Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied Monday at Ben Gurion Airport, clashing with police and defying calls to alter their plans, as they moved to rev up their opposition to the coalition’s renewed judicial overhaul legislation.
The demonstrators, many of whom were carrying the Israeli flag and blowing horns, blocked the main airport thoroughfare, and large numbers demonstrated inside the main Terminal 3 arrivals hall. Some carried signs denouncing the government as a “criminal gang” and declaring that the protests were “Saving Democracy.”
Police said 52 protesters were arrested for disturbing the peace after overrunning barricades, blocking roads, and entering the terminal.
Officers used force to pull aside protesters blocking the street and dragged people out of the arrivals hall as chants of “Democracy” and “This government is criminal” rang through the cavernous space.
After several hours, police declared the demonstration illegal and geared up to disperse it, with mounted officers on hand. Police said that in addition to crowding into the road, demonstrators dragged plants into the streets to create barricades.
According to Hebrew media, some 15,000 demonstrators were at the facility, in protests that began in late afternoon and continued into the night.
The disarray caused massive traffic jams at the entrance to the airport and roads leading toward the site.
Some flights were delayed by hours, and Hebrew media reports said many passengers missed their flights. Some 93,000 travelers were scheduled to arrive and depart in the course of the day, on some 550 flights.
Hundreds of protesters later gathered outside of the Ramle police station, where demonstrators arrested at the airport rally were taken, to demand their release.
All of those detained were released, the police said in a statement issued after midnight.
While stressing that they would uphold demonstrators’ right to protest, police had vowed to act to maintain public order and keep access roads open for emergency vehicles.
The protest went ahead after police warned that blocking roads in and around the airport could result in “disaster” if there were an emergency, a justification dismissed by critics as a convenient pretext. Police initially said they would limit the protest to a designated area at Terminal 1, but later relented, after protesters pledged to protest at Terminal 3 in any case.
Protesters had also faced calls to scrap the rally, due to a major Israeli counterterror operation in the West Bank.
Protest organizers and opposition figures had said the demonstration would go ahead unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition halted Knesset committee deliberations on a bill to block justices from exercising judicial review over the “reasonableness” of government decisions.
MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset Constitution Committee, held a session on Monday as scheduled, however, and said the bill would be approved by the panel and advanced Tuesday to the Knesset ahead of first reading early next week.
The protests were a harsh welcome to Israel for many unsuspecting tourists, as they were greeted by thousands of activists with noisemakers and drums, filling Terminal 3 with cacophony.
Emerging into the ferocious noise was a group of British university students visiting Israel for the first time with the Taglit-Birthright program.
“I’m awfully scared. I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” said 18-year-old Ella Cohen, from London.
She had been unaware of the protest and said her first impression of stepping into this version of Israel was that it’s “chaotic and a bit unsafe.”
The scene from Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. Absolute chills. The patriotism on display here today will live in the Israeli memory for years to come. pic.twitter.com/YXAnBN66ZH
— Blake Flayton (@blakeflayton) July 3, 2023
Eleopold, a 75-year-old visiting from New York, said that he had heard of the judicial overhaul through US media, but did not know how to contextualize the protest.
“Looks like Israel is a democracy, but what are they demonstrating for?” he asked. “We came off the plane and just ran into this thing,” he said.
Many outgoing travelers arrived earlier than usual to avoid being snarled by the demonstrations, including a group of nearly 150 Israeli youth athletes scheduled to fly to South Korea at midnight.
“It messed things up for us, but we got over it,” said one of the athletes’ parents. “We love our country and we love our democracy.”
מאות מפגינים פורקים מהרכבת ומצטרפים. יש כאן כבר אלפים. בואו!!
— Yoav Glasner (@Yoglas74) July 3, 2023
Members of the Haroush family similarly arrived over five hours early for a flight to Thailand, saying the protests confounded their plans, terming them “a disgrace and an embarrassment.”
One daughter complained that the loud demonstration “destroyed my ears.”
“This is the welcome we are giving tourists? What are they going to say about Israel,” said the family matriarch.
Organizers had said they were targeting the airport as it “symbolizes that Israel is a flourishing liberal and democratic nation.”
Ahead of the airport protest, demonstrators blocked access to the Haifa port in the morning, preventing vehicles from entering the terminal.
While protests had calmed somewhat over the past few months, during which the judicial overhaul legislation was paused, organizers say that now that the government has begun moving ahead in the Knesset with some elements of the plan, they are renewing their efforts.
Organizers have said they plan for Israelis to go about their daily routines in the coming days, even as they adopt a more aggressive stance toward the coalition’s moves.
Saturday saw the 26th weekend of nationwide protests against the judicial shakeup. The main demonstration was, as usual, held on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street. Channel 13 partner Crowd Solutions estimated 130,000 participants while organizers put the number at some 150,000. Nationwide, the organizers claimed a turnout of 286,000.