Police clashed with demonstrators on Tuesday as tens of thousands rallied at over 100 locations across the country, blocking roads in protest of the judicial overhaul advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government.
The demonstrations — which spread to Ben Gurion Airport later in the day, with thousands converging on the main Terminal 3 — came hours after the Knesset approved the first reading of a bill to curtail the Supreme Court’s oversight powers despite sweeping opposition.
A number of protesters were injured, including a woman who was hit in the head by a high-pressure stream fired by a water cannon at demonstrators blocking the main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
By mid-afternoon, 66 people were arrested across the country. Photographers from the Haaretz and Ynet news sites were among those detained during protests in Haifa, although they were both released after a short time. In Tel Aviv, police scuffled with protesters as they made arrests, with incidents of fisticuffs and of protesters being dragged and carried off to police vans.
At least nine protesters and one police officer were injured, Channel 12 reported.
Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street quickly became the main focus of the protests, as police deployed water cannons in an attempt to move the crowd.
It was the first time in a number of weeks that the crowd dispersal means was used in the city for any purpose other than clearing demonstrators from the Ayalon Highway.
Mounted police tried to disperse the crowds and at one point were filmed pushing protesters even as they stood on the sidewalk.
At least one protester was trampled by a police horse.
Another injured protester, military veteran Moli Ahronsohn, 72, sustained a broken knee and a deep cut to his eye socket. He says he was hurt by a mounted police horse. He was hospitalized ahead of surgery scheduled for Wednesday. Speaking to Channel 12, he said he was protesting quietly on a sidewalk, condemned what he called the “fascist” government, and said there had been an escalation in police violence against protesters.
פרש משטרתי עולה על מפגין בקפלן pic.twitter.com/87RIyuekHI
— בר שם-אור Bar Shem-Ur (@Bar_ShemUr) July 11, 2023
Police were also seen manhandling, and on a number of occasions, hitting protesters.
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, a leading opponent of the overhaul, joined the protest at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan street.
The Ayalon Highway was blocked by demonstrators at various locations on a number of occasions throughout the morning and afternoon.
Police and the Magen David Adom emergency rescue service urged demonstrators to enable access for ambulances and other emergency vehicles, with a police spokesman claiming there were “several” instances of ambulances being unable to get through the crowds.
Footage from Tel Aviv showed one ambulance progressing through the crowds.
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— Noga Tarnopolsky נגה טרנופולסקי نوغا ترنوبولسكي???? (@NTarnopolsky) July 11, 2023
The protests in Tel Aviv were policed under the command of Tel Aviv District deputy chief David Filo, following the departure of district head Amichai Eshed. Announcing his resignation last Wednesday, Eshed claimed he was to be transferred from the role due to politicians’ distaste for his ostensibly soft approach toward demonstrators.
Before gathering at Kaplan Street, Tel Aviv protesters marched on the headquarters of the Histadrut labor federation, demanding the powerful union call a general strike.
Histadrut head Arnon Bar-David publicly called on Netanyahu to “stop the chaos” and said that the federation would “intervene” if necessary.
“Stop the crazy chaos in Israeli society as soon as possible. The ball is in your court. When the situation reaches an extreme and all other paths have been taken, we will intervene and use our power,” he said.
“Shutting down the economy is not a game,” he told a Tel Aviv conference, implying that he may use the union to pressure the government to stop unilaterally advancing the overhaul so that both sides can return to compromise talks. “They are fighting in the Knesset, they have blown up the [compromise] talks at the President’s Residence, leaving the people of Israel and the Histadrut caught in the middle,” he said.
Education Minister Yoav Kisch, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said of the widespread national protests against the judicial overhaul that “we won’t give in to this terror.”
“It is an attempt to intimidate elected officials and disrupt the lives of millions,” he told Army Radio. “People are being permitted to block the Ayalon [highway] every week. This is an injustice.”
Yesh Atid MK Orna Barbivai decried his comments.
“Shame on him. He calls demonstrators who carry a flag terror — the grandmothers and children who instead of enjoying summer vacation have gone out to protect the country?” she said.
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 the Ayalon highway (Route 20) in the central city, police said. Video from the scene showed protesters burning tires and singing protest songs.
At the Karkur junction, near Hadera, protesters blocked Route 65 with a huge banner that read, “No entrance for a dictatorship.”
Protesters also blocked a main artery next to the central city of Modiin.
Demonstrators blocked a central highway in Haifa with a large banner reading, “Together we will be victorious,” snarling traffic along the beachfront. Water cannons were also used to disperse the crowds in the northern coastal city as protesters tried to block the Carmel Tunnels.
Protesters in Jerusalem gathered outside the Supreme Court and the Knesset, and the women’s rights protest group Building an Alternative formed a “red chain” of demonstrators across the country.
Thousands gathered at Ben Gurion Airport before a protest that formally started at 4 p.m.
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara approved the demonstration at the airport, having been asked by the government to submit a written position on the matter.
“Ben Gurion airport is a public place, and everybody has the right to freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate there too,” Channel 12 quoted Baharav-Miara as stating.
“The right to demonstrate in this area will be limited only when it is deemed almost certain that there is a likelihood of severe disturbance to public order,” she said.
Transportation Minister Miri Regev castigated her for the ruling: “I expected the attorney general to allow the sound management of the facility and not lend a hand to lawbreakers,” said Regev, who on Sunday called to fire Baharav-Meira over law enforcement’s response to previous protests.
Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, another vocal Baharav-Miara critic, demanded of the attorney general: “Stop backing rioters! Start enforcing the law!”
On Sunday, Baharav-Miara and other senior officials in the Justice Ministry were summoned to the weekly 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 claim is 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.
Around 900 officers were 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 confrontations between the protesters and their opponents, or between the protesters and travelers, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
Protesters were also set to 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.
Some employers, including banks, universities and tech firms, granted their workers the day off to join the protests.
The legislation passed Monday in its first reading would curtail judicial review by eliminating the Supreme Court’s ability to use the “reasonableness” yardstick to judge government and ministers’ decisions. It is one of several judicial overhaul bills proposed by the Netanyahu coalition, comprising his own Likud and its far-right 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.
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.
Organizers in response 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, hours after the “reasonableness” bill passed along party lines by a vote of 64 to 56.
Since compromise talks collapsed last month, 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 plank of Levin’s legislative package — a bill to remake the system for judicial appointments by largely transferring them into political control.
Netanyahu has said he plans to advance the judicial selection legislation in the Knesset’s winter session, which opens in October.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.