Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Israel as part of a day of “escalating resistance to dictatorship,” blocking roads and protesting the government’s continued advance of controversial legislation to radically overhaul the judiciary and restrict the powers of the High Court of Justice.
Many of the protesters said they were inspired to come out and demonstrate after the government showed no signs of slowing down its legislative efforts and rejected an alternate proposal for judicial reform from President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday night.
At least 21 people were detained in several incidents, including two motorists accused of pepper-spraying demonstrators who blocked the road.
In Tel Aviv, police on horseback twice cleared demonstrators who burst through barricades onto the Ayalon Highway, shutting it down for at least half an hour.
The protesters, waving flags, sang and danced and chanted “We are not afraid” and “Democracy” as they were dispersed by officers. At least 10 demonstrators were detained in those incidents.
There were no immediate reports of injuries. Unlike last week, police did not use stun grenades.
Anti-judicial overhaul protests again break onto Ayalon Hwy, stopping Tel Aviv traffic pic.twitter.com/fdmLllW00K
— Carrie Keller-Lynn (@cjkeller8) March 16, 2023
Police also arrested two protesters in the northern city of Haifa. One protester was detained for interfering with police efforts to maintain order, and the second was suspected of attacking a fellow protester, police said.
“The police will allow freedom of expression and protest on the condition that it does not include disturbances and incidents of violence contrary to the law, and these will be dealt with in full severity,” police said.
While most of the protests were largely peaceful, two people were arrested for pepper-spraying demonstrators who had blocked their vehicle in Tel Aviv. One of the demonstrators was also detained.
“We blocked the road like every week, and the driver just accelerated in our direction. He got out of the car and started spraying us with pepper spray. He sprayed everyone who was near the car randomly,” one of the people hit told Channel 12 news.
Following the incident, opposition leader Yair Lapid condemned what he called rising violence against protesters and blamed the government for it.
“The violence against protesters this morning is growing. Government of Israel — the responsibility is on you,” he tweeted. “Stop inciting against the protesters; they are wonderful Israeli protesters and you are responsible for their safety.”
Economy Minister Nir Barkat (Likud) blamed protesters for throwing a rock at a conference hall where he was participating in an event in Kfar Saba Thursday evening. In response, protesters denied throwing anything toward the event hall, although photos circulated of a shattered window.
As hundreds of protesters gathered outside, Barkat was escorted out by police as some demonstrators appeared to surge toward the minister. “This could end in bloodshed,” Barkat warned.
Shlomit Tassa, a protester in Tel Aviv, said: “The elected government is doing a legislative blitz that aims to give absolute power to the executive. And absolute power to the executive with no checks and balances is simply a dictatorship. And this is what we’re fighting against.”
“We want democracy to continue,” says Aryeh Schulman, 46, who came down to the street from his office nearby and was one of the hundreds of protesters blocking Tel Aviv’s Hashmonaim Street.
Schulman said that although he and fellow protesters will “continue doing all that we can” to stop the coalition’s effort to upend judicial power, he is considering leaving Israel if it passes.
Mounted officers begin to round up protesters blocking Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Hwy pic.twitter.com/7MtoJodivO
— Carrie Keller-Lynn (@cjkeller8) March 16, 2023
Several protesters said that they fear that eroding democracy is a first step toward deep, social and security change in Israel.
“It’s even worse than we think,” said Lior Alon, 59, who came to the protest with his adult son.
“Regime change is the first step. Next will come religious laws making this a theocracy. Then the fascists will run free and conquer Arab villages,” he said, holding tight onto an Israeli flag.
“It’ll be like Hungary, we can’t even imagine,” interjected his son Assaf.
Protests were also held outside the US consulate and British embassy in Tel Aviv, with demonstrators urging them to pressure the government.
Dozens of residents of the Plaza retirement home in Tel Aviv also staged a sit-out protest, holding signs that read: “It’s an obligation to resist.”
Acts of disruption and protest began before dawn, with demonstrators painting a bright red line on the street leading to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, saying it symbolized the direct link between the independence of the courts and free speech.
Police said they arrested five people for vandalizing public property.
Leading the early-morning protests were a group of IDF reservists known as “Brothers in Arms.” One group of navy veterans blocked the entrance to Haifa Port.
Another group set up an “army recruitment center” outside city hall in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, saying: “We have come to pass the burden of recruiting [new soldiers to the IDF] to the ultra-Orthodox population because if there is a dictatorship here, we will have to come here and recruit. We repeat: Without democracy, there is no people’s army.”
They also blocked the main road in the city.
In Rehovot, group members began setting up sandbags around the local magistrate’s court, declaring they were protecting the courts from “attacks from criminals trying to carry out a coup.”
Organizers had called on Israelis to take part in the day’s protests, saying it was the only chance to “stop the regime coup” after Netanyahu and members of his right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition quickly rejected a long-percolating proposal made by President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday for a broadly agreed-upon alternative framework to the coalition’s contentious package of legislation.
A mass protest was also held Thursday evening at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, before demonstrators began marching through the streets of the city, with many carrying torches and chanting “democracy.” Some of the protesters marched to the US Embassy building in Tel Aviv after also gathering there Thursday morning.
Other protesters headed for the third time on Thursday down Kaplan Street to once again block the Ayalon Highway, a main thoroughfare passing through Tel Aviv. Video from the scene showed protesters waving flags, shouting and holding signs.
The government’s plan, as it stands, will allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight altogether, and put the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians. Opponents argue it will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters call it a much-needed reform to rein in an over-activist court.
The overhaul plans have drawn intense public criticism and fierce opposition across Israel, sparking mass protests and dire warnings from economists, legal professionals, academics and security officials. Protesters have been pouring into the streets since January in multiple days of “disruption” and “resistance.”
Airport authorities had issued a notice to travelers to plan for schedule disruption Thursday, Channel 13 reported, and urged them to arrive early for outgoing flights. About 60,000 travelers were scheduled to pass through the airport Thursday. Airport authorities recommended passengers travel by train to the airport. Protesters were not expected to disrupt the train systems, unlike in previous weeks.
Protesters held demonstrations in and around Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday afternoon in an effort to disrupt Netanyahu’s flight to Germany on a state visit.
In a nationwide address on Wednesday night, Herzog warned of a brewing “civil war” and an approaching “abyss” if a compromise on the radical judicial changes could not be reached.
The opposition has repeatedly demanded the government pause its fast-paced legislative push during negotiations, which the coalition has refused to do.
“Those who think that a real civil war, with human lives, is a border we won’t cross, have no idea,” said the president in his address. In Israel’s 75th year, “the abyss is within touching distance,” he said. “A civil war is a red line. At any price, and by any means, I won’t let it happen.”
Women protesters in Israel continue to capture the attention in their silent Handmaid's Tale protest. Today in Tel Aviv, they did it again. pic.twitter.com/fjqbCOu73y
— Louis Fishman لوي فيشمان לואי פישמן (@Istanbultelaviv) March 16, 2023
While the Netanyahu coalition quickly dismissed Herzog’s plan, opposition leaders expressed cautious approval for the framework as a basis for talks. They also lashed the government for so readily dismissing what Herzog had presented as the last, best chance to avoid a catastrophic tear in the fabric of Israeli society.
Herzog’s plan was backed by Arnon Bar-David, chief of the powerful Histadrut labor federation, and Dov Amitai, head of the Israeli Presidency of Business Organizations, who met with the president earlier in the week to offer their support.
They called on the government to “stop the economic and social chaos and bring hope back” by launching negotiations based on the framework.
Bar-David warned earlier this week that his union, which has launched disruptive strikes in the past, will not “stand idly by” if the government fails to reach a compromise.