Thousands of anti-government protesters massed at Israel’s main airport, and blocked streets with large rallies in Tel Aviv and in other cities across the country on Tuesday, as nationwide demonstrations erupted in response to the government advancing part of its judicial overhaul legislation a day earlier.
While the protests were overwhelmingly non-violent — as was the case in previous anti-overhaul demonstrations — 77 people were arrested throughout the day. Most of the detained were for blocking roads and other violations of public order, but police alleged that some of the suspects assaulted officers.
Toward the end of the evening, police intensified their dispersal measures, deploying a water cannon in Tel Aviv as well as other cities, and several incidents of officers beating demonstrators were caught on camera.
The demonstrators at Ben Gurion Airport beat drums, chanted slogans and brandished Israeli flags and banners that said, “Save our startup nation,” “Opposing dictatorship” and “Democracy will win,” as police struggled to contend with the massive crowd size.
Some scuffles broke out between officers and protesters, as police sought to prevent the demonstrators from interfering with airport operations.
As the event started, trains running to the airport were densely packed with people heading to the protest, who streamed out of the station chanting: “De-mo-cra-cy!”
Police sought to restrict the crowd to certain areas to prevent the protesters from taking control over airport access roads, as they did at a similar demonstration last week.
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai was at the scene to oversee the police preparations. The protesters were restricted to a defined area “where they have the right to protest,” he said.
Police allowed some protesters to block a road to alleviate crowding, and barred some people from leaving the train station.
Some demonstrators broke through the cordoned-off areas to fully block transit along portions of the airport’s internal access roads.
The protesters were confined behind barriers by Border Police in some areas, sparking fears overcrowding could lead to a dangerous crush. In 2021, 45 people were killed in a stampede at a religious gathering in northern Israel.
— החדשות – N12 (@N12News) July 11, 2023
Shabtai dismissed concerns of overcrowding, calling it a “misrepresentation” in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster. Crowds thinned out later in the day, with no crush injuries reported.
Police manhandled some of the demonstrators, including by grabbing a man by his neck to force people into the designated protest area.
The demonstration surprised and caused problems for some uninvolved travelers.
The departures area at the airport was lined with passengers who arrived up to 12 hours before their check-in.
Some visiting tourists were caught off guard, with a visitor from Honduras saying, “We don’t really know what this is about.”
Police said that no flights were disrupted and that over 70,000 travelers had transited through the airport during the day.
Seeking a way around police restrictions, activists based abroad equipped Israelis headed to Israel on flights with Israeli flags and other swag tied to the protest movement that they’d be able to immediately don upon landing. The activists met with travelers ahead of several flights from the US and Europe.
By the evening, police said they had arrested at least 77 people throughout the country, at least 45 of whom had been released from custody. Officers arrested seven people at the airport for incidents of public disturbance.
Among those arrested near Ben Gurion Airport was an army officer with the rank of captain. The officer was not wearing his uniform and was released later in the evening the army said.
IDF troops up to the rank of lieutenant colonel, which is above captain, are allowed to take part in political protests, provided they are not wearing their uniform or are identifiable as servicemembers.
Footage shared by protest organizers showed Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen being detained by police at the Tel Aviv rally. The video showed Geffen calmly being led away by three plainclothes officers, tailed by a crowd yelling “shame.” Geffen, among Israel’s most popular rock stars, has become a fixture of the protest movement.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) July 11, 2023
Geffen told Channel 12 that he had been roughed up by police.
“I didn’t do anything. The cop pushed me forcefully,” Geffen said.
Police said Geffen was in a group that had been scuffling with police and pushed an officer, who brought him to the side of the protest to “calm down.”
Shabtai denied police had used excessive force in a televised statement on Tuesday evening.
“We succeeded in safeguarding the right to protest and balancing between the freedom to protest and freedom of movement as much as possible,” he said.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir also backed police conduct. “I didn’t see any police violence, but the use of reasonable force against lawbreakers who attacked police, broke the law, blocked and prevented emergency vehicles and ambulances from getting to hospitals,” Channel 12 news quoted Ben Gvir, who oversees the police, as having told associates.
Later in the evening, protesters massed at Kaplan Street in central Tel Aviv, the site of the main weekly demonstrations against the judicial overhaul.
Elana Resnick, who moved to Israel from Los Angeles, said she believes the protests are sending a message to those who can make a difference.
“This is the one hope for democracy in the Middle East, and it’s crumbling. I think it’s important to share our views and try our hardest to protect what we believe in,” she said.
Some of the protesters in Tel Aviv attempted to block the city’s central Ayalon highway but were turned back by police.
Other demonstrations continued into the night in cities around the country, including around 2,000 people in the southern city of Beersheba.
Most of the protests had dispersed by midnight with no major incidents.
A police officer was lightly hurt due to a hit-and-run during the Beersheba protest. According to police, the officer signaled a car to stop at a temporary roadblock near the rally, but the driver continued, hitting the officer, who was taken to a nearby hospital with minor injuries. The 24-year-old suspect was apprehended shortly thereafter and was slated to be brought before a judge on Wednesday to have his remand extended.
Protesters declared the nationwide “day of disruption” after the Knesset approved the first reading of a controversial bill to curtail the Supreme Court’s oversight powers.
The legislation canceling the “reasonableness” yardstick used by the courts is one of several bills proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, comprised of his own Likud and its 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.
In addition to the airport, other demonstrations took place across the country, including at the US consulate in Tel Aviv, an embassy branch; on streets and at major intersections; at the Supreme Court; and at the Knesset.
A protest spokesperson said the rally at the consulate was meant to “send a clear message to [US] President [Joe] Biden: Continue to stand with the Israeli protesters who are tirelessly fighting for Israeli democracy.”
“At this critical juncture, Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul poses a grave threat to Israel’s democratic principles, which are values shared by both the United States and Israel,” the spokesperson said.
The White House issued a statement “urging authorities to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly. It is clear there is significant debate and discussion in Israel on the proposed plan. Such debates are a healthy part of a vibrant democracy.”
The hundreds of demonstrators at the consulate held US and Israeli flags and a banner that said, “Save our startup nation” and “Israel’s democracy is under attack.”
Israeli activists abroad also gathered at the embassy in London, UK, and planned a rally at the consulate in New York.
Smaller rallies took place at Israeli cities including Ness Ziona, Rehovot, Hod Hasharon, Haifa, Mevaseret Zion, Gedera, Eilat, Pardes Hanna and Herzliya, as well as at traffic junctions around the country.
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.
Police were also seen manhandling, and on a number of occasions, hitting protesters.
The Ayalon Highway was blocked by demonstrators at various locations on a number of occasions throughout the morning and afternoon.
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, a leading opponent of the overhaul, joined the protest at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street.
“They are worried for the country and in light of this concern, they are here leading this fight,” Gantz said of the demonstrators. “I call on them to continue in this direction… ultimately the protests will block this judicial coup.”
Turning to police, Gantz, a former defense minister and military chief, urged officers to minimize force as much as possible.
“These are not enemies,” he said. “You don’t use this force on citizens.”
Government ministers have repeatedly pressured police to handle protesters with more force.
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.
The legislation passed Monday in its first reading is one of several judicial overhaul bills proposed by the Netanyahu coalition.
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.
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.