Overhaul critics seek show of force in afternoon protest at Ben Gurion Airport

Thousands expected to take part in demonstrations at terminals and convoys on roads to airfield, as police try to limit impact on travel hub

Protesters block the entrance roads at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
File: Protesters block the entrance roads at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Protesters against the government’s effort to overhaul the justice system were hoping for a major show of force Monday at a planned large-scale demonstration at Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s central travel hub.

Organizers were planning to rally outside the airport’s Terminal 3 at 5:30 p.m., with throngs of demonstrators expected to arrive by car and train. Police, meanwhile, said the rally would only be allowed outside the smaller Terminal 1 and would be limited to 5,000 participants, an instruction protest leaders rejected and indicated they may ignore.

Beyond the protests at the terminals, many people were expected to gum up the routes to the airport by driving around the area in convoys, as police warned of fines and driver violation points for those who intentionally clog roads.

As negotiations between the coalition and opposition on consensus reform have collapsed, the fight over the judicial overhaul has begun to heat up once more.

Organizers said that the airport had been chosen as a venue for the protest as it “symbolizes that Israel is a flourishing liberal and democratic nation.”

With schools finished for the year, the airport was expected to see increased traffic as families head out for summer vacations. Protest organizers said they did not wish to disrupt the plans of travelers, warning them to avoid arriving at the airfield by car, and instead to take the train.

People protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 15, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Police chief Kobi Shabtai warned Sunday that “blocking access routes around the airport and inside it and in areas with strategic or security facilities could cause a disaster in an emergency.”

He also said the right to protest was “a central pillar of a democratic state” but added that cops would show “zero tolerance” to protesters who harm state symbols or infrastructure at the event.

Israel’s aviation authority issued a NOTAM, or “notice to airmen,” warning airline pilots of potential disruptions during protests Monday. The notice warned pilots of “possible delays to flights due to ground interruptions within Ben Gurion Airport,”

People protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 15, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Police have repeatedly cited the safe early Sunday morning landing of United Airlines flight UA91, which turned back after pilots noticed cracks in a cockpit window, as justification for limiting protests planned for the airport Monday, saying routes need to be kept open for emergency vehicles.

But an association representing pilots from Israel’s major airlines disputed this.

“Police’s attempt to claim the protest at the airport tomorrow will harm safety… is exaggerated to the utmost,” the pilots’ group said. “There are endless quick access routes for emergency vehicles within the airport, and the airport emergency system knows how to use them and will help as needed.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Sunday he expected police to “not give in to lawbreakers.”

Travelers at the departure hall of Ben Gurion Airport a day before the Jewish holiday of Passover, April 4, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In a statement, Ben Gvir said the government “certainly” supports the right to protest, “but blocking cities, blocking streets, paralyzing Ben Gurion Airport — this is a violation of national security,” he said.

“I expect the police to enforce the law and to ensure there is no surrender to lawbreakers and people who want to harm democracy.”

While protests had somewhat calmed over the past few months as the judicial overhaul legislation was paused, organizers said that now that the government has begun moving ahead in the Knesset with certain elements of the plan, they are renewing efforts.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir holds a meeting at his ministry offices in Jerusalem, June 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Organizers have said they plan further disruptions to Israeli routine in the coming days as they adopt a more aggressive stance toward the coalition’s moves.

The protests are ramping up as the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has begun deliberations on a bill to block justices from exercising judicial review over the “reasonableness” of government decisions.

Coalition figures have vowed to pass such legislation before the Knesset summer recess at the end of the month.

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that his government will also move later on to reshape the powerful Judicial Selection Committee, though he has added this will take a different shape than Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s previous plan to assert full political control over the process.

Saturday saw Israel’s 26th weekend of nationwide protests against the judicial shakeup. Police had expected an increased turnout, The main demonstration was, as usual, held on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street. Channel 13 partner Crowd Solutions estimated some 130,000 participants while organizers put the number at some 150,000. Nationwide, the organizers claimed a turnout of some 286,000.

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