Tens of thousands of demonstrators braved pouring rain Saturday night to gather at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square for protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government and its plans for sweeping changes to Israel’s justice system.
Police estimated some 80,000 people rallied in the square and surrounding streets, with many traveling to Tel Aviv from around the country on hired buses. Demonstrations were also held in Jerusalem and Haifa.
Many in the large crowd, which quickly overflowed the square, carried umbrellas, Israeli flags, and placards denouncing the coalition’s plans to shackle the judicial system. “We are faithful to the Declaration of Independence,” a widely distributed sticker proclaimed. “Fighting for democracy,” declared a large banner at the rear of the elevated stage. A few of those present carried Palestinian flags.
Despite police warnings of possible violence and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s call for police to crack down on any unrest, the demonstrations ended largely peacefully, with only a few sporadic clashes between protesters and cops.
Roads near Habima Square were shuttered throughout the rally, as police deployed in force in the city center to maintain order.
Among those in attendance were former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, former prime minister Ehud Barak, National Unity party leader and former defense minister Benny Gantz, former IDF chief and National Unity lawmaker Gadi Eisenkot, Labor party leader Merav Michaeli, and Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Thursday that he would not join the protest after being told that he and Gantz would not be allowed to address the crowd.
The demonstration marked the second week that opponents of Netanyahu’s government took to the streets, protesting Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals to shackle and curb Israel’s independent judiciary by severely restricting the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and cementing political control over the appointment of judges.
Taking the stage in Tel Aviv, Livni vowed that “nobody will be above the law, not even the prime minister,” in a reference to Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing trial for corruption. “Together we will protect the state, because it is for all of us.”
Addressing lawmakers advancing the controversial judicial overhaul, she said: “History will not forget.”
The chair of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, Eliad Shraga, told the crowd: “Always remember that we prefer the cold and the rain of liberal democracy than the heat and hell of a fascist dictatorship.”
Shraga called on President Isaac Herzog to declare Netanyahu as unfit to serve as prime minister.
He said the new government aims to “change the DNA of the State of Israel,” transforming it from a secular state to a religious fundamentalist state that harms the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.
Former Supreme Court justice Ayala Procaccia said “something has been deeply broken in our social pact, in the basic framework of rules agreed upon throughout the country’s history.”
“We are at the start of a new era in which democracy has a new definition: not a value-based democracy but a fractured democracy leaning entirely on ‘the will of the voter,’ which no longer gives any weight to other democratic principles,” Procaccia said.
The public “will not accept…the destruction of the values that are the basis of our system,” she said. “We are at a fateful moment of decision for the moral future of Israel.”
With the rally ongoing, several hundred protesters began marching down Ibn Gabirol Street, escorted by police down the road, which was blocked to vehicular traffic.
“No democracy without the High Court,” the marchers chanted as drummers pounded out a beat. Motorists on nearby roads cheered and honked in support of the march, despite being caught in a traffic jam.
Police blocked the entrance to the Ayalon Highway, preventing protesters from entering and disrupting traffic there.
Later in the evening, police scuffled with some anti-government protesters, as around 200 attempted to go onto the highway and block traffic. The crowd initially tried to enter from a traffic junction, and then via the underground parking lot of the Azrieli mall. Police said officers managed to push the crowd back.
In Haifa, hundreds of people gathered at the Horev Center shopping area, while thousands protested outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, bundled in winter coats and hats, waving Israeli flags and placards and calling for Herzog to emerge.
“Bougie, wake up, the house is burning,” the demonstrators chanted, referring to the president by his nickname.“Bougie, Bougie, wake up, the public is worth more.”
Several hundred of the Jerusalem protestors marched toward Gaza Road, where Netanyahu’s temporary residence is located. Police placed roadblocks to prevent crowds from nearing the premier’s home.
The crowd, including families with young children, kippah-wearing men and older city residents, shouted, “My country has three branches of government, three!”
עזה פינת ארלוזורוב, הפגנה מהרגועות שראינו בואכה ימי בלפור pic.twitter.com/xXM1B58X2r
— Haim Goldich | חיים גולדיטש (@HGoldich) January 14, 2023
A police officer was also seen assaulting a protester during the demonstration outside the President’s Residence. Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai’s office told the Kan public broadcaster that the incident was being investigated.
It was unclear what preceded the violence.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) January 14, 2023
Ahead of the Tel Aviv rally, the district’s police chief, Ami Eshed, said that there was no change in policy toward protesters.
“Our main goal is that everyone who comes to the demonstration will be able to arrive in an orderly manner and leave here in an orderly and safe manner,” Eshed was quoted by the Ynet news site as saying during a tour of the square prior to the event’s start.
“Our only goal is to deal with people who are committing vandalism or violence. We don’t deal with things that are trivial,” he told officers.
According to the Haaretz daily, police placed security around the home of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana of Likud, who lives near Habima Square.
‘We are starting to not recognize our own country’
Sheltering from the rain under a tree, Lorna from Tel Aviv said she came to the protest to try to ensure her grandchildren’s future.
“I feel like we are living in the beginnings of a dystopian state,” she said. “I am seeing the end of democracy and I feel personally threatened.”
Reut from Tel Aviv came to the protest as part of a three-generation delegation from her family. “We are starting to not recognize our own country,” she said. “And that’s an understatement.”
Hadas traveled in from the town of Ganei Tikva. “We don’t like what’s happening here,” she said. “I don’t know if [protesting] will make a difference. But if we don’t do something then for sure nothing will change.”
Saturday’s rallies were backed by top groups that led protests against Netanyahu in 2020: Ein Matzav (No Way), Crime Minister and the Black Flags. They have also been endorsed by other organizations including the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, the Movement for Quality Government and the Kibbutz Movement.
Ahead of the rallies, ex-police chief Moshe Karadi said law enforcement had information that right-wing activists intended to plant agitators at the protests.
“Elements from the other side sometimes plant rioters in demonstrations for the sake of provocation and there is information on this matter in this demonstration as well,” Kan news cited Karadi as saying at a conference in Beersheba.
He downplayed concerns of potential unrest among the demonstrators, saying it was “fake news from certain elements.”
Despite the warnings that the protest might attract right-wing agitators, there were no reports of serious violence.
Two teens wearing scarves marking them out as fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, known for its right-wing fanbase, attempted to provoke a reaction in Tel Aviv.
“Only Ben Gvir,” one teen repeatedly shouted, referring to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. “Stupid boy,” responded one older lady as the rest of the crowd ignored him.
On Friday, National Unity party leader Gantz had urged Israelis from across the political spectrum to attend the Tel Aviv demonstration.
“I call on the entire Israeli public, from left to right, to come to protest for safeguarding Israeli democracy. Making your voice heard at this time is a civic duty of the highest importance and not ‘civil disobedience’ as those trying to suppress the demonstration claim,” said Gantz, who previously served as defense minister and IDF chief.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, brushed off criticism of the proposed judicial changes a day after Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned their enactment would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic character.
“We discussed this before the elections and we received a clear mandate from the public for this,” Netanyahu asserted in a Friday video. “I suggest everyone calm down and enter into a substantive discussion.”
“When they say that the smallest reform is the destruction of democracy, this is not only a false claim, it also does not allow for the possibility to reach understandings… through substantive dialogue in the Knesset,” Netanyahu added.
Critics of the plans, which include top current and former judicial and legal officials as well as Netanyahu’s political rivals, say Levin’s reforms would put basic civil and minority rights at risk by all but eliminating the top court’s authority to strike down laws and government decisions, and giving the governing majority control of appointing judges — meaning the judiciary could no longer serve as a brake on abuse and excess by the political leadership. Proponents of the changes argue that the courts have assumed excessive powers and issued rulings that defy the will of the electorate.