Hoping to head off ‘reasonableness’ bill, protesters begin 4-day march to Jerusalem

Hundreds of activists, including protest leaders, spend night at Ariel Sharon Park, urge more to join as group makes way to capital in time for vote on controversial legislation

Demonstrators march with Israeli flags along a highway near Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul on July 18, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Demonstrators march with Israeli flags along a highway near Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul on July 18, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Hundreds of anti-government protesters were making their way on foot from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem early Wednesday as they sought to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers ahead of an expected vote on legislation that will void a central element of court oversight on the government.

Activists, including some leaders of the largely grassroots protest movement, announced the march late Tuesday as police cleared out tens of thousands of demonstrators who had rallied in Tel Aviv and elsewhere against the government’s plans at the end of a day of widespread demonstrations.

Marching with flags and accompanied by a cacophony of megaphones and vuvuzelas, the crowd made its way east on Route 1, the main highway linking the cities, starting shortly after midnight. They spent the night at a camping site in Ariel Sharon Park, a landfill and nature center some seven kilometers (4 miles) from the main protest site at Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, and planned to resume marching at 6 a.m.

They hope to reach Jerusalem, some 65 kilometers (40 miles) from Tel Aviv, by Friday afternoon, to be there for a possible Sunday vote in the Knesset on the so-called “reasonableness” bill.

“The goal is to give backing to any who need to make tough decisions, to give them backing to make the right choice,” said protest leader Shikma Bressler, who organized the four-day march, according to the Ynet news site.

The bill, which was being advanced through committee in a marathon all-night session early Wednesday, will bar courts from using the legal concept of reasonableness to void government and ministerial decisions, such as a cabinet appointment for Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who was disqualified after he seemingly told courts he would leave politics as part of a plea bargain on tax offenses.

The legislation’s path to the Knesset was being slowed by tens of thousands of opposition objections, which were being voted down at breakneck speed by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in an all-night session early Wednesday.

Bressler said the crowd of marchers was larger than she had predicted when she announced the plan a day earlier, and invited more to join in the coming days. Those who have trouble walking can join by car, she said.

The march came at the tail end of a day that saw tens of thousands take to the streets throughout the country for a weekly “day of resistance” against the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary. Protesters managed to block the Ayalon Freeway running through Tel Aviv for some two hours until police used water cannons and mounted officers to clear the road, reopening it around midnight.

Demonstrators stand in water cannon spray fired by riot police during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Police said 45 people were arrested throughout the day.

More protests were planned for Wednesday, including a two-hour “warning strike” called by the Israel Medical Association, which represents healthcare professionals.

On Tuesday evening, an unnamed official from the IMA told Channel 12 news medical workers could strike again next week, this time in an open-ended format.

The government says its plan to remake the judiciary is needed to correct for years of court overreach, but critics say the moves, which will restrict court oversight on the government and concentrate power in the executive, will put Israel’s democratic character in danger.

Protests against the planned legislation have raged across the country for months, though lawmakers from the ruling coalition have largely dismissed them as “anarchists” and “law-breakers.” The protests have been accompanied by mass refusals to volunteer for duty by reserves troops, threats from business leaders to decamp for more stable shores, warnings of weakened foreign investment and concerns over the effect of the societal split.

In Washington on Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog told his US counterpart Joe Biden that the protests were proof of Israel’s thriving democracy, promising to redouble efforts to broker a compromise deal.

Herzog and Biden “noted the strength of the US-Israel relationship, based on the bedrock of shared democratic values and discussed the need for a consensus-based approach to the judicial reform package,” according to the White House readout.

There is a long tradition of protest groups from settlers to asylum-seekers using marches to Jerusalem to draw attention to causes or issues, though the long trek to the city can also limit the number of participants.

Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, near the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Jewish people have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for thousands of years. We understand the country has been knocked off-balance, so we are trying to get it back to center,” Moshe Radman, a protest leader and high-tech entrepreneur, told Ynet.

“Our goal is for hundreds of thousands of citizens to go to Jerusalem to create a scene unprecedented in history. … I hope this move wakes up the destructive government from its tantrum.”

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