Large numbers of people attended nationwide rallies for the 38th straight week Saturday against the coalition’s controversial judicial overhaul, after a week that saw protesters follow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu everywhere he went during his visit to the United States.
Demonstrators highlighted developments in recent days, including increased hopes for a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, controversial remarks against protesters by Netanyahu, and the premier’s continued refusal to commit to respecting a potential High Court judgment against overhaul legislation.
With Yom Kippur set to begin Sunday afternoon, the protesters echoed the theme of the Day of Atonement, and marched under the banner: “There is no forgiveness for the attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship.”
Some 100,000 people attended the main rally in Tel Aviv, according to Channel 13 news, which cited data from the Crowd Solutions firm. Following the rally at Kaplan Street, some protesters marched to the home of Knesset speaker Amir Ohana as they have done for several consecutive weeks.
Smaller protests were held at dozens of locations around the country, including in Jerusalem, Haifa, Rehovot, Eilat, Karkur, along the Gaza border and elsewhere. The main rally in Beersheba was canceled due to the upcoming fast day.
In a statement, protest leaders said “threats against the judges of the High Court and the intention to disobey their rulings will not be allowed to pass by the people of Israel.”
קפלן ברגעים אלו ממש
קרדיט: גלעד פירסט pic.twitter.com/ifgzKrob8X
— דמוקרטTV (@Democrat_TV) September 23, 2023
“Incitement [by Netanyahu and his coalition partners] against American Jewry and against the judges of the High Court of Justice and the protesters destroys us from the outside and in,” the statement read.
Earlier this week as he left for the US, Netanyahu accused protesters against the judicial overhaul of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities against him abroad. In a later statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu was referring to the fact that what he called the “demonstrations against Israel” would be held at the same time as protests by pro-PLO and pro-BDS activists.
Key protest leader Prof. Shikma Bressler told protesters in Tel Aviv: “We won’t fall for any spin,” indicating the movement would not be calmed by the prime minister’s push for relations with Saudi Arabia.
“We fully understand that just like the Abraham Accords [with other Arab countries] didn’t prevent the regime coup, a deal with Saudi Arabia also won’t stop those who want a messianic dictatorship,” she said.
Bressler also slammed the support of some members of the coalition for Amiram Ben Uliel, found guilty in 2020 of murder for an arson attack in the West Bank village of Duma, in which Riham and Saad Dawabsha were killed along with their 18-month-old son, Ali Saad. Only the couple’s 5-year-old son, Ahmed, survived the terror attack, with extensive burns.
“There is no forgiveness for those who burn babies in their sleep, there is no forgiveness for the supporters of those who burn babies, there is no forgiveness for those who advocate the erasure of villages, and there is no compromise with those who opened the door and brought all of this upon the Israeli public,” she said.
Over a million shekels have been raised amid increasingly vocal advocacy by far-right coalition figures on behalf of Ben Uliel, who is serving three life sentences plus 20 years for the 2018 attack.
Supporters of Ben Uliel have objected to the verdict and have claimed it may be wrong primarily because Ben Uliel’s confession was obtained using what the Shin Bet calls “special measures” — decried as torture by rights groups. He is believed to be one of the first Israeli Jews subject to such an interrogation by the Shin Bet, though the same tactics are widely believed to have been long used against Palestinians.
Investigators have said that following his confession, Ben Uliel supplied them with details on the crime that could only have been known by the culprit.
Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, speakers at the Tel Aviv rally included representatives of families who lost loved ones in that war.
“Please hear us up there, please hear the cry of the multitudes down here,” said Uzi Zavner, the brother of a soldier who fell in battle, in a message directed at those who died. “A true cry, from all over the country and the world for the protection of the country and its values, as you were privileged to know it during your short lives.
“My brothers, the heroes of glory, you are up there. We promise and swear to preserve the country and its values, just as you defended it then, for your sake and for the sake of future generations,” Zavner said.
Ruth Barzilai, a bereaved sister of a fallen soldier in the war, told the rally that she and her parents believed his death “was not in vain” because “the State of Israel grew and prospered, and the multifaceted Israeli society agreed on basic values as written in the Declaration of Independence.
“Fifty years later, the belief has been undermined. The belief has been undermined because of [the coalition’s] violent assault on the most basic values upon which the country was established: democracy, liberalism, equality and social solidarity.”
(צילום: דרור גלבוע) pic.twitter.com/w69AYS2aj2
— Tikva – תקווה (@YallaTikva) September 23, 2023
Veterans of the war have also played a prominent role in the protests against the judicial overhaul since Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented his plan in January.
Former IDF General Amiram Levin, who was severely wounded in the war, told protesters in Haifa: “Whoever acts to destroy the court wants only to cement his dictatorial power and doesn’t really want peace” — in reference to Netanyahu’s ongoing push for a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.
“Whoever gives the keys of the country to a group of awful ministers is not striving for peace,” he stated.
“Even Netanyahu knows that if he reaches agreements with every Arab country in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of our democracy, it is not we in the protest movement who will thwart that,” he added.
“The obstacle is with him, with the extremists [Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich,” he said, referencing the far-right ministers who oppose making concessions to the Palestinian Authority in order to reach a deal with Riyadh.
The protests came as the High Court deliberates petitions against the reasonableness law, although it is not expected to rule for a number of weeks, if not months.
Earlier this month, an unprecedented panel of all 15 justices presided over a highly charged session in response to petitions against the law, enacted in July, which restricts judicial review of government decisions using the standard of reasonableness.
The law is the only major component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program that has been passed by the Knesset so far, although legislation that gives the coalition almost complete control of the Judicial Selection Committee, and thus of appointing Israel’s judges, passed its first reading in March and could be passed at short notice at any time.
Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, the reasonableness law faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.
A court ruling striking down a Basic Law would be unprecedented. If the coalition were not to abide by such a ruling, it would potentially cause a constitutional crisis.
In interviews with Fox News and CNN on Friday, Netanyahu again refused to commit to abide by the court’s ruling.
Netanyahu gave the interviews to the American networks as he came to the end of a weeklong trip to the US, which saw unprecedented demonstrations there as he was followed by protesters wherever he went — from California to New York.
The premier addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, focusing on a potential normalization deal with Saudi Arabia and artificial intelligence, without mention of his government’s legislative program to drastically weaken the judiciary.
As Netanyahu spoke, thousands of anti-overhaul protesters rallied outside.
Days earlier, Netanyahu held a long-awaited meeting with US President Joe Biden, who reiterated “his concern about any fundamental changes to Israel’s democratic system, absent the broadest possible consensus,” according to the White House.
Netanyahu was also challenged on the divisive legislative package during a Friday meeting with leaders of American Jewry.