Hundreds of thousands join nationwide protests, with key overhaul law about to pass
200,000 rally in Tel Aviv ahead of planned ‘week of paralysis,’ with coalition set to pass law to take control of judicial appointments; 44 held, water cannon used to clear highway
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took part in nationwide rallies Saturday evening for the 12th straight week of mass protests against the government’s radical plans to overhaul the judicial system, ahead of the expected passage next week of a core part of the shakeup.
As the protests were held, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant gave a televised address in which he called for the coalition to halt the legislative push until after Passover and several holidays next month to allow for talks on judicial reform, while stressing his support for making changes to the judiciary and calling for the protests to immediately stop. Coalition sources said the legislation would go ahead as planned.
The main demonstration was held in Tel Aviv, where some 200,000 were estimated to attend the main rally held on the coastal city’s Kaplan Street.
Tens of thousands also attended protests in numerous other locations throughout the country, including major cities like Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba.
Protest organizers claimed that in total, over 630,000 people attended the rallies. The figure could not be independently verified.
Speaking at the main rally in Tel Aviv, historian Yuval Noah Harari said civil servants and military forces must obey the courts and not the government, should Israel end up in a constitutional crisis.
Addressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Harari said: “We know you are responsible for all that is happening… You are not an emissary. You are definitely not an angel. After 2,000 years, we still remember pharaoh. And we will remember you. There’ll be no streets, squares or airports named after you. But we will tell the story of the man who tried to enslave us and failed.”
“You are surrounded by people with no backbone. But we have backbones… We will not be slaves. Next year we will be free people,” he added, in a reference to the upcoming Passover holiday.
Speaking at the same rally, Shikma Bressler, a world-renowned physicist and protest leader who was arrested while demonstrating earlier this week, said the government’s plan to take control of the committee to choose judges “is the first domino on the path to dictatorship.”
Sophie Ben-Dor, daughter of legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen, said she had never recovered from the loss of her father, but was comforted by her knowledge that he gave his life for the sake of a moral, democratic state. Appealing directly to Netanyahu to abandon the overhaul legislation, she said: “You have lost your way. You have lost the trust of masses of the people.,” she said. “You want unlimited power for your own narrow interests. We want modest, transparent leadership. Fair leadership that serves the entire people.” She said the prime minister was “destroying Israel. We won’t let you do it. We will all fight for clean leadership and for Israeli democracy.”
As the speakers addressed the rally, news came through of Gallant’s call to halt the legislation. Bressler announced it and the vast crowd roared and cheered. Bressler cautioned against any premature celebration, however. “We are not confused. We are not asleep on duty,” she said. “We demand that the entire legislative package be scrapped.”
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Later protesters in swelling numbers ran onto the Ayalon Highway, blocking traffic for several hours. Police used water cannons to disperse the protesters, 32 of whom were detained as officers attempted to clear them from the road.
On Route 65 in northern Israel, police said protesters were detained for disorderly conduct, including hurling flares, as hundreds blocked the Karkur Junction. A legal aid group said nine were arrested in that demonstration
In Or Akiva, near Hadera, several thousand anti-overhaul protesters and a smaller number of the legislation’s supporters faced off against each other, in a heated encounter that ended in three arrests for alleged violence.
The event on Khana Asayag Square in Or Akiva, where Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party won a whopping 47% of the votes last election, ended without injury or damage, police said.
Three of the detainees had shoved protesters as they were leaving the square, police added. Haim Barda, one of the pro-overhaul rally’s organizers, denied violence by any of the demonstrators on his side.
Three were arrested in Jerusalem, putting the total number of arrests across the country at 44.
The arrests follow clashes on the square at a face-off last week, which featured intimidation and assaults, allegedly by pro-overhaul demonstrators.
Dwarfed by the overhaul supporters last week, the anti-overhaul demonstrators on Saturday returned with reinforcements that seemed to give them a narrow numerical advantage, but the opposing camp came prepared with powerful speakers and drum sets that drowned out much of the noise.
Protesters from both sides vowed to return next week.
Ahead of the main rallies, over 1,000 demonstrators, led by a group representing reservist soldiers, protested outside Gallant’s home in Moshav Amikam in northern Israel.
“Gallant, who is silent out of fear, who realizes that he is responsible for the disintegration of the people’s army, who knows that the IDF soldiers will be charged in The Hague, who lends a hand to the dictatorship,” the Brothers in Arms protest group said.
Increasingly, reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charge the country will become under the government’s judicial overhaul plan. The warnings have sparked deep fears in the security establishment for the country’s future.
Saturday’s demonstrations came ahead of a nationwide “week of paralysis” by protesters that will begin Sunday, after Netanyahu announced that the government would pass a core tenet of the legislation — giving the coalition near-complete control over judicial appointments — in the coming days.
Demonstrations have been holding weekly rallies since the government announced its plans to severely curtain the judiciary in early January.
“We’re going into the most fateful week in the history of Israel,” protest leaders said in a statement. “This destructive government is tearing the nation apart and dismantling the military and the economy.”
The vow to intensify the protests next week came a day after Netanyahu declared that his government will continue to charge ahead with the plan “responsibly,” while stressing that the bill to put key Supreme Court appointments directly in coalition control would be enacted as planned. Netanyahu insisted that “we don’t want a controlled court, we want a balanced court.”
The government has also moved ahead with other legislation that has incensed its opponents, including passing a law on Thursday to shield Netanyahu from a court order to recuse himself.
After that law passed, Netanyahu announced he would ignore a conflict of interest deal that had allowed him to govern during his ongoing corruption trial, and would henceforth directly involve himself in the effort to overhaul the judiciary.
In response, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara informed Netanyahu on Friday that he has violated the conflict of interest agreement and any further involvement in the coalition’s judicial overhaul would be “illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest.”
Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges. There have been weekly mass protests for nearly three months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders and more.
Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.