Roads were blocked across the country Thursday morning as protesters kicked off a “day of resistance” against the government’s judicial overhaul plans.
The day is set to see marches, temporary workplace strikes, the blocking of main thoroughfares, disruption of train services, and rallies outside the homes of top government officials.
Roads were blocked around Ben Gurion Airport in an attempt to make it difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fly to Italy, where he is scheduled to hold a three-day official visit and meet with Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni.
Thursday’s action began with marches held by parents and children, starting at schools and then converging at central meeting points around the country.
Police said that a number of major roads and interchanges were blocked, particularly in the central region and Tel Aviv. Drivers were told to expect disruptions throughout the day and a number of companies — including the grocery giant Shufersal — said they would not be able to guarantee delivery.
A number of people were detained in Tel Aviv and Ra’anana for allegedly causing a public disturbance.
Tens of thousands marched in a number of rallies around Tel Aviv, with protesters prevented by police from blocking the Ayalon Highway, which in any case was closed at a number of junctions.
Rallies were held outside the homes of a number of government lawmakers, include the Tel Aviv residence of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana.
Protesters blocked marine traffic at the Haifa port, saying that “in a dictatorship, the sea is closed.”
“For decades we have been sailing day and night and guarding the main lifeline of the State of Israel,” the Brothers in Arms protest group said.
“We reserve soldiers, in the missile ships and the routine security ships, the submarine crews, and the naval commandos for generations, are working even now to keep the State of Israel’s maritime borders and its shipping lanes open,” the group said.
“We chose to disrupt operations at Haifa port to call in a clear voice to the Israeli government to stop the uncontrolled voyage that will cause the State of Israel to run aground,” the group added.
A number of former senior naval officers were involved in the protest.
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In Jerusalem, activists placed sandbags and barbed wire at the entrance to the offices of the Kohelet Forum, a conservative think tank deeply involved in the government’s controversial push to overhaul the judiciary.
Police said six individuals were detained for questioning in connection with the incident, which was carried out by a group connected to military reservists who oppose the overhaul.
The protest events were laid out in detail on a dedicated website and map (Hebrew), with organizers promising “many surprises,” indicating there were more planned actions that had not been announced publicly.
“It is a civic duty to resist the dictatorship and this is the only way to return Israel to the path of democracy. This is a great battle for the independence of Israeli citizens against the tyranny that will destroy what we have built here for over 70 years. We call on the entire public to participate in protests,” the organizers said in a statement.
With protest heads specifically calling for demonstrators to block roads around Ben Gurion Airport when Netanyahu and his wife are scheduled to depart on their flight to Italy, some media reports indicated he was looking at taking a helicopter to the airport to avoid the expected disruptions.
The trip previously faced setbacks when national carrier El Al was unable to find a crew to man the prime minister’s flight — an issue blamed on crew shortages but that may have also been affected by growing public anger at the government.
A major rally in Tel Aviv was to set off from the city’s Habima Square. In addition, protests by workers from the tech sector were planned at 15 locations around the country.
Police said they were preparing for the demonstrations, with 3,000 cops set to be deployed across the country.
Officials warned that drivers who intentionally cause traffic issues would face fines of NIS 500 ($140) and any who abandon their cars on the roads could have them impounded.
Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said he would instruct police to ensure freedom of expression, “but Ben Gurion Airport and main transport arteries are out of bounds.”
“We won’t allow anarchy,” he added. Ben Gvir has instructed police to use a heavy hand against anti-judicial overhaul protesters who block roads, whom he and other members of the government and their allies have painted as “terrorists” and “anarchists.”
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said police would ensure the right to protest, but there would be “zero patience for rioting, damage of property, damage to state symbols and disruptions to routine.”
“We will not allow blocking of roads that have not been coordinated and okayed in advance. Everyone is requested to follow the law and respect the work of officers and policemen on the ground,” he said.
Central District Police Chief Avi Bitton warned Wednesday evening that blocking roads to the airport could “end in disaster,” fearing law enforcers may be prevented by the protesters from responding to potential security incidents at the airfield.
The Israel Airports Authority called on travelers flying out of the country to arrive early at Ben Gurion Airport for their flights on Thursday, in anticipation of the disruptions. The IAA said those who can should arrive by train, adding passengers should be in touch with the airlines they’re flying with.
The planned protests have already appeared to impact the schedule of United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Israel. Austin was initially slated to arrive in Israel on Wednesday. Instead, he will arrive Thursday and meet with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters, adjacent to the airport, before departing.
In addition, a planned ceremony in which President Isaac Herzog was to receive the credentials of a number of new ambassadors was canceled. The event had been set to take place at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, the site of a number of protests.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands of women across the country formed a human chain to mark International Women’s Day and the impact the judicial overhaul could have on women’s rights. Wearing red T-shirts, the women gathered at dozens of meeting points, holding signs with slogans such as “Harming women’s rights — not on our watch.”
Critics 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.
Last week, protesters held a “day of disruption” around the country with a flagship rally in Tel Aviv that blocked a key junction in the city. Police used horse-mounted cops, water cannons, and stun grenades to disperse them. The force came under criticism for the rough treatment of the protesters, including an officer who hurled a stun grenade into a crowd of people. An investigation has been opened into the officer’s actions.
Following is a schedule of the main planned protest activities Thursday, as announced by the organizers:
- 7 a.m.: Protest convoys of agricultural vehicles leaving from agricultural communities around the country.
- 8 a.m.: Demonstrations by parents and students outside dozens of schools across the country.
- 8 a.m.: The “Israel will not be a dictatorship march” from the Namir-Yehuda Maccabi Junction in Tel Aviv to Milano Square for a signing of the Declaration of Independence.
- 9:15 a.m.: A convoy of disabled IDF veterans will set off from various locations to Ben Gurion Airport Terminal 1.
- 10:30 a.m.: Protesters to arrive with their vehicles and drive slowly around Ben Gurion Airport and disrupt traffic.
- 11 a.m.: Protests by tech employees across the country.
- 11 a.m.: A march leaving from Tel Aviv’s Habima Square toward Kaplan Street.
- 4:30 p.m.: A rally outside the home of Economy Minister Nir Barkat in Jerusalem.
- 5 p.m.: A “day of rage” event at Karkur Junction in the north.
- 6 p.m.: A rally outside the home of Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the central city of Modiin.