Protests began early Thursday, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis expected to take part in a day of “escalating resistance to dictatorship” as the coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forged ahead with controversial legislation to radically overhaul the judiciary and restrict the powers of the High Court of Justice.
Acts of disruption and protest began before dawn, with demonstrators painting a bright red line in the street leading up to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, saying it symbolized the link direct link between the independence of the courts and free speech.
Police said they arrested five people for vandalizing public property.
Leading the early-morning protests were a group of IDF reservists known as “Brothers in Arms.” One group of navy veterans blocked the entrance to Haifa port.
Another group set up an “army recruitment center” outside the municipality building in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, saying, “We have come to pass the burden of recruiting to the ultra-Orthodox population because if there is a dictatorship here, we will have to come here and recruit. We repeat: Without democracy, there is no people’s army.”
They also blocked the main road in the city.
In Rehovot, members of the group began setting up sandbags around the magistrate’s court, declaring they were protecting the courts from “attacks from criminals trying to carry out a coup.”
A group of demonstrators also blocked the main coastal highway near Beit Yanai, with several dozen people walking into the road waving Israeli flags.
Several protesters driving tractors slowly on Route 4 caused traffic to back up for miles.
Protests were also held outside the US consulate and British embassy in Tel Aviv.
“Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of Israelis will go out” and protest in planned nationwide demonstrations Thursday, organizers said in a statement Wednesday. They said “determined protest” was the only chance to “stop the regime coup,” after Netanyahu and members of his right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox coalition quickly rejected a long-percolating proposal made by President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday for a broadly agreed-upon alternative framework to the coalition’s contentious package of legislation.
The government’s plan, as it stands, will allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, and put the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians. Opponents argue it will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters call it a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.
The overhaul plans have drawn intense public criticism and fierce opposition across Israel, sparking mass protests and dire warnings from economists, legal professionals, academics, and security officials. Protesters have been pouring into the streets since January in multiple days of “disruption” and “resistance.”
“This is the moment of truth for Israelis to go out and save Israeli democracy,” organizers said Wednesday.
According to the organizers, protests are planned in some 150 locations across the country, including multiple sites in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Protesters are expected to block main thoroughfares, and rally outside the homes of top government officials including the Tel Aviv residence of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana.
On Thursday morning, demonstrators are set to converge on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv across from the embassies of the US, the UK, France, and Germany, after which they will march to Kaplan Street in the center of town, and head to the Hashalom Interchange. Police are expected to close the Ayalon Highway to traffic in both directions around the interchange, and block off roads in and around central Tel Aviv. A large protest is planned for Thursday evening at Habima Square.
In Jerusalem, protesters are expected to rally outside the Prime Minister’s Office. Students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University will also protest the judicial shakeup at their respective institutions.
The protesters are expected to include reserve soldiers, tech workers, healthcare professionals, and many others, according to organizers.
“We are in a state of national emergency,” said organizers of the tech protesters. “The Israeli government is pushing the economy with all its might into a recession and ignoring the warnings that keep coming. The consequences of the regime coup are already well felt in [the] high-tech [sector]. Instead of stopping the blitz of legislation and finding a new path, those irresponsible [leaders] are speeding up and pushing us all into the abyss. Together we will stop the madness and fight for democracy, our country and our home.”
Airport authorities issued a notice to travelers to plan for schedule disruption Thursday, Channel 13 reported, and urged them to arrive early for outgoing flights. About 60,000 travelers are scheduled to pass through the airport Thursday. Airport authorities recommended passengers travel by train to the airport. Protesters are not expected to disrupt the train systems, unlike in previous weeks.
Protesters held demonstrations in and around Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday afternoon in an effort to disrupt Netanyahu’s flight to Germany on a state visit. The premier’s flight took off about five hours later than expected.
Among the demonstrators were veterans of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando squad who rescued hostages in Entebbe in 1976 — the operation led by the premier’s brother Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed during the raid.
The prime minister’s return is set for Thursday night.
In a nationwide address on Wednesday night, Herzog warned of a brewing “civil war” and an approaching “abyss” if a compromise on the radical judicial changes could not be reached.
The opposition has repeatedly demanded the government pause its relentless legislative push during negotiations, which the coalition has refused to do, moving the legislation forward despite widespread opposition.
“Those who think that a real civil war, with human lives, is a border we won’t cross, have no idea,” said the president. In Israel’s 75th year, “the abyss is within touching distance,” he said. “A civil war is a red line. At any price, and by any means, I won’t let it happen.”
Herzog called his plan, drafted after hundreds of hours of deliberations in recent weeks with politicians, jurists and experts from across the political spectrum, “a golden path” that offers the best chance for a broad national agreement on the overhaul. “This framework protects each and every one of you, the citizens of Israel,” he said. “This framework protects Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
While the Netanyahu coalition quickly dismissed Herzog’s plan, opposition leaders expressed cautious approval for the framework as a basis for talks. They also lashed the government for so readily dismissing what Herzog had presented as the last, best chance to avoid a catastrophic tear in the fabric of Israeli society.
Herzog’s plan was also backed by Arnon Bar-David, chief of the powerful Histadrut labor federation, and Dov Amitai, head of the Israeli Presidency of Business Organizations, who met with the president earlier in the week to offer their support.
They called on the government to “stop the economic and social chaos and bring hope back” by launching negotiations based on the framework.
Bar-David warned earlier this week that his union, which has launched disruptive strikes in the past, will not “stand idly by” if the government fails to reach a compromise.
Herzog’s proposed framework addresses critical aspects of the relationship between the branches of government, including giving greater constitutional heft to the Basic Laws; how judges are selected; judicial review over Knesset legislation; and the authority of government legal advisers and the attorney general. It would also enshrine some fundamental civil rights in the Basic Laws which are not explicitly protected at present.
Shortly after the president published his offer, and before departing on a visit to Berlin, Netanyahu said the “central elements of the proposal he offered just perpetuate the existing situation, and don’t bring the necessary balance between the branches.”
“Any attempt to reach an agreement and talk is surely appropriate,” Netanyahu added, but accused the opposition of not being willing to come to the table.
Given its resounding rejection of the Herzog framework, the coalition is expected to press on with its fast-advancing legislation.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin has said he seeks to enact the entire first phase of his legislation package before the Knesset breaks for Passover at the beginning of next month.