‘First to be harmed’: Arab Israeli leaders sign petition against judicial overhaul

Call signed by 200 urges Arab community to join mass protests: ‘We will be the first and main victims of this coup. It is our duty to be at the heart of campaign to repel it’

Illustrative: Arab Israelis protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings in their communities, in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, October 22, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)
Illustrative: Arab Israelis protest against violence, organized crime and recent killings in their communities, in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, October 22, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Some 200 leading Arab Israelis on Saturday signed a petition against the government’s planned judicial overhaul and urged their community to join in mass protests against the plan.

The Arab leaders, including mayors, former MKs and leading professionals, artists and professors, warned in the petition that if legal checks and balances are undermined, the minority community would likely be the first to be harmed.

“A regime change is taking place that will affect the lives of all citizens, both on a personal and general level — and the Arab public will be its first victim,” the petition read.

“The government intends to harm the judicial system, and although the courts have previously failed to safeguard our national and civil rights, their presence protected us from further harm from the government,” it said.

The petition warned that the overhaul would pave the way for efforts to reduce Arab representation in public spheres “particularly in the Knesset.”

Hadash-Ta’al MKs Ayman Odeh (l) and Ahmad Tibi during a vote in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It also raised concerns that the rights of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the West Bank would be further eroded without the recourse to protection from the courts.

“Therefore, we appeal to our people, and to the institutions that represent us, to raise their voices, participate in protest activities, and work to organize local activities. We will be the first and main victims of this regime coup. It is our duty to be at the heart of the campaign to repel the attack,” they said.

Arab Israelis have until now largely been on the sideline of protests against the initiative.

On Monday, Islamist Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas did not take part in a joint press conference by opposition leaders against the overhaul, although he expressed his opposition to the government’s judicial reform plan.

“We are all united against the government’s intentions and actions to collapse the rule of law and justice, and to control the judicial system,” Abbas said in a statement distributed by Ra’am.

The majority Arab Hadash Ta’al party was not invited to the press conference.

In previous protests organizers have also called for participants not to fly the Palestinian flag, fearing it could polarize participants and detract from the broad support for the demonstrations among Jewish Israelis.

Mass protests against government efforts to curtail the country’s judiciary were set to renew Saturday evening for the seventh weekend straight, with rallies in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and numerous other cities.

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 11, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The central event was to be held, as usual, on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street at 7 p.m., leading to multiple road closures in the area. In Jerusalem, protesters will once again gather outside the President’s Residence.

Monday is expected to see the first reading in the Knesset of legislation that would give the coalition control over the selection of judges, as well as of a bill to render Basic Laws immune to judicial oversight. Discussion will also be continuing on other parts of the overhaul package in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Organizers of the protests have declared Monday as a “national day of struggle,” which will include a large rally outside the Knesset, marches in various cities, and the closure of some businesses.

Legal authorities, finance and business leaders, and security officials have also issued a steady stream of dire warnings against the government’s plans, saying it will undermine the country’s democracy, economy and security.

This past Monday saw tens of thousands rally outside the Knesset against the legislation’s advance, with assessments of some 100,000 people attending.

Israelis wearing costumes from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ participate in a protest rally against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The legal overhaul, advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a bare majority of just 61 MKs.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism, saying the changes will strengthen democracy by returning power to the people over a judiciary they say is elitist and disconnected.

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