ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Protests being held at 150 locations across the country

‘Rally for freedom’: 12th week of protests as government to pass key overhaul bill

Organizers hope Saturday will see largest demonstrations to date; Tel Aviv event timed so Sabbath-observers can join; Yuval Harari, Tzipi Livni, daughter of spy Eli Cohen to speak

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

Escalating mass protests against the government’s efforts to shackle the judiciary were continuing on Saturday night, with demonstrations being held in Tel Aviv and dozens of other locations around the country for the 12th consecutive week.

Protests were planned for some 150 locations, organizers said — an increase on last week’s 120.

Protest organizers predicted that these would be the “largest demonstrations to date,” drawing hundreds of thousands.

Organizers called on the public to “rally to protect the freedom of the country” and for every protester to bring at least one other person who has not participated in the demonstrations so far.

The main rally was beginning with a 6:30 p.m. march from Kikar Dizengoff to the central demonstration on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street.

On-stage events were set to start at 7:30 p.m., to allow those who observe Shabbat to participate.

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the government’s judicial overhaul bills in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

The speakers at the central rally will include Prof. Yuval Noah Harari and former minister Tzipi Livni.

The rally will also be addressed by Sophia Cohen, daughter of Eli Cohen, who spied for Israel in Syria during the 1960s, providing valuable intelligence that was said to have greatly assisted the Israeli military in the 1967 Six Day War. He was caught and eventually executed by Syrian authorities in 1965.

Escalating nationwide protests have roiled the country since the government announced its plans to severely curtain the judiciary in early January. In addition to the public demonstrations, a growing number of military reservists have vowed to halt or already stopped their service over the legislation, sparking deep fears in the security establishment for the country’s future.

Announcing the Saturday event, protest organizers decried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “lies” in his Thursday speech vowing to push ahead with the overhaul legislation.

“Netanyahu is threatening to disband the people’s army, eliminate the economy and tear apart social cohesion and create a rift in the nation. All of Israel will stand against him. Together, we will win!” they said in a statement.

Israeli students march during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The demonstrations will come ahead of a nationwide “week of paralysis” by protesters that will begin on Sunday, after Netanyahu announced that the government would pass a core tenet of the legislation — giving the coalition near-complete control over judicial appointments — in the coming days.

Protest leaders declared plans for targeted demonstrations against ministers and MKs on Sunday and Monday, and vowed mass rallies in “days of paralysis” on Wednesday and Thursday, including a “giant protest” at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

The organizers also announced additional protest events on Thursday that they said were being kept under wraps.

Israelis protest against the judicial overhaul by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at the Beit Yanai interchange, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“We’re going into the most fateful week in the history of Israel,” protest leaders said in a statement. “This destructive government is tearing the nation apart and dismantling the military and the economy.”

“Facing the attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship, millions will take to the streets to defend the State of Israel and the Declaration of Independence,” the statement said. “Every citizen who wants to live in a democracy must come out to the streets and oppose the dictatorship at all costs.”

On Friday, dozens of protesters demonstrated outside the homes of several ministers.

At a rally outside the home of Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, demonstrators scuffled with residents of the Rehovot neighborhood. Video from the scene showed one of Silman’s neighbors discharging pepper spray at the protesters.

Police detained three people for questioning after the incident.

Protesters also picketed outside the homes of Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli in Kibbutz Hanaton, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter in Ashkelon,  Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana in Givatayim, Economy Minister Nir Barkat in Jerusalem, and Likud MK Moshe Saada in Mazkeret Batya.

A large protest of veteran naval commandos from the Shayetet 13 unit is slated to demonstrate outside Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s home on Saturday afternoon.

Gallant had been expected to call for a halt to the overhaul on Thursday, before he was called to Netanyahu’s office for a meeting.

He has reportedly warned Netanyahu that he will not vote in favor of the bill to assert political control over the country’s Judicial Selection Committee if it is brought to a vote next week in its present form.

Protesters held a nationwide “day of paralysis” on Thursday. Police arrested at least 92 people across the country, and deployed horses and water cannons to clear demonstrators blocking roads in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

The protests have also followed ministers abroad, including rallies against Netanyahu in London on Friday.

Israeli expats and members of the British Jewish community gathered outside his hotel and outside 10 Downing Street when Netanyahu arrived for his meeting with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Demonstrators against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near Downing Street in central London as Netanyahu is hosted by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, March 24, 2023 (Sharon Shochat/#DefendIsraeliDemocracy)

The vow to intensify the protests next week came a day after Netanyahu declared that his government will continue to charge ahead with the plan “responsibly,” while aiming to pass a central plank of the overhaul next week — a bill to put key Supreme Court appointments directly in coalition control. Netanyahu insisted that “we don’t want a controlled court, we want a balanced court.”

In addition to the public demonstrations, a growing number of military reservists have taken action in protest of the government.

On Friday, 200 Israeli Air Force pilots, 100 doctors in the military reserves and dozens of personnel from the prestigious Unit 8200 intelligence branch said they will refuse service in protest, joining hundreds of other military members who have already made that vow, or stopped showing up for service. The military protesters include some of the most elite service members, including senior combat pilots.

The government has also moved ahead with other legislation that has incensed its opponents, including passing a law on Thursday to shield Netanyahu from a court order to recuse himself.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at Downing Street in London, March 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

After that law passed, Netanyahu announced he would ignore a conflict of interest deal that had allowed him to govern during his ongoing corruption trial, and would henceforth directly involve himself in the effort to overhaul the judiciary.

In response, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara informed Netanyahu on Friday that he has violated the conflict of interest agreement and any further involvement in the coalition’s judicial overhaul would be “illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest.”

Also Friday, Netanyahu’s son Yair, announced protests in support of the judicial overhaul at cities around the country on Saturday night, but it was unclear if the events would gain traction.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges. There have been weekly mass protests for nearly three months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders and more.

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