Hundreds of thousands of Israelis participated in nationwide demonstrations held for the 11th straight Saturday evening against the government’s plans to shackle the judiciary, which were marked by numerous acts of violence against protesters.
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 law,” 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 of 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 company Crowd Solution cited by Channel 13 news.
Approximately 10,000 protesters rallied outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
— גלצ (@GLZRadio) March 18, 2023
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.
“Our friends are surprised and wonder how a country that was an object of envy and admiration, is destroying the Zionist enterprise by hand in an extreme way from within, and all this in less than three months,” he said.
הנגיד לשעבר יעקב פרנקל איתנו בהפגנה. pic.twitter.com/JVroKk3i7S
— Iris Leal (@LealIris_) February 25, 2023
Speaking at a rally in the southern coastal city of Ashdod, opposition leader Yair 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 this [demonstrations] to come to Ashdod, to Beersheba, to the hills of Gush Etzion, to Rehovot and Jerusalem,” he said.
“The government has work to do. It is supposed to provide people security, it’s not doing that. It’s supposed to manage the economy, it isn’t doing that. It’s supposed to unite the nation, they are tearing the nation apart,” he added.
Dan Halutz, a former IDF chief of staff, told protesters in Haifa that ultra-Orthodox Israelis “should begin to learn core studies because F-16 fighter jets are only in English,” in a dig at the community’s broad refusal to serve in the military and the rejection of teaching core subjects at some Haredi schools.
The ex-military chief 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.”
“And just like we won in the Independence War, you will win in the second war of liberation,” he said.
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) March 18, 2023
A rise in violent incidents was recorded against demonstrators 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, police added.
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 assault and threatening the demonstrators.
None of the protesters were hurt in the incident.
איילון, תמונת מצב 21:30
אחרי שהמשטרה חסמה חלק מהפרצות ההמפגינים קופצים מחניון לתוך הכביש. נקודה חדשה של פריצה לאיילון pic.twitter.com/4PPtm3LoOO
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) March 18, 2023
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.
Several right-wing activists, some of them masked, were seen physically confronting protesters in Tel Aviv.
Footage published by a Haaretz reporter showed police officers pushing one of the masked men away from the crowd.
Right-wing counter-protesters in the city, supporting the government’s proposed changes, held up signs reading “leftists are traitors.”
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.
— Gilead Sher (@GileadSher) March 18, 2023
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.
Hundreds of demonstrators also rallied for the first time in the northern city of Or Akiva, a mostly right-wing community.
Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party hurled eggs at the demonstrators. Police said officers detained three people at the scene for throwing eggs.
The Ynet news site reported they shouted at the protesters, “anarchists, only Bibi,” using Netanyahu’s nickname.
התחלנו. ההפגנה הראשונה בחברה הבדואית בנגב. צומת חורה pic.twitter.com/d5NkzzItTW
— ilana curiel (@ilanacuriel) March 18, 2023
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.”
Protest organizers responded to the violence against demonstrators, claiming it was a direct result of “incitement from the Netanyahu home.”
“When the son of the prime minister calls demonstrators Nazis, this is what happens. The police need to arrest him this evening,” organizers said, referring to remarks by Yair Netanyahu comparing protesters to the Nazi Sturmabteilung paramilitary, or SA.
Saturday evening’s protests followed fiery protests 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.
The protesters rallied as the government was expected to advance several pieces of controversial legislation in the coming week, including a bill to allow Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
At mass protests last Thursday, demonstrators marched and disrupted traffic across the country. Police detained 21 people in several incidents, including two motorists accused of pepper-spraying demonstrators who blocked the road.
According to the Ynet news, around 100 different protest groups participated in a meeting to decide on the next steps for escalating the protests next 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.
This weekend’s protest came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other ministers slapped down President Isaac Herzog’s proposal for an alternative judicial reform.
Opposition leaders, however, have rallied behind the president’s plan, calling the proposal workable but not ideal.
The overhaul plans have drawn intense public criticism and fierce opposition across Israel, sparking mass protests and dire warnings from economists, legal professionals, academics and security officials. Protesters have been pouring into the streets since January in multiple days of “disruption” and “resistance.”
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.