Hours of violent clashes erupted around the Knesset in Jerusalem Monday morning as protesters against the government’s planned drastic overhaul of the judiciary blocked access roads to the building and skirmished with police in what coalition members decried as “a siege” of parliament.
Police in Jerusalem deployed water cannons to clear protesters from roads leading to the Knesset, where lawmakers arrived to deliberate the coalition’s contentious “reasonableness” bill ahead of its final votes.
At least 15 people were arrested in the violence, which increased in intensity as coalition lawmakers began making speeches inside the building ahead of voting on the bill. Police said they were mostly arrested for blocking roads and disturbing public order, with one detained for biting an officer.
From the early morning and throughout the day, hundreds of protesters poured into the roads surrounding the parliament building, locking hands to prevent Border Police officers from dragging them away.
Five anti-judicial overhaul protesters were brought to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. According to a hospital spokesperson, all their injuries were minor. Police said that three officers were also treated for light injuries at the hospital throughout the day.
Opposition Labor party MK Naama Lazimi was hit in the head with a jet from the cannon as she stood with her arms locked with other protesters. As police and protesters scuffled in a tangled, heaving mass, a Channel 12 reporter was knocked to the ground during a live report to the studio.
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Lazimi later said in a statement that “this is a law enforcement system in the service of a government that wants to make a dictatorship here, not a democracy.”
“There is a reason why it is forbidden to use a water cannon directly [at a person], and they can’t use it against the rules,” Lazimi added, noting that she was not physically harmed by the water cannon but she did get “a little wet.”
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Police tried to use trucks as a physical barrier to separate between protesters and the Knesset, but they were hampered by the blocked roads. Footage showed relentless tussles as several officers worked together to remove individual protesters by force.
Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai joined a command room close to the Knesset to keep an eye on the developments.
Among those arrested near the Knesset Monday morning was prominent anti-overhaul activist Moshe Radman. A video clip showed Radman, one of the leaders of the protest movement, lying on the ground in handcuffs as a police officer tells a bystander filming to back away.
There was no immediate statement from police on why Radman was arrested.
Police said in a statement that demonstrators clashed with police and tried to remove or move barriers in order to block the roads. A smoke grenade was also thrown at officers and one protester bit an officer, it said.
As protesters “continued to riot and not listen to officers and instructions to clear the roads, police are continuing to act in the area” to arrest those causing disruptions, including employing riot dispersal means, police said.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right lawmaker who strongly supports the judicial overhaul, said, “A violent siege in an attempt to prevent members of the Knesset from exercising their right and duty to vote in the plenum is not democracy.”
“This is the Capitol,” Smotrich wrote comparing the protests to the storming of the US Capitol building by supporters of then-US president Donald Trump in 2021. “The left has long since become undemocratic and the right is trying to return democracy to Israel.”
There were conflicting reports as to whether or not the protests hampered lawmakers arriving at the Knesset.
Energy Minister Israel Katz said “the protesters are putting the Knesset under siege and preventing MKs from entering.”
However, opposition MK Mickey Levy of Yesh Atid countered that “there is no siege on the Knesset. The MKs can enter freely.” Levy said the protesters were demonstrating “in a suitable manner and without violence.”
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered parliament through an emergency entrance, Channel 12 reported, and thus skirted the demonstrators outside.
The network cited unnamed coalition sources as saying “President [Isaac] Herzog, [Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz cannot be interlocutors as long as they do not condemn the illegal and undemocratic siege of the Knesset,” a reference to efforts by the president to broker an agreement between the coalition and opposition party leaders.
Police said in a early afternoon statement that “within the last few hours all Knesset members arrived and safely entered the Knesset.”
Police nevertheless warned of further road closures around the Knesset and surrounding area during the day, as the votes inside progressed.
Three people were also arrested Monday morning when they blocked the entrance to the Jerusalem home of Economy Minister Nir Barkat of the ruling Likud party.
Protestors began gathering at the Knesset early in the morning, many heading in from an encampment in Sacher Park.
Itai Nakash, from Haifa, arrived at the protest outside the Knesset with a banner demanding “How can a government of draft-dodgers call me a service refuser?!”
Nakash, who served in the Israel Air Force, said he sees the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary as “a real danger to the security and future of the state of Israel.”
He said he has suspended his reserve duty service and will stop completely if the legislation is passed.
Nakash said he objects to those in the coalition and their supporters who label as “draft refusers” the IDF reservists who have said they will stop doing reserve duty because of the legal reform legislation, pointing out that many in the coalition, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox parties, never served at all.
“It’s incredibly hypocritical of the government and its supporters to refer to us as draft refusers, when it is we who volunteer for reserve duty and are a small proportion of the population which the government takes for granted, and when a lot of them didn’t do any service at all, as is required by law,” said Nakash.
He acknowledged the danger to the army and the country over those stopping their reserve duty service, but insisted the alternative is worse.
“It would be more damaging to allow the legislation to continue. This is not a political protest about left or right, this is about an effort to change the type of regime we have,” he added.
“You can serve a government whose ideology you don’t agree with, but it is dangerous to blindly follow orders, especially if the government is extremely radical and showing signs of dictatorship,” said Nakash, referencing countries where democratic values and rights have been significantly damaged in recent years such as Poland and Hungary.
Nakash said he believes the massive demonstrations, strike action, and civil disobedience is justified for the current legislation since he believes that the bill itself is very problematic, and moreover because “it is just the start, they don’t deny it, and they are trying to prepare the ground for the rest of the judicial overhaul.”