Thousands mass at anti-overhaul rallies, block highway after rail station protests

Israel Railways briefly stops service at Tel Aviv’s HaShalom station due to alleged danger posed by demonstration; 45 arrested during day of protests against overhaul

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Protesters campaigning against the government’s push to pass a law curbing the courts’ oversight powers demonstrated Tuesday at train stations across Israel as part of a fresh day of protests against the judicial overhaul.

In the evening, mass rallies were held at numerous sites around the country, including a demonstration attended by tens of thousands on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, which has been the site of the main weekly anti-government protests.

Thousands of protesters blocked part of the Ayalon Highway, the main route through the coastal city, with police using a water cannon and mounted officers to clear demonstrators.

The day of protests came as the government has plowed ahead with legislation that will do away with courts’ ability to strike down cabinet and ministerial decisions over their “unreasonableness,” part of a wide-reaching package of changes to the judiciary that critics say will remove critical fetters on government power and drastically weaken the Supreme Court.

Police restricted access to several stations during the afternoon rallies, with hundreds gathering outside Tel Aviv’s HaShalom Station as demonstrators and journalists were barred from entering.

Demonstrators who did manage to get into the station rallied on the platform, with Israel Railways briefly instructing trains not to stop there on the grounds that the protest posed a danger.

Officers arrested six protesters who allegedly tried to delay a train.

Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul at Tel Aviv’s Hashalom railway station, July 18, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In the central city of Lod, police kept people out of the station entirely and at Haifa’s Hof HaCarmel station, a large police presence kept demonstrators off the platforms.

In Binyamina, police allowed protesters to enter the platforms but warned them not to try to block the trains.

Rallies were also held at train stations in Beersheba and Herzliya, where police arrested two on suspicion of disturbing public order.

According to a police statement, officers were instructed to block protesters from the train platforms, citing “a clear danger to life and our role to safeguard the wellbeing and security of citizens.”

“The police are acting with the necessary proportionality, while maintaining the proper balance between freedom of expression and protest, and maintaining public order,” the statement said. “If the law is breached, police will be forced to restore order with all means at their disposal.”

Protesters are blocked from entering Tel Aviv’s Hashalom train station on July 18, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Adding to the chaos amid the protests, Israel Railways announced a nationwide halt of services in the early evening, citing a computer malfunction. The shutdown, which lasted about an hour before service resumed, did not appear to be related to the mass demonstrations.

Due to the disruption, hundreds of train riders trying to get to Tel Aviv were forced to exit idling rail cars at the HaHagana Station in the city’s south, an eyewitness said. The traveler, who was attempting to reach his home in central Tel Aviv after arriving on a flight from the US hours earlier, said his train was sitting for at least 10 minutes at the station when a person announced over the PA that all train services were being halted.

“Everybody is angry and everybody walked out of the train,” he said.

The decision to concentrate protests on train stations marked a shift in tactics after months of actions mostly designed to block roads and Ben Gurion Airport, with the disruption to commuters aimed at piling pressure on the coalition to scrap its judicial shakeup plans. It came a week after members of the government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claimed that chaos on Israel’s streets sown by the activists disrupted emergency services and medical care, though there was little evidence of that.

Outside the gates of HaShalom Station in Tel Aviv, protesters braved the heat and humidity to form a drum circle, chanting “Democracy or revolt,” waving Israeli flags and blaring horns.

Police officer Meir Suissa, who previously made headlines in March for hurling stun grenades at protesters in Tel Aviv, emerged to tell demonstrators to leave the station.

“There’s no train, the station is closed,” Suissa said on a loudspeaker, as officers began to push protesters and prospective passengers backward.

Police officer Meir Suissa orders demonstrators to leave as they are blocked from entering Tel Aviv’s Hashalom train station on July 18, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Police officers shoved several protesters back from the station entrance, causing several to trip up others in the tightly packed crowd.

The station then lowered its grates, blocking any entrance.

Several protesters complained of feeling unwell, given the extreme heat and crowd density. Police refused to let them into the station. Nava, in her fifties, was turned away from entering the air-conditioned station and told to work her way through the packed crowd.

“I don’t feel well,” she pleaded.

Police block protesters from entering Tel Aviv’s Hashalom train station on July 18, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Hundreds of protesters also gathered outside the US Tel Aviv Embassy Branch Office, with protesters saying they came to send a message to the United States to take a more active hand in persuading Netanyahu to pause the judicial overhaul.

“I really hope that the US government will exact pressure on Netanyahu,” said Tzili, 72, who came to the protests with an American and an Israeli flag, one for each hand. “Maybe they’ll be our hope.”

Parallel to the main protest, dozens of activist activists against Israel’s control of the West Bank gathered on the Embassy Branch Office’s street side, chanting “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” and holding signs that say “Palestinian lives matter.”

Clad in a shirt representing a military reservists’ protest organization, Harel walked by the anti-occupation demonstration without stopping on the way to the beach.

“The occupation is more of a long-term issue. Today, we need to take care of the judicial coup,” he said.

“That protest weakens the protests. If they succeed in the reform, no one is going to stop the occupation,” he added.

Anti-Judicial overhaul protesters outside of the United States’ Tel Aviv Embassy Branch Office on July 18, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Later Tuesday, tens of thousands rallied in Tel Aviv, in a capstone to the day of protests.

Despite the tightly packed crowd, energy was a bit lower on Kaplan Street itself than in past demonstrations, with protesters citing the extreme heat and daylong activities as contributing factors to the relative lethargy.

Some demonstrators handed out free water bottles to attendees, alongside courtesy protest swag.

A band played out of a converted truck, making statements about social unity before each song in their set.

Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street on July 18, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

But not all protesters were focused their energy on the coalition’s imminent plan to reduce judicial checks on the cabinet, but rather came to express their frustration with Netanyahu’s government itself.

Uri, 70, said that “Netanyahu is a criminal” and that his ultra-Orthodox political partners do not share the burden in supporting the state’s finances and security.

“We, the secular people, pay a ton of money and they don’t even go to the army,” he said about Israel’s Haredi communities. “It’s not just the reform, it’s the Haredim, the corruption,” he added. “We don’t want these people.”

Protest leader Shikma Bressler announced demonstrators would march from Kaplan Street to Jerusalem along the main Route 1 highway.

Bressler said the march was a “tiebreaking move.”

“It will take a few days, but we need you,” she said in a video message, calling on others to join her.

Israelis block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, Israel, to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Thousands of the protesters in Tel Aviv evaded police roadblocks and managed to shut down southbound traffic near the Rokah interchange, apparently surprising police who were stationed near the main protest.

Several of the protesters set fires on the highway, but police put them out as they brought in water cannons and sprayed protesters.

Several demonstrators appeared hurt, one hit in the eye by the jet of water.

The crowd chanted “Who are you guarding?” and “shame” as the mounted officers rushed into a crowd of protesters at the entrance to the Ayalon highway at the Hashslom interchange.

The crowd was increasingly angered as the water cannon was deployed again and again, sometimes with foam and other times with water. Mounted police rode through the crowd. A number of protesters were dragged off by police as they tried to stop the progress of the water cannon.

Protesters surround the water cannon, cheering “democracy.” Mounted officers rushed the crowd and forced people back.

The spray was so forceful it destroyed a traffic light.

Police also deployed a water cannon against protesters at the Karkur Junction in northern Israel.

Police use water cannon to try to stop protesters near the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2023 (Carrie Keller Lynn/Times of Israel)

Police were apparently trying to prevent the crowd from reaching the demonstrators who entered the thoroughfare further north at the Rokah junction, shutting down the highway.

In Jerusalem, anti-overhaul protesters blocked the central Rupin-Ben Zvi intersection, not far from the Knesset, before starting to march down Ben Zvi Road toward Netanyahu’s residence on Gaza Street.

More than 1,000 people attended the rally and march, with many beating drums, donning Israel flags and shouting pro-democracy slogans, as mounted police forces stood nearby.

Evening protests were also held in Haifa, Beersheba and highway junctions across Israel.

Protesters block a junction in Jerusalem on July 18, 2023. (Michael Bachner/Times of Israel)

Another focus of protesters during the day appeared to be against rabbinical courts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Rehovot, where demonstrators rallied against what they said was damage to women’s rights under legislation advanced by Netanyahu’s hardline and ultra-religious coalition.

Meanwhile, a large protest convoy on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway caused a buildup of heavy traffic in the area midday, in what appeared to be a new method to effectively block the route. Police have worked in recent weeks to prevent protesters from blocking the highway, sealing off entrances and exits and deploying water cannons to remove them from the thoroughfare.

Several other roads between cities and towns were also disrupted by protest convoys, but police said that as of midday, the roads were not completely blocked as some had been earlier in the morning.

Demonstrators also rallied outside the buildings of the Histadrut labor federation in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, to pressure the huge organization to call a strike over the legislation. Histadrut chief Arnon Bar-David has so far resisted calls from protest leaders to order a stoppage of the powerful union over the “reasonableness” bill.

Earlier Tuesday, protesters from the Brothers and Sisters in Arms reservist protest group blocked the entrance to the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, with some having put plastic tubing on their arms to make it harder for law enforcement to remove them.

Other demonstrators blocked the entrance to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, then entered the building and protested inside. Critics of the overhaul charge the government’s contentious plan will cause massive economic damage to the country.

According to police, 45 protesters were arrested in Tuesday’s demonstrations by the evening on suspicion of violating public order.

Police stand in front of protesters against the judicial overhaul in Ramat Gan, July 18, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Adding to pressure on the government have been mounting warnings from Israel Defense Force reservists — including pilots and members of elite commando units — that they would stop showing up for duty if the legislation goes ahead.

Staff at public hospitals and clinics announced they would hold a “warning strike” Wednesday to protest the “reasonableness” bill. The strike will take place from 8:30-10:30 a.m.

Protesters held weekly “days of resistance” until late March when the government froze the legislative process in order to give compromise talks with the opposition a try. Last month, after talks broke down, the government said it would push ahead with elements of the judicial overhaul without seeking consensus, sending protesters back into the streets.

Critics say the legislation is part of the government’s attempt to shield itself and its decisions from judicial review, enabling it to appoint unqualified or corrupt officials and oust technocrats it has deemed disloyal. Supporters of the move say it is necessary to correct the overreaching of unelected judges interfering with the decisions of a democratically elected government.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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