Police to deploy 1,000 officers, block roads at Tel Aviv anti-government protest

Cops brace for clashes with counter-protesters, larger crowds than last week due to clear weather forecast, anger over coalition reaction to top court’s ruling on Shas head Deri

Police officers prevent protesters from blocking a highway during a rally against the government's plans to overhaul the country's legal system, in Tel Aviv, January 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Police officers prevent protesters from blocking a highway during a rally against the government's plans to overhaul the country's legal system, in Tel Aviv, January 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Police have approved plans to deploy 1,000 officers and block vehicle access to roads across Tel Aviv beginning Saturday afternoon, in anticipation of a mass anti-government protest against the planned judicial overhaul.

In an assessment Thursday, police predicted larger crowds than last week’s demonstration — which was beset by rain — will turn up this Saturday, following a clear weather forecast and a bombshell High Court ruling this week declaring Shas chief Aryeh Deri as unfit to be a government minister.

Police officials also expressed fear of clashes with right-wing counter-protesters, who have called on social media for pro-government activists to take to the streets, Channel 12 reported.

The main protest in Tel Aviv will be divided, with one organizer, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, holding a rally at Habima Square for the second weekend in a row while other organizers will demonstrate less than a kilometer (half a mile) away at the intersection of Kaplan and Begin streets.

Police are set to begin blocking off roads around the protest sites at 4 p.m. Traffic disruptions, including public bus cancellations, are expected in areas around Habima Square, Menachem Begin Street, Arlozorov Street, Namir Road, Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, and Dubnow Street until the protests conclude Saturday night.

Smaller protests are also expected to take place in Jerusalem and Haifa and at other sites around the country. After skipping last week’s events, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said Wednesday he would attend this weekend, alongside other members of the opposition.

National Unity leader MK Benny Gantz arrives at an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Naomi Lanzkron/Times of Israel)

National Unity party chair Benny Gantz vowed he will again be at the protest, in a video posted to social media on Friday.

“No matter what your political positions are, on Saturday night everyone will take to the streets to tell the government — yes, it is possible to reach broad agreements [to draft reforms more acceptable to the public] but we must not run over what the country’s founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and what we built here for 75 years,” he said.

“We march to say yes to reforms and no to vengeful measures that will dismantle Israeli resilience and democracy,” he added.

MK Gideon Sa’ar,  the No. 2 in National Unity, said Friday he would also be attending the protest and called for members of his right-wing New Hope subfaction to join the rally after being absent from the last demonstration.

“We are at the peak of the struggle for the future of Israel. There is no left and right in the struggle to protect the democratic regime. This fateful struggle by the country’s citizens is for the benefit of our children’s future in this land, a struggle forced on us by a dangerous and unrestrained government,” Sa’ar wrote to party activists over the Telegram messaging app.

The Movement for Quality Government announced that two separate protest sites were planned due to an expectation that more people will attend this weekend.

“Faced with the threat of the collapse of Israeli democracy, we must be determined and show the government that we will not sit quietly,” the organization said. “The masses who flooded [Habima] Square and the surrounding streets were just the beginning of a battle that will only get bigger.”

Thousands of people protest against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Black Flag protest group said it would center its efforts on Kaplan Street and urged opposition politicians to show up.

“Following the attack on the judicial system over Deri’s disqualification, and the calls from within the coalition to disobey the ruling, the organizers of the demonstration are calling on the heads of the opposition parties to announce that they will come to the mass demonstration and stand at the head of the protest march,” said Black Flags in a statement.

The group said it has seen an uptick in interest about attending following Wednesday’s High Court ruling on Deri.

Student Protest, which describes itself as a nonpartisan group fighting for democracy, vowed it would also join the demonstrations. The group on Monday launched a one-hour coordinated “strike” at universities against the reforms.

“On Saturday night we will shake the country! We call on the entire student body, to youth in general, to join demonstrations and to fight together with us against this coup,” the groups said in a statement.

Last weekend’s protests were focused on the government’s proposal to massively alter the judicial system, with plans to increase political control over the selection of judges and bar the High Court from exercising judicial oversight on Knesset laws and government policies.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri seen outside his home in Jerusalem, January 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following the justices’ ruling that Deri could not serve as interior and health minister in the government due recent and previous criminal convictions, some coalition figures said they would not abide by the court decision or would seek to overturn it.

After the ruling, the anti-Netanyahu protest group Crime Minister called on the public to take to the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, and Modiin.

“We will scream ‘no to dictatorship,'” Black Flags said. “We will start there and keep going — until this bad government and the person leading it are brought down.”

At last weekend’s rally, police estimated that some 80,000 people gathered at Habima Square and the surrounding streets, while smaller demonstrations were held in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Among those in attendance in Tel Aviv last weekend were former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, former prime minister Ehud Barak, Gantz, former IDF chief and National Unity MK Gadi Eisenkot, Labor leader Merav Michaeli, and Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas.

Following the protest, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed off the criticism and argued that the planned changes would strengthen democracy rather than hasten its end. He also maintains that the government is carrying out the will of the people.

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