Bereaved families protest; key protest leader briefly held

Mounted police, water cannons disperse protesters in Tel Aviv, Haifa; dozens arrested

‘Day of Paralysis’ rallies rage nationwide against judicial overhaul; Ayalon Highway blocked for hours; in lead-up to controversial Bnei Brak rally, president urges restraint

Police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the freeway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the freeway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Dozens of demonstrators were arrested Thursday as police used water cannons and mounted officers to disperse protesters in Tel Aviv and Haifa, amid rallies throughout the country on what was billed as a “national day of paralysis” against the government’s moves to radically weaken and politicize the judiciary.

Water cannons were deployed in two cities as police attempted to clear protesters who were blocking roads.

While the controversial crowd-control measure has been used previously during the protests against the judicial overhaul, it was the first time it was used in Haifa.

Mounted police and a water cannon were utilized to try to push protesters blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv back up the off-ramp.

After more than two hours, police managed to largely clear the demonstrators, but after five minutes they returned to block the southbound lanes. Police were seen dragging protesters off the road. The northbound lanes remained open.

In addition, dozens of people were detained for alleged public disturbances at a number of locations including in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ra’anana. A woman was arrested after she was filmed hitting Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter on the head with a flag. He was unhurt and continued walking to his car. It was not clear that the woman hit him intentionally.

A leader of the protest movement, Shikma Bressler, was detained and later released after demonstrating at a rally attended by hundreds of workers at the Rafael defense firm on Route 4 in the north of the country.

Protest leader against the government’s judicial overhaul agenda and Weizmann Institute physicist Shikma Bressler is arrested by police during protests on Route 4, March 23, 2023. (Screenshot)

Former prime minister Ehud Barak decried the detention as “dictatorship in action.”

It was not immediately clear why Bressler was arrested.

Police use horses, water cannons to disperse protesters against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 23, 2023 . (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Meanwhile, a man was arrested on suspicion of attacking an 80-year-old protester in Rishon Lezion.

While police have attempted to minimize clashes with protesters, they have come under intense pressure from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to more readily use force to clear roads and clamp down on the rallies.

Gatherings around the country all day and into the night were expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people in major cities, on highways and outside coalition members’ homes.

Protesters also planned to disrupt traffic on major roads around Ben Gurion Airport in anticipation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to London, the third straight Thursday in which they tried to disrupt the premier’s plans for a weekend visit to Europe.

Protesters held rallies throughout the morning and early afternoon at major intersections, highway interchanges, university campuses and many other locations.

A number of bereaved military families rallied outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

Gavriella Zimmerman, whose son Amir was killed in 2004, said that she felt she had no choice other than to protest.

“As a bereaved mother it’s hard to wave the flag, but I feel like I am on the edge of the abyss — one small push and we will fall in and won’t come back again,” she told the Walla news site.

“This is not what Amir died for, a ruined country,” she said.

Bereaved families protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Thursday morning, medical professionals set up “dialogue booths” on the border of Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan to hold conversations with local residents “in the spirit of Maimonides,” the 12th-century Jewish sage embraced by secular and religious Israelis alike.

Thursday’s main rally, scheduled for 7 p.m., was expected to depart from the Ayalon Mall in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan and head to Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox bastion and a location where the planned overhaul is thought to have near-unanimous support.

However, even among supporters of the protesters, some criticized the decision to rally there.

Protesters rally against the judicial overhaul bills in Givat Hayim on March 23, 2023 (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

In a statement, President Isaac Herzog emphasized the importance of the right to protest, but implored citizens to “show responsibility and avoid any action that may incite gratuitous hatred and deepen the serious rift we are in.”

The statement said the president met with several officials over the past day, including Bnei Brak’s mayor, law enforcement, elected officials, protest organizers and community and religious leaders, in order to “prevent violence and lower the flames as much as possible.”

In the lead-up to the Passover holiday season, the president emphasized: “It is important to take advantage of the opportunity for a respectful discourse that will lead to a deeper understanding and familiarity with the pain, fears, and worries of the other, and all the more to avoid harming the entire Israeli public, its beliefs and its ways of life.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a call to the Haredi community not to confront the anti-government protest in Bnei Brak.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu instructed Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs to talk with the heads of ultra-Orthodox parties, leaders and influencers, calling on the public not to go to areas where there’s friction and not to be dragged into provocations,” said a statement from Netanyahu’s office.

“The prime minister praised the call of Rabbi Edelstein and the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community who urged their followers to behave with tolerance and patience,” the statement said.

While protesters rallied outside the Jerusalem home of Shas leader Aryeh Deri on Thursday morning, a crowd of men and boys gathered to dance in response. Deri, a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the beneficiary of a Knesset bill that will allow him to return to his ministerial posts after the High Court of Justice ruled his position in the cabinet was unreasonable in the extreme due to a recent criminal conviction.

Haredi men and teens dance in front of a sign reading ‘We must resist against a halachic state’ as protesters rally outside the home Shas leader Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem, March 23, 2023 (Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox politicians are widely thought to support shackling the court in order to pass a law exempting members of the community from military service — and protect it from being struck down by the court. Last week, protesters from the army’s reserve corps held a smaller demonstration in Bnei Brak, opening an ersatz “draft office” in the center of the city.

Israelis have held nearly three months of mass demonstrations in opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

As it stands, the legislative package will — among other things — allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight, and put the selection of judges in the hands of coalition politicians.

Coalition lawmakers are seeking to have the latter part of the overhaul passed into law by the time the Knesset breaks for Passover early next month.

While supporters say the judicial overhaul will rebalance power away from an overly activist court, critics argue the moves will remove essential checks on executive and legislative power, putting democracy in peril and leaving the rights of many undefended.

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