Protesters block key highway as anti-overhaul demonstrations show no sign of easing

Hospital decries use of water cannons in Tel Aviv a day earlier after protesters treated for eye wounds; far-right minister: Ousted Tel Aviv police chief ‘pus that must be removed’

Protesters against the judicial overhaul block Route 4, July 6, 2023 (Screen grab from Twitter used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Protesters against the judicial overhaul block Route 4, July 6, 2023 (Screen grab from Twitter used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Some 200 protesters blocked a key highway during rush hour on Thursday morning, as demonstrations against the coalition’s advancement of its contentious judicial overhaul legislation showed no sign of letting up.

The Binyamina intersection on Route 4 was blocked, causing heavy traffic in the area.

Separately, a women’s rights protest group called Building an Alternative rallied outside the north Tel Aviv home of Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel. Last week the group’s leader, Moran Zer Katzenstein, was briefly detained by police at a similar demonstration.

The protests came after roads across the country were blocked for a number of hours Wednesday night by spontaneous demonstrations after the Tel Aviv police chief announced he would resign rather than be transferred to a more marginal role.

Amichai Eshed said he had been removed from his role due to what he said were “political considerations” and for refusing to use “disproportionate force,” following what critics claimed was his soft handling of protesters against the judicial overhaul.

On Thursday, a far-right minister referred to Eshed as “pus that needs to be removed.”

“I’m happy that Eshed is leaving the police,” Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, a member of the Otzma Yehudit party, told Radio 103FM.

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu arrives at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Thousands of Israelis took to the streets and blocked several major highways across the country Wednesday night after Eshed announced his resignation from the force.

The largest demonstration took place at Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, where police clashed with protesters who blocked traffic and lit bonfires.

The thoroughfare was blocked for several hours, before police used force to disperse protesters after midnight.

One driver stuck in traffic plowed through the demonstration, apparently while filming the incident on his phone, injuring at least one protester before being pulled over and arrested by police. He was reportedly released on Thursday morning.

Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital said Thursday that 14 people had been brought in for medical treatment from the protest.

Six of them had wounds to their eyes, one of whom required surgery.

In a statement, Prof. Igal Leibovitch, director of the Oculoplastic Institute at the hospital, decried the police’s use of water cannons.

“The high-powered water stream simulates a direct punch to the face with great force. It creates internal bleeding in the eye and may damage the lens of the eye and the retina,” Leibovitch said.

“Now there is concern for the sight of one injured person with intraocular bleeding and retinal detachment. A second injured person with intraocular bleeding and damage to the intraocular lens is still undergoing medical tests,” he said.

During the protest, fireworks were launched from nearby buildings in apparent solidarity with the demonstrators, leading to cheers from the crowd and contributing to the sense of chaos sweeping the streets all through the evening.

In several scenes posted to social media, officers at the Ayalon Highway were filmed violently removing protesters who refused to vacate the area.

While police deployed mounted officers and water cannons to clear the highway, they struggled to restore order for several hours.

Police said they arrested 15 people in Tel Aviv. All of the detainees were released by Thursday morning, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Eight people were arrested Wednesday in Jerusalem, with police reportedly expected to seek to have one of them held in continued custody. Police also said they arrested four more people at a protest at a major junction near Herzliya.

In addition to rallying in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, protesters blocked the Karkur, Karmiel, Tzemach, Horev, Rager and Azza intersections in northern and southern Israel on Wednesday night. There were demonstrations reported in some 40 locations nationwide.

Israelis protest against the judicial overhaul and in response to the removal of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed in Jerusalem on July 5, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Wednesday night protests echoed larger ones that took place across the country in late March the night after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his decision to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who raised the alarm regarding the judicial overhaul’s impact on security. Netanyahu went on to pause the overhaul the following day and later walked back his decision to axe Gallant.

Protests against the controversial legislation to remake Israel’s judiciary have been ongoing, and recently ramped up as Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has renewed its efforts to push through some of the relevant laws. On Monday, thousands of protesters rallied at Ben Gurion Airport.

The protests have angered the coalition, with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right Otzma Yehudit lawmaker who oversees the police, repeatedly clashing with the force over its handling of the demonstrators. Ben Gvir has argued for a tougher approach with protesters, and more arrests.

Ben Gvir’s outrage was often directed at Eshed, amid his refusal to use greater force against the months-long anti-overhaul demonstrations.

In a press conference Wednesday evening, Eshed lamented the “terrible [personal] cost for my choice to prevent civil war.”

Eshed said he “could not live up to [Ben Gvir’s] expectations, which included breaking the rules and abiding clear interference in professional decision-making.”

“I could have easily used disproportionate force and filled the Ichilov [Medical Center] emergency room at the end of every demonstration in Tel Aviv. We could have cleared Ayalon [Highway] within minutes at the terrible cost of cracking heads and breaking bones and at the cost of breaking the pact between police and the citizenry,” he said.

Police’s Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“As a commander, I taught generations of policemen to recognize the limits of force, to safeguard our contract with the public… Unfortunately, for the first time in my three decades of service, I was met with the bizarre reality in which calm and order were not the desired goal, but rather the contrary was the case,” added Eshed.

He claimed that his refusal to follow Ben Gvir’s demands led to “a well-oiled poison machine turning against me online, leading to significant threats to my life and to my designation as being under the highest level of threat. But this did not dissuade me. At all times I saw before me one roadmap, one compass: checks and balances, the Israeli law and the rules of morality and justice.”

Holding his own press conference later in the evening, Ben Gvir accused Eshed of “surrendering to the left.”

Israel has been rocked by mass demonstrations since early January, when the government first unveiled its far-reaching plans to neuter the judicial system. Protesters have warned that the proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters claim it is a much-needed reform to rein in an overly activist court.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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