ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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At least 15 arrested as protests turn fiery after PM doubles down on overhaul

Ayalon Freeway reopens in Tel Aviv after police on horseback push out activists, who hold demonstrations throughout country, slam ‘reasonableness’ bill

  • Israelis block the Ayalon Highway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
    Israelis block the Ayalon Highway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
  • Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside of the Old City walls in Jerusalem, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)
    Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside of the Old City walls in Jerusalem, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)
  • Ra'anana junction is blocked by protesters, July 20, 2023. (Tiffany Viner)
    Ra'anana junction is blocked by protesters, July 20, 2023. (Tiffany Viner)
  • Police use a water cannon on Israelis at the Ayalon Highway protesting against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Thursday, July 2), 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
    Police use a water cannon on Israelis at the Ayalon Highway protesting against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Thursday, July 2), 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
  • A mounted police officer holds back Israelis protesting against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
    A mounted police officer holds back Israelis protesting against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
  • Israelis block the Ayalon Highway to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Friday, July 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
    Israelis block the Ayalon Highway to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Friday, July 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
  • A bonfire burns as Israelis block the Ayalon Highway to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
    A bonfire burns as Israelis block the Ayalon Highway to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
  • Bonfires burn as Israelis occupy the Ayalon Highway to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    Bonfires burn as Israelis occupy the Ayalon Highway to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Anti-overhaul protesters gathered in Tel Aviv and elsewhere to demonstrate against the Netanyahu government’s push to revamp Israel’s independent judiciary on Thursday night, as the looming passage of a bill obliterating a key check on government power has ratcheted up passions.

At least 15 protesters were arrested in Tel Aviv and Ra’anana on suspicion of violating public order and attacking officers, police said.

Northbound lanes of the Ayalon Freeway only began opening after midnight, though traffic had earlier resumed flowing in the other direction; protesters who initially gathered at Habima Square had blocked the major Tel Aviv artery several different times over the evening. Activists set fires, banged drums and attempted to skirt police efforts to push them off the roadway.

The scene was more-or-less repeated throughout the day and into the night, as activists opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul blocked intersections and held demonstrations at locations around the country. In Rana’ana, a well-to-do bedroom community north of Tel Aviv, protesters blocked a key junction at Highway 4 for several hours.

In Tel Aviv, police deployed mounted officers and a water cannon to push protesters off the road and prevent further traffic disruptions.

Police said seven protesters were taken in for public disorder conduct, including one for attacking officers.

In Ra’anana, police said they arrested eight people on suspicion of violating public order.

Police said the eight suspects did not respond to instructions to clear the road and were subsequently detained for questioning. Traffic flow was restored, police said.

In both locations, activists rallied outside police stations demanding the release of their comrades, the Brothers and Sisters in Arms protest group said.

Thursday’s demonstrations were supercharged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s televised speech to the nation, in which he defended his hardline coalition’s unilateral moves to overhaul the judiciary and denied that the legislative push was a threat to democracy.

Israelis protest the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv, on July 20, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

The premier also claimed that efforts were still being made to reach broad agreement on the “reasonableness” bill, even as lawmakers in his coalition sped the bill toward passage early next week.

The contentious legislation seeks to prevent the court from using the test of “reasonableness” in evaluating decisions made by the government or elected officials. Once passed, the proposal may pave the way for the return to the cabinet of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, whose appointment as interior minister was struck down by the High Court as “beyond reasonable” due to tax offenses.

Protest organizers called Netanyahu’s address “a speech full of lies and incitement,” and argued that the prime minister “rather than keeping the country intact, is choosing dictatorship.”

“This is the citizens’ time to go out and resist,” they said, as protests which began before the address gathered momentum at numerous places nationwide, including in Jerusalem.

The massive wave of protests has included rallying outside coalition ministers’ homes, blocking highways, disrupting airport operations and other forms of civil disobedience. Ministers have bristled at what they view as overly soft handling of demonstrators who harass and heckle them wherever they go, stage protests at their homes, and block key roads for hours at a time.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, outside Jerusalem’s Old City, Thursday, July 20, 2023. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

In Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem, activists heckled National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who has pressed police to crack down on protests more aggressively.

Thursday’s chaos echoed protests that took place two days earlier, as demonstrators held a “day of resistance,” blocking roads and trains and picketing various officials.

The last several days have also seen a wave of Israel Defense Forces reservists publicly commit to freezing their volunteer service in order to protest the government push, ratcheting up pressure on the government.

Anti-overhaul protesters who set off from Tel Aviv early Wednesday are on a days-long march to Jerusalem that 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 prepares to pass the “reasonableness” bill before the Knesset breaks for the month of August.

The group, which marched through the Lehi forest in a vast column that reached 10,000 people at its peak, reached Kibbutz Nahshon, about halfway to the capital, as evening fell. Tents awaited those who planned to bunk down before resuming the march early the next morning.

They were met with cheers from organizers who set up tables of food and staged a “festival of democracy” in a large field in the center of the kibbutz.

The march received very little opposition during the day’s procession, with the exception of a few disgruntled drivers who passed by the demonstration on the other side of Highway 3.

Anti-overhaul demonstrators march toward Kibbutz Nahshon on Highway 3 on July 20, 2023, blocking one side of the road. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Protests have intensified in recent weeks after the government resumed its headlong push to clamp down on judicial powers, moves it says are necessary to correct years of court overreach. Critics argue the bills will drastically weaken the judiciary and its ability to act as a check on government power, with Israel’s status as a liberal democracy at stake.

President Isaac Herzog, his US counterpart Joe Biden, and others have urged Netanyahu to ease off the pedal, but the premier is also facing heavy pressure from coalition allies eager to pursue their right-wing and ultra-Orthodox political agenda without court interference.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s Likud party rejected an offer from Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition National Unity party, to re-enter talks, on the condition that Netanyahu commit to only reforming the judiciary by consensus. Hours later, the Knesset Constitution Committee finished clearing out over 27,000 opposition objections to the “reasonableness bill,” sending it to the Knesset for final passage sometime next week.

In his speech on Thursday, Netanyahu said that the actual threat to Israel’s democracy was not his government’s efforts to remove checks and balances on the Knesset and bring most judicial appointments under political control, but refusals to show up for reserve military duty, as many have threatened if the “reasonableness” bill passes.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who also rejected Gantz’s offer Wednesday, responded to Netanyahu’s speech by accusing the premier of “tearing apart the country instead of uniting it”

He said the opposition has called on Netanyahu repeatedly “to stop the legislation, return to the President’s Residence and reach broad agreements — I repeat this call.”

“Those responsible for what is happening today in the economy, for the rift in our social fabric and especially for the damage to security, [and] who is causing the army to fall apart from within, is the most extremist government in the country’s history,” said Lapid. “The responsibility is on them.”

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