling the struggle against the government’s judicial overhaul a “war of liberation for the State of Israel.”

In Tel Aviv, police said some 50 protesters tried to block the Ayalon Highway. Officers closed the road in both directions while they worked to disperse them.

Two people were detained while trying to block the northbound route, and another two on Yigal Alon street, near the entrance to the highway, police said.

Demonstrators block a highway during protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the Israel’s judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Earlier in the evening, hundreds of protesters blocked Karkur Junction along Route 65 in northern Israel. Police deployed water cannons in order to disperse the crowd, and arrested seven protesters.

Dozens of veterans of the elite naval commando unit Shayetet 13 unit demonstrated outside of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s home in the northern moshav Amikam. Gallant headed the unit in the 1990s.

In an apparent first, a number of Bedouin Israelis protested against the government’s plans at the Hura junction in southern Israel.

Standing alongside several Jewish Israelis, the group held signs reading “This is the home of all of us” and “Equal rights and democracy for all of us.”

The protesters rallied as the government was expected to advance several pieces of controversial legislation in the coming week.

Starting Sunday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will hold four back-to-back hearings to prepare the bill designed to give the government full control over all judicial appointments for its second and third readings in Knesset.

The bill, which is being advanced as an amendment to Basic Law: the Judiciary, would bar the High Court from exercising judicial review over Basic Laws, to prevent it from striking down the judicial overhaul package itself.

The government will also advance a bill to allow Netanyahu to receive donations to fund his legal expenses in his criminal trials; a bill to allow Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to ministerial office despite a High Court ruling banning him from doing so; a bill to ensure Netanyahu cannot be forced to recuse himself due to a conflict of interests he might have between his criminal trial and the government’s radical legal reforms; and a bill allowing hospitals to stop people from bringing hametz, or leavened goods, onto their premises during Passover, an arrangement previously struck down by the High Court.

Following the rejection by the coalition last week of President Isaac Herzog’s alternative proposal for judicial reform, Netanyahu and others said that the government would discuss different options to unilaterally moderate the current legislation, but so far they have continued to push the bills forward in their original form.

According to the Ynet news, around 100 different protest groups participated in a meeting to decide on the next steps for escalating the protests on Thursday.

Some of the protest leaders reportedly were calling for a complete shutdown of the country, similar to protests against recent pension reforms in France, which have brought Paris to a grinding halt.

“Trains are stopped, schools are closed, fuel deliveries were halted. The organizers there are threatening that France will stop running if [French President Emmanuel] Macron doesn’t withdraw the reforms. We are demonstrating for the existence of Israeli democracy, not pensions,” one of the organizers said, according to the unsourced report.

Another protest leader feared that such action would lead to violence: “We saw what happened on the streets of Paris. We can’t get to a situation where we drag the demonstrations to something violent and get to anarchy on the streets. We will lose legitimacy. We can’t give a hand to this. It will be a victory for Netanyahu.”

A Histadrut labor union official told the news site that the organization’s chair Arnon Bar-David remained opposed to a general strike, because “the government is pressuring him not to do it.”

According to the report, teachers are also contemplating whether to shutter schools on Thursday as part of the protests.

The government’s plan, as it stands, will allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight altogether, and put the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians.

Opponents argue it will drastically weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters call it a much-needed reform to rein in an over-activist court.

A number of polls have indicated the legislation is broadly unpopular with the public. However, a survey indicated Friday that Israelis are split on whether or not the country’s security apparatus should follow rulings by the High Court of Justice or government decisions in the event of a constitutional crisis.

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