ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Protesters stage 28th weekly mass rallies ahead of ‘critical week’ in overhaul fight

Over 150,000 estimated at main protest in Tel Aviv; Lapid vows not to let coalition ‘carry out a hostile takeover of Israeliness’ by passing ‘reasonableness’ bill into law

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, July 15, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, July 15, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Protesters rallied Saturday evening across Israel for the 28th weekend of demonstrations against the judicial overhaul, with political tensions ratcheting up as the coalition speeds ahead with legislation to weaken the courts’ powers.

More than 150,000 people attended the main rally on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, according to data from Crowd Solutions cited by Channel 13 news. Protesters there scrawled “Biden save us” on the road, as they seek to bring international pressure to bear on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition amid growing criticism from the US administration over the judicial shakeup.

Anti-government protesters have stepped up their opposition in recent weeks as the coalition advances legislation that would prevent courts from invalidating or even discussing government and ministers’ decisions based on their “reasonableness.”

The government is seeking to pass the bill into law by month’s end, when the Knesset breaks for summer recess.

Saturday’s protesters are a prelude to Tuesday, when demonstrators are planning nationwide rallies and disruptions as they vow to fight the legislation with every tool at their disposal.

“They want a different country. Instead of Zionist, racist. Instead of gatekeepers, political appointments. The danger is here and now. We will struggle until we win,” Dan Meridor, a former lawmaker in the ruling Likud party who once served as justice minister, told the crowd at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street.

 

“Today the most extreme government in the history of Israel governs here. A government that endangers the future of the country. A government that deteriorates our booming economy, brings relations with the United States to an unprecedented crisis of values, our international standing to a dangerous low, and brings moral dilemmas to the best of our soldiers,” Meridor added, referring to Biden’s comments about the coalition.

Former Likud minister Dan Meridor speaks at a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv, on July 15, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The government is engaged in “spreading lies, incitement, and hatred that threaten to tear Israeli society apart,” Meridor charged.

Smaller rallies were also held Saturday across Israel, including outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, which is near where Netanyahu has been living while the compound undergoes renovations.

Netanyahu was not at home, as he remained at a hospital overnight after suffering from apparent dehydration following a trip to the Sea of Galilee.

“Do you think it’s reasonable that a person accused of criminal acts serve as prime minister? Do you think it’s reasonable that the minister in charge of the police could be a criminal and racist?” Moshe Ya’alon, a former defense minister under Netanyahu, asked the Jerusalem protest.

Ya’alon was referring to the premier’s ongoing criminal trial and far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s past criminal convictions.

“Are you ready for this government, by canceling the test of reasonableness, to turn Israel into a dictatorship?” Ya’alon added.

He also wished Netanyahu a full recovery while accusing him of harming Israel’s security, economy and international relations.

“The State of Israel needs the test of reasonableness more than ever because we are in an unreasonable situation,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told demonstrators in Hod Hasharon.

“[National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir, [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich, [MK Simcha] Rothman, and [Justice Minister Yariv] Levin are trying to carry out a hostile takeover of Israeliness. We won’t let them. We are the Israeli majority, we are not only here to pay taxes and send our kids to the army. They won’t silence us,” added Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party.

“If the reasonableness cause is annulled, all the fences will be breached, all boundaries will be crossed. We need the reasonableness clause because we have an unreasonable government. We need it because the court is our last line of defense.”

Addressing some 2,500 protesters at Karkur Junction in the country’s north, Shikma Bressler, one of the main leaders of the protest movement, said that it was the beginning of a “critical week” in the country’s history.

“We need to raise our voices. The guardians of the law must continue to protest and fight in order to prevent the ongoing legislative process,” she said.

Meanwhile, at a rally in Bat Yam, two suspects, aged 22 and 32, were arrested by police for threatening and attacking protesters.

At Tzemach Junction near Tiberias, eggs were thrown at demonstrators, Channel 13 news reported.

Also Saturday, activists set up what they called “the first democracy outpost,” establishing a camp outside the Herzliya Magistrate’s Court that includes a six-meter (18-foot) tower with a copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence hung from it.

“This week the government is going to pass legislation that will put us on the brink of a dictatorship,” activist Dana Oren-Yania told the Walla news site.

“We have our backs to the wall so we decided to set up the first democracy outpost in the spirit of the ‘tower and stockade’,” she said referring to the settlement method used by Zionist pioneers in the British-ruled Mandate of Palestine.

Protesters opposed to the coalition’s judicial overhaul gather in Kfar Saba, July 14, 2023 (Gabriel Melzer)

Protest organizers said Tuesday’s protests “will start an unprecedented week of civil resistance and disobedience to the judicial overhaul.”

The government’s decision to push ahead with the reasonableness bill has also sparked fresh warnings from Israel Defense Force reservists — including from pilots and elite commando units — that they would stop showing up for duty if the legislation goes ahead.

On Friday, they were joined by the Israel Medical Association, which warned that hospitals and doctors could strike in opposition to the bill.

The association held emergency discussions Thursday to discuss the ramifications of the law and members agreed that “it will devastate the healthcare system and is not just a theoretical concern,” said IMA Chairman Prof. Zion Hagay.

The warnings of harm to the medical sector join similar warnings issued by high-tech workers, economists, lawyers, and military officials, all cautioning that the legislation — if passed — would harm Israel’s democracy, economy and security.

The coalition has vowed to press ahead with the changes to the judiciary despite the protests, which have also included daily rallies outside politicians’ homes and weekly mass actions meant to shut the country down and pile pressure on the government to back off. Critics say the overhaul will radically weaken the courts and remove checks on government power, putting the nation’s democratic character at risk. Proponents say the changes are needed to clamp down on an overly activist and politically biased judiciary.

Knesset Constitutional Committee Chairman Simcha Rothman plans to push his “reasonableness” bill through his Knesset committee next week, with the controversial legislation set to become law the following week.

The legislative push, which resumed after a several-week hiatus to allow for talks, continues to raise tensions between the government and its opponents. A Channel 12 poll Friday showed a full 67% of Israelis fear civil war. Another 29% said they did not, while 4% said they didn’t know.

Among those who voted for Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing bloc in the Knesset, 56% said they feared such an eventuality while 41% said they didn’t. In the opposite camp, the numbers were at 85% and 14%, respectively.

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