'The government of Israel is failing in every area'

Anti-overhaul protests going ahead despite terror wave, with key roads kept clear

Tel Aviv organizers accept police request to cancel march after main Saturday night rally; ‘special program’ will commemorate victims, express support for security forces

Israelis protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israelis protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Organizers of a planned mass anti-government protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday night said the demonstration will go ahead as planned in the wake of several deadly terror attacks and violence, but that they have agreed to a police request to cancel a march afterward.

Demonstrations are also planned elsewhere, including outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, where organizers have prepared an all-women roster of speakers.

Police stressed that amid the current terror wave, it was essential to keep key roads clear, including for access for emergency vehicles.

Several hundred thousand people have been holding huge protests in Tel Aviv and nationwide against the government’s judicial overhaul plans every Saturday for the last 14 weeks, with demonstrations carrying on after the coalition paused the legislation to allow a period of dialogue on its highly divisive efforts to weaken the justice system.

However, police asked the Tel Aviv organizers to cancel a planned march after Saturday night’s rally, following two deadly attacks on Friday, and amid high tensions nationwide after rocket barrages were aimed at the Jewish state from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, sparking retaliatory airstrikes by Israel in Gaza and rare artillery fire into Lebanon.

In a statement, protest organizers said that they were “fully coordinating” with police and that while the march was canceled, the main protest in Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Road would go ahead. In past weeks, some organizers have encouraged protesters to head to the nearby Ayalon Highway, where some have blocked the traffic, sparking confrontations with police.

“The government of Israel is failing in every area,” they said. “Instead of scrapping the [judicial overhaul] legislation and focusing on security, its senior ministers are telling the public that they will continue with their efforts to turn Israel into a dictatorship once the Knesset recess ends [at the end of the month].”

The organizers said that the Saturday protest would be held, “just as dozens of cultural and sporting events are going ahead, as is the gathering at the Western Wall [for the Birkat Kohanim priestly blessing] and visits to the Temple Mount during the [Passover] festival. Terrorism must not be allowed to win.”

However, they noted that the “protest will go ahead with a special program, sharing the grief of the [victims’] families and offering support to the security services and residents in the conflict areas.”

Israeli military reservist groups, including pilots and special forces officers, have played a key part in the protests, threatening to refuse to show up to reserve duty if the overhaul goes ahead. They called off their threats while talks are taking place.

Israeli military reservists carry a stuffed figure on a stretcher during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“We will continue our protest against the dictatorship as if there is no war on terror and we will continue to show up for reserve duty and support the IDF and the security forces as if there is no war against the dictatorship,” the statement said.

Police, in a statement on Saturday, said that thousands of officers will be deployed at the protests and urged demonstrators not to block roads, disturb the peace or interfere with police trying to do their duty.

They also called on the public to report anything suspicious.

“In these days of a heightened alert across the country, it is important to keep roads open for the passage of emergency vehicles,” the statement said.

On Friday, an Italian tourist was killed and seven others wounded in a suspected car-ramming attack at Tel Aviv’s seaside Charles Clore Park when a 45-year-old Arab-Israeli from Kafr Qassem ran his vehicle at high speed into a group of people walking on the promenade.

Police at the scene of a car-ramming attack in Tel Aviv, April 7, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Earlier on Friday, two Israeli sisters, British nationals, were killed and their mother was critically hurt in a shooting attack in the West Bank. The Israel Defense Forces launched a manhunt for the gunmen and other suspects who fled the scene.

The surge in violence has come as tensions have spiked in recent days following Israeli police incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount to quell rioting; on Thursday, Hamas terrorists fired volleys of rockets at Israel from Gaza and Lebanon, authorities said. Israel, in response, launched a number of airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza and struck the group’s infrastructure in southern Lebanon where it has a presence among Palestinian refugee camps.

There have also been several other attacks in the West Bank, with three soldiers hurt in a car-ramming attack on Saturday, and two more soldiers hurt in separate shooting attacks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told his security cabinet this week that Israel was trying to avoid escalating the conflicts on several fronts while the government was hobbled by widespread domestic opposition.

Netanyahu said Israel must avoid being dragged into confrontations and wider-scale conflicts and present a united front, according to a report Friday by Channel 12, following months of intense internal upheaval sparked by his government’s judicial overhaul push and other controversial moves by the hawkish coalition.

“There are enough disputes within us on other issues, we are being challenged from everywhere — in the opposition and on the street,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying at the meeting by Channel 12.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire caused after a rocket fired from Lebanon hit near the Israeli town of Shlomi, April 6, 2023. (Fadi Amun/Flash90)

The protests have shown no signs of abating since Netanyahu paused the overhaul legislation.

Last Saturday, hundreds of thousands took to the streets demanding that instead of pausing the legislation to weaken the courts and politicize judge selection, the coalition shelve the bills completely.

Media reports indicated at least 170,000 and up to some 200,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv, while tens of thousands more rallied in numerous cities across the country. Protest organizers claimed over 400,000 demonstrated nationwide, though such figures could not be corroborated.

“We will keep heading to the streets until we are promised the State of Israel will remain a democracy,” organizers said.

The main rally was held for the 13th straight weekend on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street and Azrieli Junction, which were filled to the brim with demonstrators. Rallies were also held in some 150 locations across the country. Tens of thousands protested in Haifa.

Protest leaders’ urgent messaging of the need to continue protesting in the days since Netanyahu announced a “delay” in legislating the radical judicial changes had implied they were fearful of a significant drop in attendance as the coalition put its plans on the back burner. But Saturday’s high turnout indicated the protest movement has grown resilient and will not be easily appeased.

Hundreds of protesters briefly blocked the Ayalon Highway at several points throughout the evening, before being removed by police. Nineteen demonstrators were arrested.

Police deploy a water cannon on people occupying the Ayalon Highway to protest government plans to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Saturday, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

At a rally in Jerusalem, world-renowned author David Grossman said the architects of the shakeup had “made the mistake of their lives” in awakening Israel’s liberals into action.

Invoking a famous quote from the Haggadah of this week’s Passover holiday, Grossman said: “Why is this night different from other nights?”

“We have changed, we the demonstrators, the protesters,” he said. “We ourselves did not imagine the extent of love hidden inside us for the life that we’ve been able to create here in Israel.”

Opposition parties have been engaged in talks with the coalition mediated by President Isaac Herzog for the last two weeks. Though talks are ongoing, few expect them to yield an agreement and trust in Netanyahu negotiating in good faith is exceedingly low.

Netanyahu announced he was suspending the legislation some two weeks ago as opposition to the judicial overhaul intensified with mass spontaneous protests seeing hundreds of thousands pouring into the streets, followed by a national strike, after his firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had warned about the security implications of the coalition’s proposals and called for a halt to allow for talks.

The premier indicated the “time-out” would last until the Knesset’s next session, beginning April 30, meaning the pause will mostly take place when the Knesset would be in recess anyway.

But he stressed the overhaul would end up passing “one way or another,” and the “lost balance” between the branches of government would be restored. “We will not give up on the path for which we were elected,” he vowed.

The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation — which would give the coalition almost complete control over all judicial appointments, and radically constrain the High Court — would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.

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