Weekly protests against the government’s intention to overhaul the justice system enjoyed slightly increased turnout Saturday evening over last week, with the rallies boosted by renewed anger at police over a forceful crackdown on a Friday night protest near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea, and at key overhaul architect Simcha Rothman for snatching a megaphone from a protester following him during a visit to the United States.
Various Hebrew media outlets estimated that between 95,000 and 140,000 people attended the main rally on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, alongside thousands of others in some 150 locations around the country, kicking off the 22nd week of regular protests against the now-paused government plan. Last week’s Tel Aviv rally drew an estimated 80,000 people.
Many of the demonstrations, including in Tel Aviv, began with a silent commemoration for three Israeli soldiers killed earlier in the day in a shooting and in clashes on the border with an Egyptian policeman, who was later shot dead. Artistic performances in Tel Aviv were canceled in light of that incident, which was dominating news headlines Saturday evening.
During the main rally at Kaplan, protesters held a large sign saying “The US is boycotting Bibi and Iran is rushing for a [nuclear] bomb,” referring to the fact that Washington has avoided an official invite to the premier for six months, citing his judicial shakeup push.
After the scheduled speeches were over, hundreds headed to the Ayalon Highway and briefly blocked the city’s main thoroughfare in both directions, with some lighting torches on the road.
While police quickly cleared and reopened the northbound leg of the highway, the southbound leg remained blocked for more than an hour.
איילון דרום pic.twitter.com/A1G2wb1JrC
— מהארישי פון אריאב (@HotSteamIron) June 3, 2023
The main rally was preceded by a march from Habima Square to Kaplan, with several demonstrators carrying flaming torches.
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) June 3, 2023
In a separate march from Dizengoff Center to Kaplan by the “anti-occupation bloc” of protesters, Jews and Arab protesters waved Palestinian flags and put the focus on Israel’s decades-old military rule over the West Bank, claiming the issue should be an integral part of the anti-overhaul protests.
“The final goal of the regime coup is annexing the occupied territories,” said Rula Daood, co-director of Jewish-Arab protest group Standing Together. “It is impossible to separate the struggles and fight for democracy in Israel without fighting for ending the military rule over the millions of Palestinians who live in the territories, which has been ongoing for 56 years.”
Thousands protested in Haifa, led by a youth group in an attempt to involve the younger generation in the weekly demonstrations. Thousands more rallied near the official residence of President Isaac Herzog’s residence in Jerusalem, as well as in many more locations.
Several rocks were allegedly hurled at a rally in Hod Hasharon, with protester Uzi Dror telling the Haaretz news site that he was mildly hit in the back and a nearby woman was hit in the leg. Dror added that he believed the thrower didn’t target him personally, and said police forces were searching for the perpetrators.
Dozens even rallied at the same time in New York, outside a conference attended by Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli.
On Friday, 17 people were arrested and several were wounded in the Caesarea demonstration, which police branded “illegal,” and MK Simcha Rothman was filmed ripping away a megaphone from a protester during his visit to New York.
“The leadership of the national protests strongly condemns the appalling acts of violence witnessed in Caesarea and New York City last night, affirming that institutionalized violence is a defining feature of dictatorships,” organizers said in a statement ahead of the Saturday evening protests. “The scenes we witnessed in Caesarea last night are a complete travesty of justice orchestrated by a dictatorial regime attempting to silence dissent through severe brutality.”
The prominent protest group Brothers in Arms said Moshe Radman, a leader in the protest movement against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plans, was among those arrested on Friday. The organization circulated a short video that appeared to show officers attacking protesters and a photo of bloody handprints on a white police car it said came from the injuries of those arrested.
— אלימות ישראל (@Alimut_Israel) June 2, 2023
Speaking at a rally in Ramat Hasharon, opposition leader Yair Lapid denounced the arrests, saying: “We won’t accept violence against Israeli patriots who go out to protest. We can’t accept the sight of blood smeared on police vehicles. The police violence against demonstrators yesterday in Caesarea and Hadera is severe and dangerous. It needs to be probed. It cannot repeat.”
“We are waving the flag against an extremist government,” Lapid added. “This flag belongs to all those who believe in a state that’s Jewish and democratic, national and liberal.”
Addressing thousands in Karkur in the north, Uri Baran, the father of young Caesarea protester Gidi Baran who was arrested Friday night and later hospitalized due to injuries, told the crowd: “I’m here to convey a simple message on behalf of Gidi, me and everyone who believes in the values of liberty, justice and equality: We’re not afraid. We will keep physically blocking the attempts of the destructive government to commit a regime coup.”
Several hundred protesters rallied again near Netanyahu’s Caesarea home on Saturday evening, chanting “The police officers are a disgrace” and “We won’t give up,” according to Hebrew media. A large number of officers were present, including horse-mounted officers, but cops didn’t intervene when the protesters briefly blocked the road.
In a statement Saturday evening, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir gave his backing to the officers who had arrested the demonstrators, telling Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai that there should be “zero tolerance toward assaults on police officers and anarchy.”
Protest organizers slammed the far-right politician in response, calling him “the minister of violence and incitement” and saying that “a terror convict is backing police violence.” They added: “We aren’t afraid of you, we will continue protesting anywhere against the partners to the attempted coup.”
During the Caesarea rally, protest leader Shikma Bressler also denounced the New York incident, saying: “Rothman’s violence toward a protester in New York shows that the leadership has lost its ability to rule with legitimate means, and is therefore employing force exactly like dictatorial regimes.”
Anti-government demonstrators in the US filed a harassment complaint against Religious Zionism MK Rothman after he appeared to lose his cool and forcefully grabbed a megaphone away from one of the protesters while visiting New York. Further video showed protesters continuing to scuffle with Rothman and his security as they tried to get the megaphone back. At least 2 people were pushed to the floor.
The lawmakers have been repeatedly targeted by anti-overhaul protesters in the city, who have largely focused on Rothman, the chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and a key architect of the overhaul.
Below is a video of Mr. Simcha Rothman, in which Mr. Rothman appears to be committing an assault against another person.
Mr. Rothman is staying in NYC this weekend, and can be called for questioning.@rothmar @TheBlackFlags1 pic.twitter.com/30TwGgJl71
— Amos Pickel (@amospickel) June 3, 2023
The continued demonstrations come a week after Netanyahu said the contentious plan to revamp the judiciary would now return to the legislative agenda after the passage of the state budget.
The judicial overhaul legislation has been frozen since late March, when Netanyahu said he would halt the plans to allow for talks with the opposition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, aimed at finding a broadly accepted compromise for judicial reform.
But months of talks have not produced a breakthrough, and pressure has increased within the coalition to resume the legislative push.
Netanyahu said last week, following the passage of the state budget, that “of course” the overhaul was now back on the government’s agenda. Later that day, however, he added: “We will of course continue with our efforts to arrive at a broad consensus agreement, to the extent possible, on the issue of judicial reform.”
Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.
The centerpiece of the overhaul is legislation that would give governing coalitions complete control over the overwhelming majority of judicial appointments, by giving the coalition an in-built majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.
The bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final, back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice. However, such action is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public unrest, the likes of which was last seen before the legislation was frozen.