US defense chief: Independent judiciary vital to democracy

Protesters block Ayalon Highway for 2 hours, clash with cops, disrupt airport

30 arrested, some violently, amid marches, workplace strikes, blocking of main thoroughfares, disruptions of train services and rallies outside homes of government officials

Police scuffle with protesters during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Police scuffle with protesters during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul plans staged an unprecedented day of protests and disruption Thursday, blocking central Israel’s key Ayalon Highway for some two hours and gumming up roads to Ben Gurion Airport alongside rallies, strikes, blockages and other disruptive activities throughout the country, calling it a “day of resistance.”

The mass demonstrations and dissent gave rise to some limited clashes with police as authorities struggled to contain the various events.

In Tel Aviv scuffles broke out between protesters and cops as the former marched onto both sides of the Ayalon thoroughfare. Cops were at first restrained in a standoff with demonstrators, but eventually moved to disperse the rallies with force. Officers were filmed grabbing some protesters and carrying them away from the highway.

Eitan Gozani, 35, one of the protesters on the highway, said most demonstrators cleared the road after police surrounded them.

“It ended pretty easily. One person threatened to use the water cannons, but nothing happened,” he said.

Gilad and Bar, two protesters in their twenties, said the police pushed them and threatened to use water cannons.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir fumed over the police response, reportedly telling associates that officers “are not fulfilling my orders.”

“The police are doing what they want. It won’t continue like this,” he was quoted as saying by Kan news.

Roads were blocked around Ben Gurion Airport throughout the morning and afternoon as protesters in cars sought to make it difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fly to Italy, where he was scheduled to hold a three-day official visit. Police handed out fines to drivers identified as intentionally driving slowly to create jams. Netanyahu and his wife eventually arrived at the airport via helicopter before departing.

Thursday morning also saw numerous protests outside schools, with students and parents joining together to demonstrate.

Thursday’s demonstrations resulted in 30 arrests around the country.

In one clip from Tel Aviv, police were seen putting a protester in a chokehold and wrestling him to the ground as others surrounded them chanting “Shame!” It was unclear what triggered the incident.

Mounted police are deployed as Israelis block a highway to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Actress Alona Sa’ar, who witnessed the struggle, told Kan news that she had been hit during the scuffles.

“He really choked him,” Sa’ar, the daughter of National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar, the former justice minister, said of the police officer.

“I don’t want to live in a dictatorship. I don’t want to live in fucking Iran,” she said.

The lawmaker tweeted that he was proud of his daughter, and called on demonstrators and police to remember that they are “all brothers.”

The day saw marches, temporary workplace strikes, the blocking of main thoroughfares, disruption of train services, and rallies outside the homes of top government officials.

In the afternoon Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and a key architect of the judicial overhaul plans, was blocked from taking part in a meeting with attorneys in Tel Aviv.

Rothman was slated to attend alongside opposition MK Gilad Kariv (Labor), but due to the number of protesters outside the Israel Bar Association office in central Tel Aviv, police requested the MK not attend. Rothman was instead to participate via Zoom.

Protesters walk away from a rally blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2023. (Carrie Keller Lynn/Times of Israel)

Thursday’s action began with marches held by parents and children, starting at schools and then converging at central meeting points around the country.

Thirteen-year-old Goni told her father she wanted to come to the demonstration, one of several she’s attended in the past few weeks to protest the government’s intended judicial overhaul.

“It’s my future,” the middle-school student said.

Goni insisted both the government’s telegraphed policies and weakened judicial recourse against some of them worry her, and her father Eran, 51, let the teenager skip school to demonstrate.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on March 9, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“This reform touches me really closely,” said Goni, adding that she was very concerned about women’s rights and the economy.

Police said that a number of major roads and interchanges were blocked, particularly in the central region and Tel Aviv.

Protesters blocked marine traffic at Haifa Port, saying that “in a dictatorship, the sea is closed.”

“For decades we have been sailing day and night and guarding the main lifeline of the State of Israel,” the Brothers in Arms protest group said.

Israelis on boats protest the government’s planned judicial overhaul, at the sea in Haifa, northern Israel, March 9, 2023 (Shir Torem/Flash90)

“We, the reserve soldiers, in missile boats and patrol boats, submarine crews and naval commandos… are working even now to keep the State of Israel’s maritime borders and its shipping lanes open,” the group said.

“We chose to disrupt operations at Haifa Port to call in a clear voice to the Israeli government to stop the uncontrolled voyage that will cause the State of Israel to run aground,” the group added.

A number of former senior naval officers were involved in the protest.

In Jerusalem, activists placed sandbags and barbed wire at the entrance to the offices of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think tank deeply involved in the government’s controversial push to overhaul the judiciary.

The entrance to the offices of the Kohelet Forum, the conservative think tank deeply involved in the judicial overhaul, blockaded by protesters, March 9, 2023 (Israel Police)

Police said six individuals were detained for questioning in connection with the incident, which was carried out by a group connected to military reservists who oppose the overhaul.

Scuffles also broke out in Jerusalem between police and demonstrators.

Protesters against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 9, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The protest events were laid out in detail on a dedicated website and map (Hebrew), with organizers promising “many surprises,” indicating there were more planned actions that had not been announced publicly.

“It is a civic duty to resist the dictatorship and this is the only way to return Israel to the path of democracy. This is a great battle for the independence of Israeli citizens against the tyranny that will destroy what we have built here for over 70 years. We call on the entire public to participate in protests,” the organizers said in a statement.

A major rally in Tel Aviv set off from the city’s Habima Square, where protesters signed a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. In addition, protests by workers from the tech sector were held at 15 locations around the country.

Ahead of the protests, Ben Gvir said he would instruct police to ensure freedom of expression, “but Ben Gurion Airport and main transport arteries are out of bounds.”

A woman in Tel Aviv during a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul on March 9, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“We won’t allow anarchy,” he declared. Ben Gvir has instructed police to use a heavy hand against anti-judicial overhaul protesters who block roads.

National Unity leader Benny Gantz called on Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to prevent Ben Gvir from entering the police command center during the day’s demonstrations, claiming that the minister was giving inappropriate orders to cops. The minister responded that he would “sit there whenever I want.”

The planned protests also impacted the schedule of United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Israel. Austin was initially slated to arrive in Israel on Wednesday. Instead, he arrived Thursday and met with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters, adjacent to the airport.

Protesters block entrance to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Speaking at a press conference after meeting Gallant, Austin said the relationship between the US and Israel is “rooted in the shared values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

Austin said Israel and the US “are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances, and a strong judiciary.”

“An independent judicial system is an important part of democracy. A broad consensus must be achieved for fundamental changes in the judicial system in order for them to remain sustainable,” he added.

In addition, a planned ceremony in which President Isaac Herzog was to receive the credentials of a number of new ambassadors was canceled. The event had been set to take place at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, the site of a number of protests.

Critics of the government’s divisive judicial overhaul have said the coalition’s proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.

Last week, protesters held a similar “day of disruption” around the country with a flagship rally in Tel Aviv that blocked a key junction in the city. Police used horse-mounted cops, water cannons, and stun grenades to disperse them.

The force came under criticism for the rough treatment of protesters, including an officer who hurled a stun grenade into a crowd of people. An investigation was opened into the officer’s actions, but he was seen policing the protests in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

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