Day of action set for Tues. if reasonableness bill advances

Protests ramp up for 27th week as bill to curtail judicial oversight set for 1st vote

Demonstrations being held nationwide Saturday night as 1st piece of overhaul legislation set for initial Knesset vote on Monday; Yuval Noah Harari among speakers at Tel Aviv rally

Israelis block the Ayalon Highway during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul and in response to the removal of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Israelis block the Ayalon Highway during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul and in response to the removal of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

An increased turnout was expected at protests across the country on Saturday evening, with a bill to curtail judicial oversight over government decisions set to have its first reading in the Knesset on Monday.

Leaders of the protest movement against the hardline coalition’s judicial overhaul plans have pledged to further intensify their opposition to the government’s renewed efforts to dramatically weaken the judiciary.

Organizers said in a statement that rallies were to be held at over 150 locations across the country on Saturday evening.

The main Tel Aviv rally will begin with a march from HaBima Square at 7 p.m.

Speeches were set to start at around 8:30 p.m. to accommodate those who observe Shabbat.

The central protest will be addressed by Prof. Yuval Noah Harari, Prof. Hagai Levin from the medical protest group, Sharon Arda and Michal Tzur from the tech workers protest, and student protest leaders Bar Pakula, Sara Yitzhaki, Nadav Salzberger, Lihi Caspi and Or Filk.

The demonstration will be led by protest leader Prof. Shikma Bressler, a physicist and grassroots organizer.

The Brothers in Arms reservist protest group has called for demonstrations to go on throughout the night.

Demonstrators take cover from a police water cannon as they block a highway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

In a statement, protest leaders warned that the country was “a few hours away from the first vote toward a dictatorship.”

“This is legislation that is a complete cancellation of the values ​​of the Declaration of Independence and the Zionist vision,” the protest groups said.

The groups also called for the public to be ready to take action on Tuesday if, as expected, the “reasonableness” bill passes its first reading in the Knesset a day earlier: “If the legislation passes, we will have to act to save the country.”

Organizers have called for a demonstration “such as has never been seen before in Israel” on Tuesday, a day after the first of three plenum votes on the bill that would block courts from exercising judicial review over the reasonableness of government decisions.

״We are going to intensify our struggle,” they said, urging employers to give workers the day off so they could demonstrate. On Saturday dozens of tech employers said workers who whished to do so could take the day off Tuesday to protest.

Addressing National Unity party chief Benny Gantz’s call Thursday for the coalition to resume judicial reform talks, the protesters reiterated their demand for no negotiations until the judicial legislation is shelved altogether.

Leaders of the demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, July 7, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In addition to the demonstrations, increasing numbers of reservists have renewed threats not to volunteer for service if the legislation passes.

Former prime minister and IDF chief of staff Ehud Barak said Thursday that pilots and other elite military members should refuse to continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces if the reasonableness bill becomes law.

Barak said in an interview with Channel 12 that “when a law like that passes a first reading [in the Knesset], it is passed in order to prepare it for its second and third [final] readings. That marks the sounding of an alarm, a genuine alarm for the entire country.”

“On that day,” Barak went on, “I expect the pilots, the Military Intelligence Special Operations Division, to all repeat their warning: Netanyahu, watch out, the minute you try to turn the first reading into an actual law, we will not serve a dictatorship. Period.”

The bill, which would prevent the judiciary from using the “reasonableness” doctrine to review decisions made by the cabinet, government ministers and unspecified other elected officials, was approved by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday.

The coalition reportedly aims to have it enacted into law before the Knesset breaks for summer recess at the end of July.

With the advancement of the legislation, Thursday evening saw demonstrators rally near the homes of numerous coalition lawmakers, most notably two of the leading figures in the judicial shakeup push — Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the latter of whom heads the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Other protests were held at the homes of ministers and MKs from the ruling Likud party, including Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Science Minister Ofir Akunis and Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel. A number of protesters were arrested.

Police break up a protest by Israelis against the government’s overhaul plan outside Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel’s home in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Coalition members have recently upped their complaints about the rallies outside their homes and urged a tougher police response (though they often supported similar demonstrations when in opposition to the previous government).

Ministers are set to discuss the protests at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. In an unusual move, multiple top officials from the Justice Ministry were expected to attend, amid concerns of pressure on police and the legal system to suppress the protests on behalf of the hardline coalition.

Thousands took to the streets on Wednesday evening and roads across the country were blocked for a number of hours by spontaneous demonstrations after the Tel Aviv police chief announced he would resign rather than be transferred to a more marginal role over his handling of the protests.

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 right-wing critics claimed was his soft approach toward protesters against the overhaul.

The largest of the over 40 demonstrations reported nationwide took place on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, where police clashed with protesters who blocked traffic and lit bonfires. The thoroughfare was blocked for several hours as police struggled to restore order, before deploying mounted officers and water cannons to forcibly disperse protesters.

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 under certain limitations.

Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center said Thursday that 14 people had been brought in for medical treatment from the protest. Six of them had wounds to their eyes, including Udi Ori, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force reserves who required surgery.

The hospital decried the use of water cannons to disperse demonstrations.

Brothers in Arms member Udi Ori at the hospital on July 7, 2023, after suffering an eye injury when taking a direct hit from a water cannon during a protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on July 5, 2023. (Courtesy)

Kan news reported that police chief Kobi Shabtai had instructed district commanders to exercise their judgment on the use of water cannons Saturday to clear demonstrators, after Wednesday’s injuries.

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

On Monday, thousands of protesters rallied at Ben Gurion Airport.

On Friday in New York City some 150 people participated in a flotilla to the Statue of Liberty in protest of the overhaul plan, saying the monument symbolized freedom and values shared by the US and Israel.

“The Statue of Liberty bears a poem by a Jewish poet. Freedom has been the Jewish people’s desire since the dawn of time,” said Shany Granot-Lubaton, a protest organizer in New York. “All of our hearts are in Israel with the protesters and we are sending American winds to fill the sails of freedom and support pro-democracy fighters defending our futures.”

The demonstrations have been ongoing since Levin revealed the overhaul plans in January and recently ramped up again as Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has renewed its efforts to push through some of the relevant laws unilaterally.

Opponents say they are a threat to Israel’s democratic character and will leave the rights of minorities unprotected, while supporters argue they are needed to curb the powers of a judiciary they say is unrestrained.

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