Protesters blocked highways leading to Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv on Tuesday, at the start of a day of countrywide demonstrations against the government’s planned judicial overhaul that has divided the nation.
The demonstrations came the morning after the Knesset gave initial approval for a bill to limit the Supreme Court’s oversight powers, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition pressed forward with contentious legislation to radically constrain the independence and powers of the judiciary despite widespread opposition.
The legislation canceling the “reasonableness” yardstick used by the courts is one of several bills proposed by the Netanyahu coalition, comprised of his own Likud and its ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies. The overhaul plan has provoked more than six months of sustained protests by opponents who say it is pushing the country toward authoritarian rule.
Anti-overhaul activists have called for nationwide mass demonstrations throughout the day, including protests at Israel’s main international airport that could disrupt travel.
Police cleared protesters who blocked a main artery leading to Jerusalem with a water cannon and officers arrested several others who had obstructed a highway next to the central city of Modiin. Demonstrators blocked a main highway in Haifa with a large banner reading “together we will be victorious,” snarling traffic along the beachfront.
The vote early Tuesday morning marked the first Knesset approval of a judicial overhaul bill since Netanyahu suspended the far-reaching legislative package in late March.
The protest actions on Tuesday began with dozens of demonstrators setting up tents at an intersection in Herzliya, calling the outpost “a democracy camp.”
The tents blocked traffic in both directions on Route 20 in the central city, police said. Video from the scene showed protesters burning tires and singing protest songs.
At the Karkur traffic junction, near Hadera, protesters blocked Route 65 with a huge banner that said, “No entrance for a dictatorship.”
המחאה נגד הרפורמה: עשרות מוחים תלו סמוך לצומת כרכור כרזה ענקית שעליה כתוב "אין כניסה לדיקטטורה". השלט שנתלה על הגשר שסמוך למחנה 80, הוביל לחסימת הכביש ומאות רכבים נקלעו לעומס תנועה | עדכונים שוטפים >> https://t.co/lSZGCi0jSY
(אורלי אלקלעי) pic.twitter.com/OZFbz3xxOf
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) July 11, 2023
Other rallies at intersections around the country started at around 7 a.m., and a student march set off from Tel Aviv University an hour later. The Brothers in Arms group, a protest organization led by distinguished military veterans, led the morning rallies in Jerusalem.
“The struggle against the regime coup is escalating. Everyone is coming out to the streets to fight for democracy,” Brothers in Arms said in a statement.
A demonstration will take place at Ben Gurion Airport at 4 p.m.
Protesters will gather at the US embassy branch in Tel Aviv and the President’s Residence in Jerusalem from 6:30 p.m., and at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street and “various locations nationwide” at 8:30 p.m.
Protesters are also expected to gather outside the Supreme Court and the Knesset.
Some employers, including banks, universities and tech firms, have granted their workers the day off to join the protests.
Organizers called for a demonstration “such as has never been seen before in Israel.”
They said they were “issuing a final call for the government to stop the legislation.”
“If the government doesn’t stop — the whole country will stop,” they said.
In addition to the demonstrations, increasing numbers of reservists have renewed threats not to volunteer for service if the legislation passes.
The protests have roiled Israel for the past six months, since Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced the overhaul package in January, less than a week after the coalition took office.
Police bolstered forces across the country to prepare for Tuesday’s events.
Around 900 officers will be dispatched to the airport, Channel 13 reported, after a demonstration there last week caused major disruptions.
Undercover officers will be present at the airport to attempt to head off any confrontations between the protesters and their opponents, or between the protesters and travelers, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
Transportation Minister Miri Regev has instructed police to limit entrance to the airport’s Terminal 3 to only people with flight tickets, but the order requires the attorney general’s approval, which it has not yet received, Kan reported.
The government has also instructed protesters to keep 300 meters away from the homes of senior government officials, Channel 13 reported. Demonstrators have taken to rallying outside the homes of coalition lawmakers in recent weeks.
The coalition is also reportedly making preparations to ensure that lawmakers will be able to reach the Knesset, despite the protests.
Channel 12 said that police intend to respond quickly to any disruption to traffic nationwide, as seen at a Saturday demonstration in Tel Aviv, when some demonstrators blocked the Ayalon Highway in both directions.
Saturday’s rallies in Tel Aviv were the first such demonstrations where police were commanded by Tel Aviv District deputy chief David Filo, following the departure of district head Amichai Eshed this week.
Eshed’s announcement of his resignation, saying he was to be transferred from the role due to politicians’ distaste for his soft approach toward demonstrators, led to spontaneous mass protests.
On Sunday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and other senior officials in the Justice Ministry were summoned to the cabinet meeting to discuss how law enforcement agencies have dealt with the protests. The attorney general was repeatedly attacked by several ministers and some called for her dismissal, as they railed against authorities’ handling of the demonstrators.
Ministers have bristled at what they view as overly soft handling of demonstrators who harass and heckle them wherever they go, stage protests at their homes and block key roads for hours at a time.
The “reasonableness” bill passed its first reading early Tuesday morning along party lines by a vote of 64 to 56.
After the vote, opposition leaders vowed to continue to fight against the legislation, while government lawmakers pledged to push through the rest of the legislative package.
Since compromise talks collapsed in June, the coalition has focused its legislative efforts on passing the reasonableness bill before the close of the Knesset’s summer session at the end of the month.
Still to come is a more central piece of Levin’s legislative package — a bill to remake the system for judicial appointments by largely transferring them into political control. A bill to that effect passed its first reading in February and was set to be enacted in late March.
However, Netanyahu then fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who had warned that the national divide over the legislation was harming national security interests, whereupon huge protests erupted and the prime minister suspended the legislation and later reinstated Gallant.
Netanyahu has said he plans to advance the judicial selection legislation in the Knesset’s winter session, which opens in October.