Tens of thousands of protesters joined a mass march to the Knesset in Jerusalem on Saturday as part of a last-ditch effort as the coalition readies to pass into law a bill that would curtail judicial oversight over its decisions.
The protesters had paused their self-styled pilgrimage on Friday evening to welcome Shabbat with a communal meal, as they regrouped before the final leg of their journey. The march began in Tel Aviv on Tuesday with just a handful of people, and has swollen by the day to become one of the most resonant events of the seven-month anti-overhaul protest movement.
After spending the night at Shoresh, outside Jerusalem, the marchers ate breakfast donated by supporters, before beginning the climb up to the capital.
Thousands more from across the country joined the group for the final leg of the march, much of it uphill and in punishing heat.
The column of people stretched for several kilometers and large crowds gathered on the bridges spanning the route, cheering on the marchers.
Traffic in the area slowed as the masses walked along the shoulder of Route 1.
While the protesters were not deliberately blocking the traffic, their huge numbers meant that there was inevitable disruption.
Hundreds of cars were parked along the sides of roads in the area, abandoned by those who joined the procession.
Further convoys of vehicles arrived in the area on Saturday afternoon, with tens of thousands more expected to join the march for the final section through Jerusalem.
Incredible. Tens of thousands marching to Jerusalem in protest against the Israel government judicial overhaul. Voting on curtailing the Supreme Court powers will take place as of tomorrow. It is 91F (33C) on the route to city. pic.twitter.com/EAfhRwAgNB
— Tal Schneider טל שניידר تال شنايدر (@talschneider) July 22, 2023
Participant Guy Shahar from the Tel Aviv suburb Givatayim told the Ynet news site that he had joined the march because he “fears for the fate of the country.”
“There is no doubt that this is a historic moment, the amount of people here is amazing. Each person has come from a different place, with concern for the fate of the country,” he said.
The march has become the signature event of the protest movement since it began with a handful of people in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening, and will culminate outside the Knesset in Jerusalem.
אין זה מטורף אמאלה ואבאלה
— לירי בורק שביט (@lirishavit) July 22, 2023
Organizers then plan to set up tents in Sacher Park, and stay put for an indefinite amount of time, as the coalition readies to pass into law a ban on courts striking down governmental and ministerial decisions based on their “reasonableness.”
היסטוריה, פשוט היסטוריה
ותראו איזו קבלת פנים לנחיל הדגלים שלא נגמר???????????????? pic.twitter.com/fiyXzriVWC
— ????????חגית קלימן – Hagit Klaiman???????? (@klaiman14) July 22, 2023
The legislation is expected in the coming days to become the first part of the coalition’s judicial overhaul package to become law.
Alongside the large protest outside the Knesset on Saturday evening, opponents of the legislation are expected to rally outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, as well as at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street.
Hundreds of thousands are expected to rally at over 150 locations nationwide, in the 29th week of protests against the contentious package of legislation proposed by Netanyahu’s hardline government.
Organizers said it was of note that the demonstrations were growing in size in the coastal city Netanya, a key stronghold of Netanyahu’s Likud party.
The nationwide protests are taking place under the headline of “We won’t let [Netanyahu] destroy our home.”
The march participants are trekking to the capital during one of the hottest weeks of the year.
While many were planning to complete the entire 60-kilometer (37-mile) march, others joined the group for only parts of the walk.
Opposition lawmakers have joined the march, including Yesh Atid’s Meirav Cohen and Orna Barbivai.
Many of the marchers carried Israeli flags, a hallmark of the protest movement, forming a vast ribbon of blue and white on the shoulder of the highway.
By Friday, the march had swelled to about 10,000 demonstrators by the time participants reached the Shoresh Interchange some 9 miles (15 kilometers) east of Jerusalem, where they broke for the evening.
The march turned off Route 1 shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday, around the start of Shabbat, to set up camp.
After arriving at Shoresh, demonstrators of all ages held a communal Kabbalat Shabbat service along with a picnic dinner.
Supporters from around the country supplied the marchers with food, and so much arrived that organizers called for them to cease bringing in more.
Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai met with the anti-overhaul protest leaders during one of their breaks on Thursday afternoon and issued a statement saying law enforcement would continue to allow demonstrations, which have roiled Israel since January when the coalition unveiled its legislation to overhaul the judiciary.
The statement from Shabtai also warned protesters not to block the highway.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who oversees police, issued a statement saying he had directed Shabtai to “immediately” open Route 1 to traffic, even though the highway was never blocked.
Police have cracked down against protesters blocking the main Ayalon Highway through Tel Aviv with water cannons, mounted police and other riot dispersal means, and Ben Gvir has consistently pushed law enforcement to take a hardline approach to the demonstrations.
Earlier Friday, 1,142 Israeli Air Force reservists, including more than 400 pilots, issued a letter announcing that they will suspend their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the judicial overhaul.
Hundreds of reservists from other branches of the military have also said they will no longer volunteer.
Anti-overhaul protesters have expressed hope that Gallant will issue a call to pause the government initiative.
The defense minister was instrumental in getting the controversial overhaul paused in late March. After calling for a halt to the legislation in a public address, Gallant was fired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading to massive protests, a nationwide labor strike and the shuttering of Ben Gurion airport. Netanyahu temporarily suspended the legislation, agreed to talks with the opposition under President Isaac Herzog’s aegis that have since broken down, and eventually reinstated Gallant.
Channel 12 reported Friday evening that Gallant was attempting to delay Monday’s vote amid unprecedented opposition from within the military.
Responding to the report, Gallant said in a statement that he “is taking measures in order to reach a wide consensus, and in order to ensure the security of the State of Israel, while leaving the IDF separate from political discourse.”
The bill would ban the Supreme Court and lower courts from using the reasonableness standard to review decisions made by the government and cabinet ministers.
Proponents say the bar on the use of the doctrine is needed to halt judicial interference in government decisions, arguing that it amounts to unelected judges substituting their own judgment for that of elected officials.
Opponents argue, however, that the legislation is far too broad and will weaken the court’s ability to review decisions that harm civil rights and hinder its ability to protect the independence of senior civil servants who hold sensitive positions, such as the attorney general, police commissioner and others.
The measure will likely be the first part of the government’s plan to remake the judiciary to pass into law, and protests have ratcheted up as it has moved toward its final votes before passage into law.